Review: Operation Darkness (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Operation Darkness
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Developer: Success
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 06/24/08


Never before has the press for a game infuriated me so much as it has for Operation Darkness.

I really don’t like doing this, but I feel I must: Operation Darkness is a game that is going to draw a significant amount of flack for being a certain way. It’s clumsy in certain respects, the camera could use some work, it’s challenging in odd ways, and it’s missing certain facets that would make the experience markedly better than it, in fact, actually is. That said, I can wholly appreciate that many people would not “like” the experience.

However, when people begin making observations about how HORRIBLE it is that certain elements of gameplay exist or how ARCHAIC the gameplay is or how UGLY the graphics are, well, they’re missing the point. Operation Darkness is not BAD; it is (say it with me) a niche game. BAD games are borderline unplayable messes that are devoid of artistic merit, ugly, horrid things few would possibly have any use for. Niche games are things like King’s Field, Monster Hunter, Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, Tenchu Z, and yes, Operation Darkness; games that have a certain appeal to a certain kind of gamer, games that will not appeal to everyone, games that are good IF you have the correct temperament for them. Anyone who tells you these games are bad is a filthy liar.

That said, unless you like turn-based strategy games, you may not like it very much. So you know.

Oh, and also:

No, I don’t get it either, but it’s amusing, I’ll say that much.

The story of Operation Darkness is kind of hard to explain, but we’ll give it a shot; you take control of Edward (or whatever you choose to name him), a rookie soldier in the British Army during WWII. During his first mission in the war, he and his friend Jude are caught on the wrong end of a battle, and Edward ends up getting shot fatally. The duo are rescued at the last minute by a group of Special Forces soldiers known as the Wolf Pack, and the commander, James Gallant, gives him a blood transfusion to allow him to survive. As it turns out, however, this ends up giving Edward some rather interesting special powers, as Gallant is a werewolf, and as such, well, getting a blood transfusion from a werewolf makes you super-badass yourself, apparently.

I always assumed that this would just turn you into a werewolf straight-away, but then, I assumed vampires couldn’t walk around in daylight, either, so Operation Darkness is basically playing by its own rules from the get-go. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you.

From here, the story goes in two directions: on one side of the story the game is telling you the ACTUAL events of WWII and splicing the events of Operation Darkness in with them to provide some sort of an actual timetable for the game (in case you care), while on the other it’s telling the story of the Wolf Pack and the various things that happen to them in their missions. The WWII stories are surprisingly interesting, all in all, and seem to be reasonably factually accurate sans the zombies and vampires and such, which is nice to see. The storyline surrounding the Wolf Pack isn’t bad either; the general gist of the story amounts to the expected stories of love, betrayal, hatred, war and the other usual gimmicks, which more or less work without being great or anything. Mostly, the game relies on its concept to carry a lot of the heavy story load, and hey, we’re talking about a game where werewolves, Herbert West (or a renamed facsimile), Jack the Ripper, and a Van Helsing take on vampires, zombies, skeletons, Dracula, Carmilla (the titular villain of a vampire novel that predates Bran Stoker’s Dracula), Hitler and Himmler. If you can’t find SOMETHING awesome in that sentence, I feel very sorry for you.

Visually, Operation Darkness is problematic. Now, one of the major complaints most people are making about the game at this point is that the graphics look like they are PS2/PSP/PS1/Dreamcast quality, depending on who you listen to. There is a reason for this, and anyone whose played into the game should realize it somewhere in the vicinity of the mission you undertake to assassinate Adolph Hitler: the game makes it a point to leave dead people and blown up vehicles on the field of battle, the former so you can loot them, the latter so you can take cover behind them, so when there are over one hundred dead soldiers and blown up vehicles on the battlefield, well, this is something that, in high-resolutions, would bring even the most powerful video game systems to a crippling halt. Anyone who has played Dynasty Warriors, Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, Ninety-Nine Nights or Ninja Gaiden 2, or for that matter, anyone who has ever done a Zerg Rush will know what I’m talking about: the more objects there are in play at any given time, the more processing power has to be used to keep track of them all, and with high-resolution games, well, this results in this wonderful thing we call “slowdown”. Developers who want to avoid that sort of thing are generally left without a lot of options; they can either lower the texture count or they can have the dead models fade away, and in this case, you scavenge weapons and items from the dead, so that’s not an option. In other words, anyone who tells you that the texture models in the game are PS2 level is probably correct (if being a bit over-dramatic), but anyone who tells you the game as it is could be a PS2 game is an idiot.

