Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Release Date: November 8, 2005
Buy 'OPERATION FLASHPOINT ELITE': Xbox
What’s Old Is...Still Old, but Deserves Your Respect Anyway
Operation Flashpoint: Elite arrival on the Xbox, after several years’ history on the PC, is a bit of a curiosity at this late date, at least from the point of view of the console shooter fan. The aging -- nay, aged -- visual presentation and bare-bones interface immediately signal that the Elite experience differs significantly from that of the Ghost Recon, Call of Duty and other contemporary series that promise battlefield immersion with varying approaches to realism. Even as you progress deeper into the single-player campaign, it remains difficult to shake the unearthed-time-capsule impression of the game’s look and feel. For the patient gamer, though, Elite offers an interesting -- if not always exciting to play -- lesson in what the genre has become since the early days of this millennium, and in what it’s lost in pursuit of gadget obsessiveness and ever-grander modes of presentation.
It’s 1985, and while Ronald Reagan’s busy trying to bring the evil red empire to its knees, Mikhail Gorbachev is struggling to maintain control over far-flung Soviet factions who aren’t too pleased with what they see as his cozying up to the West’s capitalist hegemons. The tension comes to a head in the Malden Islands, where NATO troops, renegade Soviet forces and some unlucky civilians find themselves caught between the superpowers’ competing plans for world domination. You play several roles in the events that follow -- from grunt to pilot, both alone and as part of a squad -- as you work your way through the Cold War intrigue.
Complementing the throwback look of the visuals, the story makes an early impression of quaintness that further complicates a console shooter fan’s ability to judge exactly what Elite all about. Considering that its marketers make such great hay out of the fact that the game’s technology has been modified for use as a real-world military training tool, it’s that much more awkward when a grunt engages his comrades in lengthy discussions on Soviet military doctrine as it applies to the beginning of World War III. Beyond the comic expository dialogue, the soldiers’ chatter is pure cliché, all the way down to poor, simple Kozlowski who’s always the butt of everyone’s jokes and who can’t even play a proper game of I Spy. When you die, quotes from the likes of Nancy Reagan and Pink Floyd, alternately serious and sarcastic, underscore a certain snark in the storytelling, which works against the lieutenant-in-danger scenarios, named lists of casualties and other attempts at creating a Medal of Honor-style emotional attachment to your fellow soldiers.
But all that is just so much distraction and not central to the experience if the gameplay steps up. Lacking the technophile bent of current Tom Clancy games, Elite mission design is a model of hurry-up-and-wait warfare with few technological baubles to keep you occupied in the downtime. It does share the potential for one-shot lethality if you stray stupidly out from behind cover of shrub or farmhouse wall, but it also frequently leaves you wandering freely in fields and forests, searching for a way out or a Soviet to snipe. Leaving a single target alive -- which is sometimes easy to do thanks to the frequently shifting mission objectives and no practical way of keeping track -- can keep you shuffling through the scrub grass until you realize that the sometimes difficult-to-notice target indicator’s telling you an enemy's waiting behind a distant clump of trees. In the context of the game’s five large and only modestly varied island environments, such moments are a chore to play through, authentic or not.
The campaign missions are so front-loaded with climbing into jeeps and trucks to get dropped off at distant rendezvous points (sometimes only to be ordered into another transport) that the single-mission options present a tempting alternative to advancing the story. These are also free of the mixed messages, issued by your commanding officer in the campaign missions, that frustrate your attempts to survive and kill. More straightforward and faster to play out, the single missions let you complete simpler tasks, like piloting a helicopter while your gunners take out a soviet convoy, without having worry about why your CO’s telling you to stay near the road while your HUD’s pointing you to a location far off in the adjacent field. The single missions also make it more clear when you’re actually about to achieve your objective, unlike the campaign missions that can end abruptly, announcing that the civilians you’re supposed to protect are already safe, for example, when you’re still crawling through the woods trying to find where they’ve gone.
The campaign is worth returning to, however, as once you come upon a group of resistance fighters with unknown allegiances, the story takes on an aspect of legitimate intrigue that helps keep you focused on advancing the main narrative despite the frustrations. As the campaign missions get a little longer and more complex, the controls themselves become a greater part of those frustrations. When you have to jump in a random jeep to make a fast escape or accurately lob grenades at Ural trucks full of enemy soldiers, the sluggish, easy-to-over-compensate movement seriously lessens your chances of getting out alive the first time. Vehicle controls, while actually a tad less demanding than Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, make even the lowest-stakes truck-driving missions play like dangerous assignments, though more due to the feeling that you’re driving crappy equipment rather than a feeling of being under assault. After a few hours, not being able to run and reload simultaneously also feels more like an insult to the eager gamer rather than a concession to realism.
Xbox Live multiplayer and a mission editor extend Elite value beyond the single-player experience somewhat, though it’s hard to return too frequently to the old-school environments and stuttering movement when thriving Battlefield 2 and Call of Duty matches are still competing for Live members’ attention. Some online combatants have persisted long enough to get quite good at Elite multiplayer modes, so don’t expect the Live experience to allow you to walk around without making the most of protective cover, a lesson the single-player campaign is somewhat lax in teaching. The mission editor is full of options for configuring your own combat scenarios, allowing you to choose your island, set up way points, place units on the map and determine the makeup of assault forces. Once you exhaust the novelty of tweaking the time-of-day and weather conditions, it’s still the lure of the single-player campaign that’s most likely to drive any long-term engagement with Elite.
It does seem almost cruel to pick on Elite directly for its graphics, but to deny the visuals their place as a significant factor in the extent of the game’s immersiveness is nearly as knee-jerk as proclaiming them the be-all and end-all. Soldiers running in the distance look like 2-D cutouts hopping along the horizon, while gunfire lights up the battlefield with crisscrossing dotted lines. Helicopters sputter across the sky with solid cones of light stuck to their noses. Pop-in is routine, and the dead-behind-the-eyes faces undercut realism at every opportunity despite the superficial differentiation among characters (glasses guy, goatee guy, weathered-skin guy, and so on). The most engaging aspect of the audiovisual presentation is the soundtrack, though perhaps unintentionally. Occasionally sounding like the score of a decades-old science fiction movie (the original Solaris, say), Elite music, when considered alongside the frequent waiting for something to happen and the cutscenes that linger on bloody corpses, contributes to the sense that you’re participating in an existential drama as much as you are fighting in a Cold War hotspot.
Better than Jarhead
On purpose or not, it’s that unbalancing sensation of being a bit lost and of being put in jeopardy by superpower machinations you don’t quite understand, that makes Operation Flashpoint: Elite worth a sliver of attention despite its age. Foregoing the slick piling-on of chaotic battlefield assaults on your senses that drive many current-gen shooters -- either by design or by necessity -- Elite serves as a decent reminder that other kinds of experiences are possible, even though war-film intensity and heartbeat-sensor fetishism inform many titles in the genre, whether tactical, run-and-gun or somewhere in between. That said, a rental is advisable, as for most console gamers weaned on contemporary FPS conventions, the length of Elite campaign is likely to outlast your interest.
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