Upon receiving a review copy of Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops, I was presented with two new "firsts". One was the knowledge that Shadow Harvest existed at all (was anyone aware of this before it popped up on Steam?) and the other was the fact that the publisher had attached a "Letter to the reviewer". It reads as a mission statement for the game, meant to be read before playing to more fully understand the intent of the developers. Immediately, I became wary; after all, don't games usually speak for themselves? I didn't need a lecture beforehand to enjoy Assassin's Creed, or a history lesson before playing Civilization. Regardless, I read the letter, curious as to what developer Black Lion needed so badly for me to know before I deigned to boot up their pride and joy.
The letter starts off with a wholesale lambasting of the current day shooter genre, bemoaning auto-healing and extensive pre-rendered animations and cutscenes as having "gone too far" away from the rightful challenge that a game should have. They go on to affirm their commitment to the strategic use of medpacks and multi-approach level design. And honestly, at this point, I am fully supportive of their sentiments. But while I give their intro letter high marks, I can do no such thing for the actual game.
Having so many areas to pick apart, it's hard to know where to begin. I suppose the first thing that jumped out at me was the visuals. Almost every environment is covered in a yellowish-gold, dusty tint. While this may have been a valid design tone on paper, forcing the player to feel the oppressive nature of war-torn Somalia, after five minutes playing the game, I felt like I needed to rub my eyes to get all the sand out of them. And it's not just the coloring; anti-aliasing is all but nonexistent and along with very basic 2004-era geometry, textures and modeling, I was continuously squinting to make heads or tails of what I was shooting at. I shouldn't have tried so hard, because in addition to the muddy graphics, the levels themselves were endlessly copied and pasted. I swear I ran into the same one-room building and box-laden hallway about twenty times. All in all, Shadow Harvest looks a lot like lightly colored diarrhea.
The next thing I noticed as soon as my character, Aron Alvarez, opened his mouth was the absolutely abhorrent voice work. Everyone, from Aron to the supporting UN soldiers, to, inexplicably, the enemy African guards, sounds like Kevin Costner mindlessly reading a teleprompter (so basically, Kevin Costner in every movie he's ever made). Well, "how much do voices really matter in a shooter?" one might ask. Unfortunately, even if you can get by the horribly narrated story, the sound effects are equally flaccid. The gunfire is muted and stale, giving the feeling of shooting, and being shot by, paintball guns instead of AK-47s. Likewise, there is very little audio indication that I was being hit by bullets, which meant I had to constantly look down at the bottom left corner of screen to see if I was at 80 health, or more frequently, 17 health. When I'm struggling to hold my virtual guts inside my body, I would think there would besome indication of it besides a simple number readout.
Speaking of health, I have to thank Shadow Harvest for reminding me why games have almost universally adopted the auto-heal mechanic. It is really annoying to have to deal with a number-based, medpack fueled health system in a shooter, especially in a game that features no (!) manual save function. Adding to that the perplexing lack of said medpacks and the blisteringly harsh difficulty, I had to restart the game on easy just to clear a crappy on-rails shooting sequence. Note to "hardcore" developers: difficulty is only fun when the gameplay is engaging even when losing. Hard just for hard's sake simply equals regret for having spent money on an impulse-buy as I repeat the same auto-saved sequence for the twelfth time.
Let's move on to the other piece of Shadow Harvest that the developers took so much pride in: the stealth/brute force double character gameplay. Basically, after you get through the first third of the game, Aron and his new "sexy female assassin/spy/cliche", Myra, are paired together on their missions in Diarrheaville. First off, on its face, it's already making more cumbersome the stealth/gunplay mechanic. In Splinter Cell Conviction, Sam Fisher can seamlessly alternate between stealth and guns-blazing, often with split second timing. Taking that type of gameplay and bifurcating it between two distinct characters is just making everything more arduous. Add to that the fact that now you have to worry about two people being spotted and attacked (you get a game over screen when either hero dies), I was immediately wishing Sam would burst through the door and whisk me away to a better game.
So right off the bat, the system fails. But get this: there are two AI features (or lack thereof) that make the whole game grind to a halt. First off, there is no option to have the non-controlled hero auto-follow you. What this means is that I had to leapfrog both of my characters through the levels, constantly hitting Tab to switch back and forth. Hell if I'm going to do that for another ten hours. Secondly, while trying to use Aron as bait for the enemy by sticking him behind cover and switching to Myra to stealth assassinate while everyone's distracted, I learned that the non-controlled hero will not defend him/herself. When a thug closed in on Aron's cover and pointed his shotgun over the sandbag, Aron simply got up, ran into the middle of the clearing (exposing himself to many more thugs) and stood there. He didn't fire a single bullet or throw a grenade or even duck. He just called out over the radio, "I'm under heavy attack" and "I'm hit!". Well no shit, dumbass!
To compensate for this nightmare, I simply starting leaving Myra at the beginning of the levels, only calling her in to pick locks and such. Why Myra? Well I wanted to get through this mess of a game as quickly as possible, and seeing as how the stealth mechanics were also quite wretched (did I mention that? No? Well, yeah...wretched), I figured Aron was my quick ticket out of this ordeal. And I'll be honest, I never actually finished the game. My guess is, not many who bought Shadow Harvest will. I played enough to realize that I would never wish this car wreck onto anyone. When it isn't being an annoying, clunkier version of better games, it's busy actively offending the concepts of good design and competent execution.
Black Lion, I understand and partially sympathize with your desire to bring some fundamentals back to the shooter genre. I just didn't know you were going to be quite so literal and actually make a game that would have been bad even in 2004. In a final act of damnation that should chill any thoughtful gamer to their core, I leave you with these parting words: "I would rather have played a Call of Duty game".