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It’s the year 1985. The tensions between the two superpowers nearly escalate when rogue Soviet forces invade the NATO controlled island of Malden. David Armstrong is a soldier fresh out of bootcamp when he is sent to the front lines, and it quickly becomes apparent that war rarely goes as planned. Indeed, there is little time for heroics as the first few missions are all about trying to stay alive.
Even when the situation stabilizes, success is never guaranteed. An enemy squad may be lurking behind the next treeline, and a single bullet could bring the campaign to an abrupt halt. Missions are often surrounded by such a tense atmosphere that boredom actually feels relieving. It’s an unforgiving, yet highly rewarding experience amplified by the game’s biggest strength: Agency.
Each mission features one or more objectives, but how you go about doing them is completely up to you. Not only can you choose which path to take inside the massive operational area, a plethora of vehicles, equipment and reinforcing units are at your disposal to execute your strategy. Flashpoint manages to pull all of this off without losing focus, and takes you as close to modern combat as you want to get, because anything beyond that wouldn’t be fun.
The Quest for Realism
Reality is an immersive place mired with questionable design choices and rather poor UX, so the word “simulation” rarely feels like a big selling point to me. Fortunately, Operation Flashpoint is a game first and foremost, built with a system capable of depicting authentic combat scenarios.
It checks most of the boxes, too: You won’t hit anything unless you’re aiming down your sights while standing still, avoiding enemies is a perfectly viable strategy and you’re lucky if a bullet only cripples your arms or legs, resulting in a tactical shooter that rewards positioning and situational awareness over quick reflexes.
On the other hand, indirect fire is absent, weapons possess pinpoint accuracy and suppression fire doesn’t exist. This is in no way a fault though, as the game gives you a lot of agency while holding you responsible for failure – this wouldn’t work if control was taken away from the player.
The game also sacrifices some vehicle fine tuning in favor of a uniform control scheme allowing you to control planes, helicopters and tanks the same way you control an infantryman, making it incredibly easy to take advantage of all the tools offered to you.
WAR IS HARD
The only thing working directly against the game is the save system, which allows you to save precisely once during a mission. Granted, it adds to the tense atmosphere, but Flashpoint is a lethal game with death lurking around every corner and losing 30 minutes of progress in an instant is not fun – it just inflates the difficulty.
Speaking of which, most of the options in the difficulty settings focus on restricting information you get from the HUD, so it’s vital that the game poses a challenge in its basic form. Fortunately, the AI is really good at killing you – especially inside a forest – and constant movement is required to survive prolonged firefights.
Friendly AI encountered during missions is usually outside of your direct control, but you do get your own squad after getting promoted in the campaign. Setting up your men for success is the key to come out victorious, while a careless advance will get them massacred.
Commands can be issued directly via the numpad. For example, pressing 7 would open the formation tab, and pressing 1 would then make the selected men form a column. While this is efficient, it’s not exactly beginner-friendly. The game does attempt to tutorialize this in a warm-up mission, but you quickly end up with a few dozen squad commands of which most go unused as the save system doesn’t incentivize trial and error.
If you decide to deal with the clunky UI however and manage to memorize all of the shortcuts, it adds another layer of depth to the gameplay as you now have to manage both your well being and that of your unit. It feels incredibly rewarding to pull off a successful ambush and completing a mission while keeping everyone alive.
WELCOME TO MALDEN
The game takes place on the fictitious Malden island group, which is located somewhere in the North Sea. The islands are modeled after real life locations, but they’re much smaller in scale and only really share major terrain features. Since the presence of single tree line can drastically change the course of a fire fight, the maps in Flashpoint work well even though they are as exciting as a generic European countryside. As a result, you can adapt to any mission the game throws at you, without ever feeling like the environment is working against you.
With the exception of forests, that is. They seem to be made out of the strongest material known to mankind and sport ridiculously dense trees, through which the AI can snipe you during the split second you’re visible to them. Forests in Nogova, the map for the game’s final expansion, are much more manageable in comparison.