Thus, Operation Darkness has graphics that are about on par with Earth Defense Force 2017 (that is to say, not very pretty), with the trade-off being that it allows the developers to fit lots of people on-screen at once and blow up all of the buildings and such without this causing a problem. The graphics in general are generally serviceable without being in any way impressive; the explosions look nice, and characters animate well whether they be running, firing weaponry, or taking a header after being hit with a Panzerfaust, though the textures are only passable at the best of times. The cutscenes are also “okay” in most respects; they’re not anything special, but they get their point across well enough. The artwork of the characters is generally pretty nice, and the menus are clean and uncluttered, which is good, because you’ll spend a lot of time dealing with them.

Aurally, again Operation Darkness is something of a mixed bag. The voice acting is generally pretty good; the narrator should have probably been cast as someone with a deeper, more impressive voice to really sell the history of war he’s narrating, but otherwise the various actors do a good job faking their accents (there aren’t a lot of Americans in the game, so most everyone is German, British, or in one interesting case, Irish) and their voice acting has the appropriate emotions and inflection when needed. It’s also nice to see that pretty much all of the dialogue in the game is voice-acted, as this helps the experience along a bit. The music of the game is mostly passable; on one hand, very little of the music is the expected “dramatic orchestral score” one would expect of a WWII game (and thank God for that), but aside from the track that plays during mission briefings, most of the tracks are fairly forgettable techno tracks that are acceptable enough (though in some cases, Mission 10 for instance, they’re quite good), if a bit distracting to anyone whose ever used Acid Music (if you don’t know what that means, you probably wouldn’t care if you did). The sound effects are, as one would expect, lots of explosions and gun rapports, which sound nice, as well as the odd spell-casting effects here and there, which get the job done.

The gameplay of Operation Darkness is more or less straight turn-based strategy gaming on par with something like, say, an X-Com or a Jagged Alliance 2 more than a Fire Emblem or a Shining Force. Combat in Operation Darkness is mostly ranged-combat; there are swords and knives, to be sure, but a sizable portion of the game will be spent fighting with guns, bazookas, Panzerfausts (one-shot anti-tank explosives), and so on. The game works in the standard Initiative Turns fashion; each person takes their turn based on their encumbrance (how weighed down they are, basically), and whose turns are coming up is displayed on the right side of the screen, and in what order. When a character’s turn comes up, you’re offered a few options (depending on the character); Move, which lets you move them around the map, Attack, which lets the character attempt an attack on any one or thing in range, Item, which allows the use of an item from your character’s inventory, MS Attack, which is basically spellcasting/special ability usage, Cover and Transform, which we’ll discuss shortly, and Finish, to end your turn. In any given turn, your characters can combine movement with attacks or item usage, use an MS Attack (which cannot be done after moving or attacking), or undertake a Cover position. Movement works as you’d expect; the game world is divided into a grid, and your characters can move around in squares in that grid, as can your enemies, so anyone who’s played a turn-based strategy game, well, ever should be able to adjust quickly.

Attacking enemies requires a little explanation, however. Your characters can have up to five weapons equipped at any time, between short range melee weapons and mines, medium range pistols, machine guns (heavy and light), Panzerfausts, and thrown explosives (grenades, Molotov Cocktails, and so on), and long range sniper rifles and bazookas. When your turn comes to attack, you can choose any weapon from the character’s inventory, and then line it up on an enemy and, if you have a line of sight to the target, fire it. MS Attacks work the same way; choose, aim, fire. The trick here is with line of sight; Operation Darkness expects the character to have a clear line of sight to the target in question, which is how ground cover can make or break your strategy. Anything that your characters can use for cover, be it walls, buildings, trees, light poles, whatever, can prevent or impede a clear shot at a target. This isn’t foolproof, of course, explosive weapons with splash damage or wide-area attacks can still occasionally circumvent ground cover in some ways, but by and large, the strategy of the game requires you to take the environment into consideration in addition to the enemy and your allies.

