Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Clash of the mil-sims: A dragon is rising

I'm not even convinced there is such a genre as the mil-sim. There is really only one true fully fledged military simulation game and that is Operation Flashpoint and the Arma series. There isn't anything else out there that is even remotely comparable to those Bohemia titles. However, it is clear that the tubes speak of the mil-sim nowadays like it is a defined category of game. The reality is that most realistic war games are closer to tactical FPSs. The mil-sim is something more than just that. It is a sandbox open world where a multitude of military vehicles, small arms, and disciplines can be played, tested, driven, and destroyed.

I was going to talk about Arma2. My review of it didn't quite finalise what I had to say. However, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising has now hit and I've decided to combine my opinion on this new game with what I have to say about Arma2.

The reception Dragon Rising has received seems to be pretty negative from the perspective of the community yet rather positive on the reviews front. This is because no matter how hardcore a games reviewer is, writing for a well known website or magazine, they are not in the same obsessive league as those true mil-sim aficionados who will spend hours arguing on youtube over whether or not the Chinese fire green tracers or not.

Dragon Rising is all about accessibility. Arma2 is more a toolkit for smart people. Dragon Rising aims to bring the mil-sim (or in other words the original Flashpoint template) to the masses. In my opinion, this has been achieved. Console players seem to like the game. It is easy to learn but not so easy to master. Arma2, on the other hand, is hard to learn and hard to master. It is just hard. I love Arma2 though. But I also love Codemaster's new take on the mil-sim.

Sadly, most of my gaming buddies don't do sneaking around in the bushes with night vision goggles on. They're too busy grinding in caves or surviving onslaughts of the undead. I did manage to get one pal onboard for my tour of DR though. Using neat virtual LAN software to get over the problems with the game's influxed master server, we hit some co-op. We aren't yet close to completion but I've seen enough to know that DR is a quality game.

DR is alot like the original Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon before Red Storm Entertainment got shafted and Ubisoft borked the franchise in the GRAW series. You can't muck about. Enemies will catch you out and cleverly flank you. The key is in applying realistic doctrines to your assaults and behaviours in game. This is why I like DR: because using real world tactics actually achieves outcomes. Even Arma2 sometimes fails to achieve authenticity when it comes to stuff like this. Enemies won't be pinned down by suppression for example whereas in DR they will be suppressed if you sustain enough covering fire on a position. They also run away and even play dead. Gunfights are dirty affairs but when things go to plan it feels oh so great.

It all reminds me of Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway. This was a vastly underrated game that adopted the same system as DR. This is squad based combat and it is homed for that. Co-op for up to four players is what DR is all about although the A.I is workable.

Arma2 is a different sort of experience to this because Arma2 is realistic in ways no other game attempts to realise. If DR is hollywood realism then Arma2 is just realism. Hardcore mil-simmers want full realism. Most gamers want a mixture. Me, it depends on my mood and that's why I have both games on PC.

The editor that ships with DR for PC is simply incredible. It's probably more sophisticated than Arma2's one and is certainly much easier to learn. However, CM made a pretty big mistake with regards to hosting your mission files. In order to play them with people, you must manually send them the files first. Not a big issue but I personally loved showing random players in Arma2 my crazy attempts at a mission.

There is also a 64 object limit for the editor in DR. Clever people will overcome this (CM are sure of it) but it requires proper scripting knowledge in the LUA language. This means that DR's accessibility doesn't quite put a lid on the complex ambitions of mission makers out there.

There is no denying that Arma2 is the real Operation Flashpoint sequel. It is also a far more ambitious game. However, DR is still a good game though. It isn't as good as Hell's Highway (and if that game had co-op I'd be in heaven) and it really feels like a console game but it's sound, tactical stuff. It also achieves a greater sense of immersion than Arma2. This does fall short with classic console coding limitations though, such as enemy bodies vanishing after 30 seconds.

In summary then. What I'm saying here is that it isn't that Arma2 is a mil-sim. It's that Arma2, and other Bohemia titles, are the only mil-sims. Dragon Rising is a tactical FPS and a rather good one. Ultimately then, there is no clash going on here. Personally, after all is said and done, I'm left wondering what could have been if Codemasters and Bohemia had never parted company. As a fan of the original Flashpoint from 2001, I still feel that the polish of Codemasters as publisher combined with the genius of Bohemia as developer is what both these games ultimately lack in order to be classed as truly great games.

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