Some of the environment can also be destroyed, but this is often done unintentionally due to collateral damage from explosions or poor driving rather than trying to get a tactical advantage from it. The visuals themselves aren’t groundbreaking, but the game is decently optimized and its extensive video settings allow you to play with a surprisingly high draw distance even during larger battles before performance starts to drop.
While not accurate recordings of their real life counterparts, the sound effects are well balanced and clearly distinguishable. Not only will you be able to identify incoming vehicles before making visual contact, you can also gauge the direction and distance of enemy fire.
The game’s soundtrack on the other hand is quite tame for a shooter, but it works surprisingly well for Flashpoint as there aren’t any real action sequences to begin with. The music instead focuses on setting the tone for the mission, and lets the sound effects do the rest. Some metal tracks from the Australian indie band Seventh are also featured, which for some mysterious reason don’t feel out of place. Seriously.
COLD WAR SHENANIGANS
Flashpoint: 1985 Cold War Crisis is the game’s base campaign and focuses on apprehending a rogue general to prevent nuclear Armageddon. The pacing is superb, and it’s incredibly varied without ever feeling like a theme park experience. There are no unique gimmicks, and the rules stay consistent as everything you see was made with the included mission editor.
The storyline is easy to follow and provides context for missions without restricting their design. Characters on the other hand are taken right out of a B-movie script, and I mean that in the best way possible. They get you invested, remain memorable and avoid getting too serious in a game that couldn’t support an overly serious tone due to technical limitations.
Red Hammer was the first expansion for the game and included a few vehicles as well as a new campaign depicting the Malden Crisis from the Soviet perspective. It was developed by Codemasters instead of Bohemia Interactive, and unfortunately the British studio didn’t quite understand what Flashpoint was all about – a trend that would continue for two more titles. Characters feel more like caricatures, campaign objectives rarely make sense and the scope of missions is inflated to a point where they are no longer plausible.
One of Flashpoint’s biggest strengths is making you feel like you are part of something bigger, which is achieved by interweaving clearly defined objectives on the tactical level with steady progress on the strategic level. Coordinated advances with AI controlled units and constant radio chatter informing you about the general situation on the other hand creates the illusion of a large-scale operation.
This is in stark contrast to Red Hammer, where you are often sent on nonsensical lone-wolf suicide missions across half the map with nothing but an AK-74, and your achievements rarely lead to anything tangible as the next mission continues at a completely different point. As a result, the difficulty is needlessly inflated and the world feels incredibly lonely.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any interesting tidbits in there, but it feels more like someone had a field day in the game editor rather than expanding on the well-structured mission design from the base campaign.
Resistance takes place on Nogova and follows former special operative Viktor Troska on his journey to rid his country of Soviet invaders in 1982. Production values for the third and final expansion have been increased across the board, and the storyline is much more narrow in scope, making it a more focused experience.
Weapons and casualties now carry over between missions, incentivizing a more strategic and thorough approach to the campaign. While the story of Resistance is mostly self-contained, it expands on the background of a few characters and explains how they end up getting involved in the events of 1985.
On top of adding new gear and vehicles, this expansion also introduced sidearms – they’re pretty cool, but also pretty useless as they just don’t handle well.
The game also features a few dozen single missions which don’t tie into the main story, allowing them to take place in all sorts of locations with objectives and vehicles not found in the campaign, of which there are a lot. The placement and amount of enemy units is also slightly randomized each time, changing how and where fire fights take place and further reinforces the notion of having to adapt to the situation while also increasing replay value.
Lastly, a comprehensive mission editor was shipped alongside the game which allows you to create custom scenarios, and was the driving force behind Flashpoint’s brilliant multiplayer scene. Some servers would center around goofy death matches, while others would rotate co-op maps ranging from modern-day Afghanistan to zombie-infested Nogova.
Operation Flashpoint does so much with very little, and the sheer amount of uniquely engaging content is a testament to the game’s excellent system design. That’s not to say it’s perfect – the physics are hilariously bad, occasional hiccups in the mission scripting prevent certain triggers from activating, and the AI is often incapable of driving vehicles in a straight line. But none of these issues detract from Bohemia Interactive’s winning formula that remains unmatched to this day.