This is where the Cover actions start to shine. There are three base types of Cover actions: Cover Move, Cover Attack, and Cover Ambush, each with their own different effects and uses. Cover Actions are set up with triggers which set them off; when a trigger is activated, the covering character will attempt the assigned task for as long as they remain in a Cover state (IE so long as you don’t disable the state and so long as they don’t take any damage) or until they complete the task/run out of ammo, as the case may be. Cover Move allows your characters to move an additional 50% beyond their standard move limit, and can be triggered either by an enemy moving beyond a certain position or by the movement/attack of a player character. Cover Attack allows your characters to join in with other allies in a joint attack against enemies, whether they be normal attacks or Ambush attacks, at no penalty (though Covering characters take more damage than normal from enemy attacks). Cover Ambush allows a character to attack an enemy every time they move within range of the selected weapon, at 33% damage of the normal attack, which, as noted, can also trigger Combat Attacks. In other words, you can set a couple characters to Cover Attack, one to Cover Ambush, and either mow down attacking enemies or use joint strikes against targets. This is very helpful in later missions when you’re quite outnumbered.

Operation Darkness also has other, amusing gameplay quirks to it. The aforementioned Transform option, while it’s only applicable to a few characters, allows them to transform into Werewolves; in essence, their stats become SERIOUSLY jacked out, but they drop small amounts of MS per allied turn until they revert to normal, though this can be extended with things like Water (which replenishes MS). Thus, Werewolf characters do more damage, move further, and are generally overall more formidable in battle, so long as they’re changed. You can also scavenge items from the bodies of dead soldiers to use them in battle; aside from keeping your characters stocked with gear at all times, this also gives you some great weapons long before you’d have access to them (and in the case of German weaponry, this is the only way you can acquire it, mostly). This is also how you acquire certain items needed to unlock additional missions outside of the normal storyline missions. Your team will also earn skills that can be equipped in-between missions (up to five per person), which can do anything from causing them to automatically use healing items when they drop below a certain health level (even if they’re technically dead at the time) to boosting their stats to allowing them chances for instant death attacks and beyond. These skills will also go up in level as your characters engage in battle, thus granting them further boosts in battle in addition to their normal statistical improvements. Several skills can be combined on a character to make them useful in certain scenarios, so putting a skill that improves blade damage, a skill that raises attack power, a skill that increases movement, and a skill that makes it possible to deal killing blows with blades onto Van Helsing or Jack the Ripper makes them into death-dealing, fast and far moving melee monsters, which is highly useful in later missions, especially as these skills level up and impart more benefits. How you mix and match the skills is up to you, of course, but you’ll start to see the benefits of certain skills as you play.

There’s also a whole lot to do in Operation Darkness. The core storyline missions will probably take you anywhere from half an hour to an hour and a half to complete per mission, and as there are just shy of thirty of those, well, that’s nearly thirty hours right there. There are also AR (Armed Recon) and EX (Extra) missions to take on, with the former popping up every so often and the latter being unlocked by way of Valkyrie Reports you scavenge from dead soldiers (see above), each of which will run in the thirty minutes to an hour range, and with nearly thirty of THOSE as well, well, you’ll be spending a long time with Operation Darkness if you want to cut through all the missions. You can also replay AR missions simply by moving the cursor in the overworld map over their location and choosing “Attack” to consistently level up your characters, if such a thing appeals to you. There’s also an Xbox Live online mode, which allows you and up to three other players to bring three characters from your save files (characters can be repeated across different saves, so you could have four Edwards, four Cordelias, four Jacks and four Herberts if such a thing amuses you) to play in skirmishes; the levels earned aren’t kept, but by playing online missions, additional items unlock in the trading post for you to purchase with your kill points. Finally, as noted, there are all sorts of hidden weapons to scavenge that can provide use in battle, and there’s a hidden character to recruit for those who would want to do so (he’s quite beastly, actually).

