Friday, April 29, 2011

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops Review

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops, developed by Black Lion Studios and published by Viva Media.
The Good: Impressively detailed levels, nice selection of weapons and gadgets, informative slick HUD, mix of stealth and action
The Not So Good: Heavily scripted campaign refuses to advance if very specific actions aren’t performed, third person camera view obscured by character models, arbitrary selection of objects that can (or can’t) be used for cover, poor AI, high difficulty can’t be changed mid-campaign, can’t skip cutscenes, checkpoint-only saves, no cooperative play
What say you? This action-stealth third person shooter contains too many significant shortcomings: 3/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Movies are an important form of historical documentation because they highlight an integral part of human society: covert government agencies that don't actually exist. From Project Treadstone to whatever the “FBI” is, computer gamers enjoy taking the roles of dangerous spies, able to kill people without going to jail. There have been plenty of espionage-themed games, too numerous to mention, although by doing so it will make my review appear longer, so here’s a couple I reviewed: Alpha Protocol and Death to Spies. Anyway, Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops involves two ISA agents, specializing in direct and indirect combat. Let’s go kill some rebels that don’t believe in democracy!

The best aspect of Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops is clearly the graphics and sound. The most striking part of the game is the level design: each map is full of little details that produce a very believable setting, although it becomes pretty obvious after a while that particular rooms are recycled from building to building. The character models are well done, although the death animations for enemy units are very repetitive. Explosions are nice and there are detailed enemy tanks and vehicles. But even this part of the game isn’t perfect. Despite the attention to detail that is present on every level, the game has significant problems with shadows that make areas really, really dark, even during daytime. There are no gamma settings and the night vision is ineffective (displaying a small neon green circle near the center of the screen), so there are plenty of times where you can hardly see anything. In addition, the third person camera is positioned way too close to the characters, so their bodies take up a third of the screen, obscuring most of your view. Between your character and the shadows, you can die before even seeing what killed you. The sound design is notable as well, featuring mostly good voice acting (at least for the main characters) and satisfying explosions and weapon effects. Overall, it’s clear that a lot of emphasis was placed on the graphics and sound, and it’s mostly paid off.

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops takes place over twelve missions in such exciting, exotic, dusty locations like Somalia and Dubai. I found the missions to be linear and heavily scripted: you must complete the objectives, and you usually only have one path to the next location. In fact, if you aren't killing the enemies the predetermined way, you shouldn't even bother. Take, for example, the very first enemy you meet, who is manning a machine gun on top of a truck. If you sneak up to his vehicle from the front and shoot him at point blank range from the right side of the vehicle, nothing happens. Ever. However, if you move to the left, explode a gas tank to remove a wall, go into an adjacent building, and then shoot him at the same range from the other side, he dies. Amazing! I really, really hate restrictions like this. If the HUD says to plant explosives here or move here or enter there, you better do it. There is not as much freedom as the game advertises since so much is scripted and specific objectives in specific locations must be completed. The limitations don’t end there: Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops doesn’t allow you to skip cutscenes (you can’t even escape to the main menu or pause them mid-movie) and your progress can only be saved at checkpoints. The control tutorials assume you’ve played a lot of PC shooters (a dangerous assumption) and don't fully explain some features (like the damn attractor bolts). Finally, Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops does not feature online cooperative play despite having two distinct characters to control during the campaign.

Controls are pretty typical for an action game: WASD to move and E to perform most other actions. Weapon zoom (not visually seen down the weapon scope) is toggled with the right mouse button, and you must press a button (E, of course) to pick up ammo carelessly left on the ground. One of the better aspects of Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops is the HUD, which displays health, ammunition, waypoints, and spotted enemy units in a clear manner. Enemies are outlined in red, making them easy to engage from a distance. In addition, while the mouse wheel is used to switch between weapons, the full information for each item is displayed on the left side of the screen: pretty neat. Countering this is the annoying cover system, which attempts to simplify things by not requiring you to press a button to enter cover: you simply walk towards a wall or barricade and you’ll automatically duck behind it. While this simplified approach is great in theory, in practice it results in going into and moving out of cover when you don’t want to. Moreover, the game seems to arbitrarily select which objects can be used as cover: this wall but not this wall, maybe this crate, possibly this car door, and certainly not below this window. This results in a lot of deaths when you think you’ll be able to use an object as cover but can’t and then get shot. You also get “unstuck” from cover if you aim at an slightly to the side, which results in quick death. You must also depress the aim button after you hold “up” to shoot from behind cover, a slow transition that exposes you to enemy bullets before you can return fire: that defeats the purpose of having cover in the first place. Additional skills include the ability to slow down time (of course) or use an invisibility suit for more tactical options.

Being a spy means you usually have access to some pretty cool weapons, and here Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops does not disappoint. Your character is able to carry two large weapons (the XM8 assault rifle, AK-47, crossbow), a sidearm pistol, a special weapon (RPG, sniper rifle), hand grenades, a medical kit, and night vision: the game provides a nice selection of near-future weaponry to shoot people in the face with. The two characters (control of which can be switched using the TAB key when they are both present during a mission) specialize in action and stealth, giving Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops a couple of different approaches to tackling each level. Unfortunately, because of the scripted, linear nature of the mission design, it’s not as freeform as you’d like to see. The AI is poor: while it will move between cover, it does so slowly and tends to get killed along the way. Most of the difficulty comes with the AI being partially hidden by the level designer and adept at spotting you and opening fire with fairly accurate shots. However, your allies easily distract the AI, even if you are closer and pose a greater threat. Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops relies on the “infinite enemy spawn” mechanic a lot when you have to destroy a key person or object, continually funneling people towards you until you meet your goal. Overall, I found Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops to be a difficult game because of the heroes’ low health (and infrequent medic packs) and the number of enemy AI units you must deal with. I’ve also occasionally suffered damage while “hidden” behind cover (so what’s the point of using it?), making my task even harder. I was, then, sad to see that you can’t ease up on the difficulty in the middle of a campaign, requiring me to replay early missions on “easy” to actually progress further in the game. Also, when both characters are present in the game, you must manually move both of them most of the time, constantly switching back and forth in an endless loop of confusion. In addition, the friendly AI does a great job getting shot and killed. No thanks.

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops has three “good” things overshadowed by a host of issues. First, the good news: the graphics are nice (although the shadows are too much and the camera is too close), and the professional HUD displays lots of pertinent information (maybe a little too much information). Also, Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops features a great selection of weapons and items to dispose of enemy units in a quick and efficient manner. When both characters are present, tabbing between them to take advantage of their abilities can be fun. However, the fun stops here, as the remainder of the game is rife with problems. First, the cover system: while it’s a good idea to eliminate an extra button press to enter cover, it’s too easy to leave it (either by moving backwards or when aiming at things to the side) and not every object that should be used as cover can be (specifically, barrels and walls below windows). The AI is only challenging in numbers and when manually placed in hard-to-reach locations by the level designer; it will occasionally move between cover but is more likely to walk slowly in the open or ignore the human player in favor of AI allies. Because your hero is fragile (and cover is inconsistent at best), Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops has a high level of difficulty that can’t be altered once you start a campaign, requiring you to complete the linear, scripted missions and watch the same unskippable cutscenes over again. The game has low replay value since it requires you to complete each objective, clearly and obviously displayed on your HUD, and there is usually only one path to take involving many triggers. Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops also features our old nemesis checkpoint-only save points, and features no two-player co-op that the two main characters would seem to be perfect for. In the end, the many sins of Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops taint any hope of fun to be had in this third person action game.