Operation Flashpoint: Red River Interview – Tim Browne, Principal Game Designer
Written Saturday, March 19, 2011 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Operation Flashpoint on consoles is a contentious, somewhat divisive issue for some people. To the PC military sim-loving die-hards, Op Flash will always be the original Bohemia Interactive developed Cold War Crisis, and they'll have likely moved on to the ArmA series. Nowadays however, Operation Flashpoint is more about fun over slavish realism and you can make of that what you will.
Is it dumbing down? Since Dragon Rising, Codemasters has tried to make Op Flash more accessible for a wider audience, and some have called that dumbing down.
We sat down to talk with Operation Flashpoint: Red River's Principal Game Designer, Tim Browne, who explained why Op Flash isn't dumbing down and the difference between 'realism' and 'authenticity', as well as offering insight into the game's new XP system, vehicles and much more.
What is it about Tajikistan as a region that makes it the perfect setting for Operation Flashpoint: Red River?
There are many reasons. One is the location, bordering on China and there is a plausible flashpoint there, where it could one day come to a head. It's also a brilliant environment to set something like this, with the arid-looking desert, the parts that look like Helmand and that kind of thing: valleys and stuff. But you've also got areas of grass and fields, and another thing about Tajikistan is that it used to have some Soviet influence in it, which allowed us to have – and you'll see this later in the campaign, but I won't give too much away – some old Soviet structures and that gave us a very cool environment.
As you progress, you'll come across mud huts, old concrete buildings and an old port, which is a real port that was built hundreds of years ago. And there's things like the container market and stuff, so the photographs we got gave us loads of extra ideas. We had some ideas, but as soon as we started getting that stuff back, we knew it was the right place to set this conflict.
Because Dragon Rising's setting was fictional wasn't it?
It was based on a real island called Skira and we took the real island topography from Alaska, and moved it just near enough to China and Japan. It's orientation was different, but it was based upon a real island. Again, we've taken a certain creative license. We didn't want to totally, meticulously recreate Tajikistan, because again, this is that whole realism thing and if there's towns we want firefights between, but they're 30 miles apart, that's not going to be fun to travel between, so we may have moved things closer together, but it's still very much that feel and look of Tajikistan.
We've seen mostly rural areas so far. Will we eventually see some more urban areas or will it be set almost entirely within the valleys and mountains?
There are urban areas within the valley; more dense places and less dense places, you know? You'll come across compounds and places that are more like farmland, there's more built-up areas, small towns and stuff, which you'll come across later on.
As far as vehicles are concerned, will there be any surprises? I mean, there won't be boats obviously, but will there be any new vehicles?
No, we haven't got boats in this one. You will see A-10s flying over doing strafing runs, which is pretty cool, the Q-5 Fantan, which is the PLA attack jet that will try and strafe you, which is quite scary to say the least. Other new vehicles include the CH-53 infantry transport chopper, which we really wanted to put in, rather than doing the old tried and tested Blackhawks, and with the big ramp at the back and everything, it looks very cool in the game.
Then we have the Humvees, like the M1115-1 and the M1115-2 Humvees: there's two variants of those. There's different Chinese vehicles and the 'insurgent technical' (an improvised vehicle), as they're called, is like a pick-up truck with a gun on the back. One other vehicle we licensed was the Bell AH-1Z SuperCobra attack helicopter, because it's a great vehicle when you see it coming in on attack runs and stuff, and we really wanted to license some more vehicles this time round.
Was there ever a temptation to tone down the realism for this one to appeal to a wider audience or will you always strive to make Op Flash as realistic as possible?
Funny thing is, there's the word 'realism' and the word 'authentic' and there are different interpretations, but to me realism means mil sim (military simulation), so we try and keep as much realism in the game as possible, but we didn't want to make a mil sim. We wanted to focus on fun, but without dumbing down the game, so I like to use the word 'authentic'. We tried to keep the game as authentic as we can, but occasionally taking a certain amount of creative license when it's a case of “would that be fun or would that not be fun” in our opinion, so that's what we do when it comes to authenticity.
In Dragon Rising, I remember it being a bit convoluted going into a menu for a tourniquet when you got wounded, but in Red River, you hold down one button to apply a field dressing and heal. Are there any other gameplay aspects like this that you've streamline for Red River?
Many more things. One of the key things we wanted to do with this game was keep the authenticity as much as possible and we didn't want to dumb down the game. I know that people think if we make the game more accessible, that's dumbing it down, but I'll tell you in a minute how we haven't dumbed it down. So, this time around there are proper tutorials in there, we've got a character called Staff Sergeant Knox who is the squad leader. He has ten golden rules that he wants you to abide by and they're deliberately there to remind the player that this game isn't a run-and-gun shooter; it's a tactical shooter. For example, his first rule – number 1: don't get shot. That's obvious, but it's a reminder that there are shooters that would have you believe you can take a few bullets and fire back at the same time, hide behind a rock and you're magically healed.