That all said, Operation Darkness suffers from two major issues (not problems per say, depending on your personal opinion) and a few smaller ones that make this something that might only appeal to fans of the genre.

The first, and arguably the most major, of the two issues is that the camera is difficult to work with at the best of times. Now, here’s the thing; if you’re patient, the camera CAN be made to work in your favor with a little management, as moving and aiming icons conveniently have an indicator on them indicating which way is North, and pressing the Y button brings up a map which also shows which direction is North, thus allowing you to orient the camera to work with the map. You can also use the triggers to cycle enemy forces and the bumpers to cycle through allies as needed for targeting purposes, and the camera can be zoomed in or out as needed to see what you need to see. That said, the camera tends to get caught on tall obstacles instead of simply ignoring them, and it often can’t be moved around on ground level without going into conniptions. Moving the camera is a several second process each turn, as you have to find the ideal angle of attack, and having the camera bump into an obstacle while you’re moving it about can make things difficult. This isn’t completely game-breaking, but if you have no patience… well, technically if you have no patience a turn-based strategy RPG that takes 60 hours to complete might not be for you regardless, but even so, you’ll find the camera unbearable in these instances.

The second issue is that, while Operation Darkness can be a lot of fun, it can also be rather difficult as the game moves forward. The first few missions are mostly meant to introduce you to the mechanics of the game, and they’re not very challenging all in all, but as the missions move further forward, certain mechanics make themselves known that make the game a bit more challenging than one might initially expect. Nearly every battle starts with your team grossly outnumbered, and as you play further, you’ll also start to notice that even under these conditions, you’ll have to face two, three or even FOUR waves of reinforcements in battle, which can, in many cases, force you to reevaluate the strategy for a mission. This would be fine except that the game doesn’t actually explain to you what’s in store for you, meaning that without a strategy guide, you’ll be spending plenty of time restarting missions because you were ill-prepared for what was coming later. This is further coupled with the changes in the mission dynamics as the game progresses; the first few missions see you facing off against soldiers, the next few against soldiers, tanks, and the odd zombies, and later you’ll find yourself facing off against vampire soldiers, magic casters, skeletons, and armored soldiers. The former two classes have tons of hit points, while the latter classes have tons of hit points and aren’t very affected by bullets, meaning that characters who were useful become less functional as time goes on (Cynthia Rivele, for instance, who’s MS Sniper Rain attack isn’t too useful against anything that shooting doesn’t effect). This also puts you, again, in the position of having to replay missions because you were prepared for one thing and ended up facing something else.

Operation Darkness also features permanent character deaths, which can mean a Game Over if the wrong character eats it. For about the first five or six missions, if any member of the Wolf Pack dies, it’s instant game over, no exceptions, but once it becomes apparent that Herbert can reanimate the dead, the game then changes to only forcing a game over if storyline characters die. Herbert CAN resurrect dead characters, meaning that if, say, Jack or Cynthia bite it, for instance, Herbert can resurrect them, but if he doesn’t before the end of the mission, they’re gone forever. This is understandable, to a point; death means death, and if you can’t resurrect the character, then you’ll either have to live without them or reload from a prior save game. That said, the obvious question of “why can’t Herbert just resurrect them at the end of battle” aside, well, if Herbert bites it, you might as well restart the mission, and if any storyline character dies, it’s instant game over, no chance for resurrection, which can be a bit of a pain in the ass, especially when characters join battle and become “must live” conditions (Van Helsing and Lewis Canton come to mind); since they’re lacking skills that might auto-heal them, if they take a Panzerfaust to the face, buh-bye, that’s instant game over baby.

