IGN Review of Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops
First impressions of Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops aren't particularly favorable. This third-person stealth action shooter by German developer Black Lion Studios is weighed down by a load of cliches, from its predictable spec ops heroes to its overused "dirty arms dealer" storyline. Things begin to look up though when you're offered a diverse military resource in the form of agents Aron Alvarez and Myra Lee—opposites who, like characters in an unusually violent buddy movie, are forced to work together. Unfortunately, thanks to the game's rigid level design, most of the time they don't.
The background to Aron and Myra's activities is the war-torn nation of Somalia. The two are sent there on separate missions to eliminate Karim Kimosein, an African warlord who's living large and terrorizing Somalian civilians. Aron's a guns-blazing kind of guy whose strength is putting as many holes into Kimosein's men as possible. Myra's talents are more subtle, and she takes a stealthy approach. The two meet in the rubble-filled streets of Mogadishu and decide to join forces, combining Aron's savvy marksmanship and explosives expertise with Myra's hacking skills.
At first this arrangement seems promising. The controls (aside from the game's auto-cover system which is annoyingly awkward) for both are intuitive and fluid, each character's abilities are different enough to keep things from getting repetitive as you quickly switch between the two using the Tab key. Playing as Aron is decent; he's more or less your run-of-the-mill soldier boy. Myra however, is a fairly cool character. Beautiful, deadly and armed with a high-tech crossbow, she's something like Angelina Jolie's badass character in the movie Salt. Stealthing with her can be fun, especially when sneaking up behind guys, putting them in a headlock and taking them out using her special nano-claw.
Despite their varying levels of appeal, as a team Aron and Myra offer interesting options for achieving your objectives, or so it initially seems. Early on you discover what looks like a choice actually isn't, thanks to extremely linear (some might say contrived) level design. Where a more free-form structure would have given you the opportunity to make good use of the two, individual sequences are designed specifically for one character or the other and cannot be approached any other way. It's an odd decision on the part of Black Lion since it disallows players from using the characters' skills creatively or (aside from in a couple of lame mini-cutscenes) in tandem.
More frustrating than this though are the game's difficulty spikes and poorly spaced checkpoints. Many of us, when faced with auto-save-only groan inwardly and Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops reminds us why. Starting with a near-impossible mobile turret sequence followed later by several lengthy sections that alternate between characters, your patience will be tested by a checkpoint system seemingly designed by a team of sadists. Repeatedly, you're forced to hold your breath through overlong levels as you engage in a shootout as Aron, stealth-kill thirty guys and hack a computer as Myra, outrun a giant mech and blow up a bridge as Aron and then just when it's nearly over, get hit by a stray bullet as Myra and have to play the whole thing over again. Adding to this silliness is the game's bizarre artificial intelligence. Throughout the game enemies seem to have no peripheral vision but if one of them does spot you, twenty of his buddies have the preternatural ability to sense and hunt you down from five rooms away. Worst of all, when you fail you're forced to re-watch boring, unskippable cutscenes. It's enough to make you throw up your hands up and stop playing.
These things are bad enough but the game's problems don't end at the mere mechanical, they extend to the sound and visuals as well. While menus and load screens are highly polished, most of the time you're struggling to see what you're doing thanks to environments that are either too dark (even with night vision) or blindingly bright. Then there are the characters, who while well-modeled, are fairly scary when they talk, flapping their jaws expressionlessly like ventriloquist dummies. Adding to this effect is the universally wooden voice acting. While music and sound effects are competently done, no matter how hot things get, Aron comes across like a bored telemarketer and Myra's already-flat delivery is augmented by her unlikely Wisconsin accent. Then again, you're often spared the pain of listening to them by the crummy, non-adjustable audio mix.
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