Now this is going back to authenticity and keeping things fun, yes you can heal and yes you can remove the wound, but it's still a deliberate decision. You have to get out of combat, you have to decide whether to just patch yourself up and stop yourself from bleeding or do that and do a full heal, which takes longer. That's a gameplay decision and there's nothing worse than thinking you're safe and you can start patching up, and an enemy comes around the corner and you have to drop it.
Another thing we've put in is choosing which class you want to play as, and what class you pick makes a meaningful difference. And there's customisable weapons that you unlock along the way. Going back to the dumbing down point I mentioned earlier, becoming more accessible makes people think that we're dumbing it down and making Op Flash more like an arcade shooter. That's not the case at all. We're making it more accessible and we're also giving players a lot more choice. If you don't like tutorials, if you don't like help text, if you don't like being reminded when it's a good time to reload your weapon when you get low on ammo, you can turn all of that off. At the same time, you can customise your HUD.
You can basically turn everything off on the HUD, and for those who love a hardcore game where bullets can kill instantly and you don't get respawns, and if you die in the middle of a mission, that's it, you're screwed and you have to start all over again, there's Hardcore Mode. In that everything is turned off. I love playing it. It's what I refer to as the most visceral mode, but at the same time it's very unforgiving. It's deliberately still in there though so that people know that we haven't dumbed down the game and it's there for the original fans and the guys who really like a challenge.
How has the XP and levelling-up system changed in Red River from the one in Dragon Rising?
In Dragon Rising, it was purely a rank thing, so you earned XP and it was kind of bragging rights, but there wasn't really anything there. This time round, instead of having ranks, we've gone with levels and again, it's one of those things that we knew some people might be concerned about, saying that we're going too arcadey with unlocks. Let me tell you that there is no magic ability to call in a helicopter that come in and kills everyone. These unlocks are more like things where while I'm being a Marine, over time I would learn to look after my gun better, so there's a maintenance B-mod that stops my gun from jamming as much and there's a B-mod that reduces the speed at which I reload my weapon. These are things that are in keeping with the more authentic realism and are less arcadey. Another thing if you still think it's all too arcadey for you, you don't have to use unlocks. You can add attachments to your weapons, but for the B-mods and specialisations, there's nothing in the game that says you must use them. It'll make things a little easier, but again, if you're someone who likes the challenge of a hardcore game, then just don't use them. That's the player's choice.
You use points to upgrade abilities in Red River. Does that mean that you could potentially max out your character by the end of the campaign?
There's the XP system and there are 20 levels, but I can categorically guarantee that you will not be able to play through the game and be maxed out on all four ability levels. You might not even complete two levels. It'll take a lot longer than that. Then you've got the CSP (Core Skill Points) awarded based on how well you do in missions. After each mission, you can get bronze, silver or gold awards, which does sound arcadey, but this allows us to spend points. There's three points per mission, ten campaign missions, eight game mode missions, making a total of 54 points. Unless you are some kind of god, I don't believe you're just going to play through the game and get gold in every single mode and every single thing. I'm still having difficulty getting gold on some of them.
So, there's 54 points and what we wanted to do with those 54 points - or a denomination of those points, because if you don't get all golds, you won't have them all – is let you spend them as you like, but we're not an RPG. We don't want to say, right, if you've spent them they're gone now, tough luck, you can't use them again or rearrange. If you think, actually I'd like to be a bit faster at running or have extra stamina, you can reset your stats and re-spend them again. That's in there for player choice and for those who want to spend points in different ways to see how it affects the game. And again, if you want the vanilla game or you feel that the points are dumbing it down, you don't have to spend them.
And XP is persistent between all of the game modes in Red River?
That's correct, so in both single-player and in co-op. That was a deliberate decision, because we thought why should someone have to play co-op if they don't want to, although this game is designed around co-op, but we're not saying you have to play co-op. Then the CSP is something where the XP is class-based, so you might be level 20 as a Scout and want to be a Rifleman, so start from the beginning again and the CSP is something that you apply to your core character irrespective of the class. As you progress through the game, you might get slightly better at things and you might get used to using that CSP, but then if you suddenly go to level 1 again on one of the classes, you have a helping hand where you might be able to run faster for instance, because with my CSPs, you won't be penalised for going back to level 1, but you just won't have the B-mods, the specialisations and the weapon unlocks and weapons.
Red River isn't even out yet, so this is perhaps looking a little too far ahead... Where would you personally like to see the Operation Flashpoint series head next?
I couldn't really answer that to be honest. I think the direction we've taken from Dragon Rising is leaps and bounds in the right direction and it's a lot more fun and accessible, although we've made the deliberate decision not to dumb it down. There's still very much the Flashpoint heritage in it, and if we do another game, we'd definitely look at keeping that heritage, but make it even more accessible. Who knows? It's be great to get certain things back in like PvP, but if it doesn't feel right and if better co-op modes work for Red River, then we won't be afraid to make that decision for the future, to be honest.
Operation Flashpoint: Red River is due to deploy on April 21st in Europe and April 26th in North America. Read our hands-on preview for more.