Reviewed: July 11, 2004
Released: June 15, 2004
After coming off the strategically intense Full Spectrum Warrior I was welcoming the opportunity to kick back with a more traditional FPS military game, something not too serious or wrapped up in realism, something like Return to Castle Wolfenstein.
Shadow Ops: Red Mercury is the latest creation from Zombie, the creators of the Spec Ops PC games from the late 90ís. Those games had their own fair share of issues and Shadow Ops doesnít stray far from the mold of ill-fated gameplay and nagging bugs that keep this game from being all it can be.
You gotta give these guys points for trying though, starting with the presentation that rivals any big budget Hollywood production. The game starts in the middle of the story, flashes back several days and lets you play up to the ďbeginningĒ and beyond. Itís a tried and true formula of storytelling and it still works, especially when a nuclear blast obliterates an aircraft carrier in the first thirty minutes of gameplay.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of Shadow Ops is that you never know what kind of game it is. The mission design, limited ammo and health, and reactions of the AI would have you believe the game is stealth-oriented, and while it is possible to play the game that way it can often have disastrous results.
On the other hand, you can go on the rampage, firing blindly and running around like you were playing Quake. In these cases you can even foil the limited AI of the enemy who seemingly arenít prepared for such insane tactics. Enemy soldiers seemed to be programmed to lock onto the last location you fired from, so if you are constantly on the movie you are nearly untouchable as a target.
To its credit, Shadow Ops has some superior controls with smooth analog movement and a good look and aim cursor. The single best feature of the controls, and one that every other FPS developer needs to implement immediately, is the analog lean. By squeezing the left trigger you either aim down the barrel or through a scope then by moving the left stick you can peek around corners, either slightly or all the way. Itís a wonderful feature with only one drawback. You cannot move while aiming.
While itís certainly not feasible to walk around looking through a scope, proper military protocol dictates that you almost always want to have your gun up and be aiming down the barrel when moving through enemy territory. You donít want to be firing from the hip, and the time it takes to ready your weapon can often result in injury or death, at least in the real world. To make things a bit easier the target crosshair turns red when you have a confirmed hit, although this can make the game too easy when you learn you can snipe with a pistol or a machine gun at insane distances.
Another nice feature is the multi-function grenade toss where you can use both the white and black buttons to either lob or roll a grenade at the enemy.
Some missions require you to team up with several AI-controlled teammates, although I wouldnít exactly call it AI; itís more like tightly scripted sequences of actions based on events that you create. At least there is no friendly fire so you donít have to worry when they run in front of you or you run in front of them. Donít count on your team for taking down too many tangos. These guys canít hit anything so youíll have to do most of the work. At best, they are a diversion so you can get a bead on the enemy.
What you do have to worry about is when the scripting breaks down and leaves you in a position where you are forced to restart the level. Such an incident occurred in the very first level where my men and I cleared out a courtyard then we were supposed to proceed through a door that the AI was supposed to open but never did. I was left wandering around for nearly 20-30 minutes looking for something I had missed. I consulted an online guide and found I had done everything right so I simply reloaded and replayed and this time the door opened even though the events unfolded the same way.
Similar scripting bugs occurred throughout the entire game as well as environment ďtrapsĒ where I got pinned between a tree and a cliff and couldnít get free, missed an elevator, and other areas where crouching got me into trouble. On a few occasions I could eventually work myself free but most of the time I had to restart.
Speaking of restarting, now would be a good time to mention the total lack of a save system. When you finally do finish a mission youíll realize that there is only about 15-minutes of landscape to cover but due to quirky AI and some cheap shots on the part of the designers you will certainly die and be forced to replay each level numerous times. There are no checkpoints or mid-mission saves anywhere in the game. This means you will often get 29 minutes into a 30-minute mission, die, and get to do it all over again.
Shadow Ops features the full complement of online, link, and split-screen multiplayer modes including a nice co-op campaign options. Going online you get your traditional Deathmatch, CTF, and team variations of these games. One of the more interesting game modes is VIP Escort where one team must escort a person from one point to the other while the other team is trying to assassinate that person.