Even then, the difficulty isn’t UNBALANCED, per say; it starts out manageable and begins to escalate as you play further into the game. When the game begins having enemies appear who are mostly immune to bullets, this isn’t unmanageable; your characters have their MS abilities and hey, a good old-fashioned bazooka shell in the face will fix them right up anyway. When spell-casters appear, well, they still can’t move and cast MS Attacks, so they have to choose one or the other, same as you do. It’s when the game begins having characters use abilities that either 1.) have such a wide area of effect that using them untargeted allows them to hit people behind cover or 2.) don’t require line of sight (either way, I’m looking at YOU, Sturm und Drang) that the game begins becoming unfriendly at times. To be fair, it’s still manageable, and the balance never becomes ludicrously out of your favor, but the challenge ramps up as the game progresses, and unless you’re looking for a game that kicks your ass off and on, you’re going to get frustrated with this before you get halfway through the storyline.

The minor complaints also make the experience somewhat less than the sum of its parts. You can’t take on AR missions, or ANY missions for that matter, over again unless you remain on their location (this only works for AR missions near as I can tell), which means leveling up tends to be something of an exercise in grinding a bunch of levels AT THAT MOMENT, then moving onward; this isn’t a huge problem, but it’s annoying when you go into a mission and realize everyone in it is about four levels above yours for the first time. Buying items and weapons from the trading post is a one to one affair, meaning you can’t just say “I’d like to buy ten of this”, but rather you have to go through the selection/conformation/secondary confirmation button presses multiple times to buy those ten items, which is a bit of an annoyance when buying, say, ammunition and healing items. There’s also a limit on how many items and weapons you can carry in storage, which isn’t so much of a problem as it is curious, because there’s no real reason WHY this should be so; you can’t sell anything you acquire, so there’s no real reason to force you to dispose of old, crappy weapons save for inventory management, and while I would do so on my own eventually, having the game tell me I MUST just seems silly, really. And while we’re on the subject, I understand that playing missions on XBL unlocks extra gear to be purchased from the trading post, and it’s not like you don’t earn hundreds of points per mission so Lord knows you’re not going to run out and as such, buying the unlocked items isn’t a big deal. That said, why can’t you keep levels you earn in online play? I mean, really, what difference does it make if I jack up Edward, Cynthia, Jude and Gallant to level 40 in successive online matches? I mean, it IS my game, and I don’t see why doing this thing should be an issue if I want to massively over-level the storyline characters, so I don’t know why they bothered limiting this.

Operation Darkness essentially ends up being a good, interesting niche game that should appeal to SRPG fans looking for a bit of a challenge. The premise of the game is one of the best EVER, the story itself is pretty solid, the presentation ranges between good and acceptable in most respects, and the combat is strategic and challenging without mercy for those looking for a battle. Those who are casual fans of the genre or not fans at all might find the difficulty punishing in later missions without a strategy guide, the “dead is dead” design might put off people who aren’t used to this sort of design, and even beyond the difficulty, camera issues and menu interaction flaws make the game somewhat more intolerable than it should be even for a fan to take at times. That said, if you’re patient or accepting of these flaws, Operation Darkness is a long, challenging SRPG with a lot of interesting mechanics that offers a lot of fun and challenge, and any dedicated SRPG fan will find themselves entertained with it simply because what it does right, it does really REALLY right.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: GREAT
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: GOOD

Final Score: ENJOYABLE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Operation Darkness is a good, enjoyable turn-based strategy game that SRPG fans shouldn’t pass up. It’s long, challenging, features a lot of interesting mechanics that make the experience work well, and the concept alone is insanely interesting, which is something the plot manages to run with reasonably well. It’s not the prettiest game on the market (sacrificing graphical quality for troop quantity), and it’s pretty difficult if you’re not used to this sort of game. Even if you are a veteran SRPG fan, the camera can be unwieldy at times, some of the difficulty mechanics might be off-putting, and some of the mechanical design choices are annoying or questionable. That aside, if you’re up for a challenge and you can look past the mechanical problems, Operation Darkness is one of the better SRPG’s on the market for the serious fan, and it’ll keep you busy for a good, long time.

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