Visually, Shadow Ops is hit and miss. The levels have the illusion of being larger than they really are, especially the jungle levels, but you quickly realize that you are being herded toward your waypoints through environmental trickery. Thick foliage, deadly drop-offs, rocks, water, and other impassable objects will keep you on track so you can encounter the scripted enemy exactly where the programmers want you to.
The levels are nicely varied and take you from the war torn streets of the Middle East to thick jungles, a subway station, a train, and even to the streets of Paris. The graphics are all convincing and create suitable environments for standard FPS action, but they never achieve the level or interactivity or immersion required to make this anything more than just an action shooter. Moving from outdoor to indoors is seamless with no load times or hiccups.
The player models are pretty cool in the game and the animation is flawless thanks to some excellent motion-capture by ex-Special Forces operatives who recreate all of the core animation moves in the studio. Graphics get pretty generic when the game-engine movies take over to carry the story between missions. Itís barely PS2 quality and a far cry from what Xbox gamers are used to in recent similar releases. The weapon models and textures are top-notch and look fantastic, with realistic reload and firing animations.
Special effects range from good to weak. The explosions are, for the most part, terribly lame, nearly sprite-like in their simplicity. There is no blood so enemies simply fall dead in a Teen-rated lump. There are some nice particle effects like snow and some volumetric effects for dust and fog. Fog is used realistically on some levels (like the bridge) to hide the enemies, but the draw distance is massive in other levels, so they arenít using fog to maintain framerates.
As such, the framerate is all over the place. It holds up nicely on some levels but falls apart on others. The second level where you start off in the jungle with a waterfall, the game was straining to crank out 15-20fps until I managed to put some distance between the falls and my team. Panning the camera in a circled looked like hell while moving forward kept things in check.
Shadow Ops is the first non-EA game to be THX certified and if you have a decent home theater system you are in for some of the best sounds in recent FPS history. The gunfire and explosions sound great and come at you from all directions, with ricochets and echoes based on your environment. Other sound effects like the environmental noises, wildlife, wind, trickling water, etc. are all realistic and flawlessly placed in 3D using a Dolby Digital mix, both in the game and in the movies.
The soundtrack is worthy of a motion picture with stirring military themes and orchestra compositions. Each level has a theme variation that fits the locale and creates the perfect mood, usually tension. The music is also triggered by events so when the alarm sounds or a guard spots you the music indicates this.
There is a smattering of speech during the game, mainly some random radio chatter with appropriate static the bookends the radio calls. The volume is slightly out of mix so if you have the game at a comfortable level the incoming radio chatter can be overwhelming. The quality of the dialogue is good, both from a script and an acting standpoint, but the random remarks from your men gets repetitive and annoying about halfway through the game.
With nearly two-dozen levels it is possible to finish the campaign mode of Shadow Ops in 20-30 hours. Keep in mind that there is really only about 12-15 hours of actual gameplay and the rest of that time will be spent in frustration, replaying levels because you took a cheap shot and there is no saving.
The online modes will add some additional gameplay and variety, but the few multiplayer maps provided are rather weak and there is no promise of additional content, so we are stuck with what we have on the disc. The co-op mode is certainly a nice addition but the whole thing seems tacked on in a last minute effort to claim Live support and appease the masses.
There is some nice DVD-style bonus content that explores the making of this game in great detail. Sad to say, I enjoyed this bonus content almost more than I did the game. Itís almost sad to see how ambitious the designers were in making this game and the end result. You can tell they loved what they were doing.
Shadow Ops: Red Mercury starts off strong with a great story, flawless controls, and some initially impressive graphics, but the more you play the more the graphics start to reveal their flaws, as does the gameplay, when AI glitches and environmental bugs start to pop up and ruin the experience.
Itís hard to recommend a full-price purchase and there is probably too much content to finish during a normal rental period. If you are craving a military-style FPS game you will want to wait for the price to drop at least $10 before investing in Shadow Ops. There is some challenging fun to be had if you can work past the bugs and the try-fail-repeat nature of the game design.