Inside Pulse 12

Review: Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops (PC)

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Developer: Black Lion Studios
Publisher: Viva Media
Release Date: 04/05/2011

At first glance, Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops looks promising. The game promises to offer multiple characters with different set skills, varied locations across the world, a gripping storyline and a minimum of cut scenes in favour of a more organic progression through missions and action. If a game lives up to such promises, it is sure to be a very interesting product. The problem is that every game I have reviewed in the last few months has promised me various things that were supposed to make my experience as fantastic as a unicorn ride, and very few of them have been able to deliver in the end. I remember a certain kart game featuring Heathcliff the fat orange cat (the one who is not played by Bill Murray) promising me exciting races with blazingly fast actions. The final product was just a little bit faster than what I imagine a game called Turtles vs Snails: Light Speed Racing would theoretically be.

To be fair, Shadow Harvest does look like it could actually deliver in the end. The trailer for the game is very convincing, and even though I have never heard of the developers, the presentation looks very professional. Could this game be the surprise hit of the year in the overcrowded world of shooters?

No, it isn’t. Keep reading to find out why!

STORY/MODES

The game takes place in the near future, in the year 2025. The world is at war, and some nations in the world are able to acquire brand new technologies made in the USA that are supposed to be under embargo. The ISA is sent under the name Shadow Harvest (There’s your title). You play the role of Aron Alvarez and Myra Lee, two agents who start their mission in Somalia and have to find the source of the trades. Of course, nothing is what it seems to be, and they end up in a conspiracy much bigger than their original mission.

Even though it is set in “the future,” the story is quite linear and generic. The fact that the game is set fourteen years from now is simply to legitimize the interface, which outlines enemies in red all thanks to the amazing technology that your futuristic equipment is sporting. There is absolutely nothing else in the game that makes you feel as if you are playing in 2025, as everything looks and feel like any other shooter set in present times.

As for the modes, you have a single player campaign that offers different difficulty levels and that’s it. The game is devoid of multiplayer options, and the campaign is barely long enough to justify the price tag of the game.

Story/Modes Rating: Mediocre

GRAPHICS

At first sight, the graphics looks pretty enough. Without being state-of-the-art, they are sharp enough and never get in the way of the game’s enjoyment. The textures are nice enough, and the colors have a washed out feel that makes it feel grittier. However, problems start piling as you actually play the game.

First of all, there is the perspective, which is third-person, but with a forced view over your character’s right shoulder. Resident Evil games have been able to master that perspective recently, but the twitchiness of the controls and the awkward camera make it hard to walk for more than five seconds without getting stuck in an obstacle. The second thing that I noticed was the rigid character models in cut scenes. They give a new meaning to the term “wooden acting”, as they move about as smoothly as puppets and their facial expressions never change.

Finally, there are a number of graphical glitches that never break the game, but which get annoying after a while. There are things like dead bodies that get stuck through walls or floors, with legs floating in the middle of nowhere, or that keep twitching until they are contorted in ways that even someone with terminal tetanus would never be able to achieve. Sometimes, the entire scenery disappears for a few seconds, leaving you to play in a beige wasteland where you bump into invisible objects. These things make the game feel more amateurish than it needs to be.

Graphics Rating: Mediocre

SOUND

Let’s start with the sound effects. They are entirely adequate, with convincing gunfire and explosions coming from everywhere. The mixing is good enough to let you notice from which direction the gunshots come from, and the whole package make the atmosphere of the game very gripping.

The music, however, is mostly absent. There is no background music during the game, only some type of crescendo that appears during intense moments or some very forgettable tracks during cut scenes and while navigating menus. In this case, I wouldn’t really consider it a bad thing, as I really didn’t notice the absence of music until I actually paid attention to the sound for the sake of this review. The silence is actually a good thing during the stealth portions.

My biggest issue with the sound is the voice acting, which is absolutely horrible. The main voice actor has only one type of voice, and it is “pissed off.” Everything is played on the same level, and Alvarez sounds angry when things go to hell around him (understandable), when he finds an ally (less understandable) or when he gets an order from his boss. The game is filled with ridiculous one-liners like, “All we have is two humvees and the will to kick some ass!” or, “Ok guys, let’s rock ‘n roll!”, which make me wonder if the dialogues are intentionally cheesy as an homage to 80s war movies, or if it is simply bad writing. Basically, the cut scenes suck so much that it really brings down the rating in this category.

Sound Rating: Mediocre

CONTROL AND GAMEPLAY

The controls are simple enough. Shadow Harvest uses the traditional WASD pattern, with the mouse being used to look around and shoot at things. Even the rest of the buttons (reload, action, health) are mapped intuitively. Conspicuous by their absence are the jump and run commands. The game tells you that the semi-slow shuffling of the feet that your character is doing is “fast movement” when in reality, it is about the same pace as a guy who wants to pee real bad when the bathroom is far away, but doesn’t really want it to be too obvious. As for jumping, the developers decided that the character did not need it, which can be a bold design decision if done right. The problem here is that the character often gets stuck in obstacles that are hard to see or that are placed in weird patterns that just make the map look like a maze instead of an organic level.

The game offers two characters with different sets of skills: one of them is a bad-ass soldier who shoots first and asks questions later, while the other one is a stealthy spy who can shoot paralyzing bolts and take out enemies silently. The shooting missions are exactly what you would expect from this kind of game, while the stealth missions are like a cheap Splinter Cell rip-off. The stealth sections are particularly easy. These missions are usually a breeze, and that, despite the fact that the stealth character’s main weapon is a crossbow, which has about as much firepower as a pea shooter. At least, some of the bolts can cloak the bodies, to the point where other enemies can just walk right through the body. That’s some hardcore cloaking right there.

Unfortunately, no matter which character you use, the AI stays incredibly dumb. Enemies are dumbfounded by such advanced tactics as flanking, so the game compensates by giving them amazing toughness. In Shadow Harvest, unless you score a headshot, opposing forces take a long time to kill. This “makes up” for the time to react very slowly when they get shot. It’s either that or the hit detection is way off. I know that my aim is not the problem, because the enemies are conveniently outlined in red and it’s easy to get near enough to be point blank.

Finally, here are a couple other minor gripes with the gameplay: the aiming and shooting process is awkward because of the perspective. The action has a very slow pace despite explosions going on everywhere around you, and the health management system sucks. There’s hardly a way to tell when you get hit because only the smallest of red blots appears in the general direction of where the hit came from, and you really need to pay attention when that happens. Your character doesn’t yell or grunt and your supposedly technologically advanced armour doesn’t flash. There’s nothing.

Let’s end this with a positive: the automatic cover system actually works pretty well! So good job on that.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Poor

REPLAYABILITY

With only a single player campaign to get you going, the game relies on the fact that you can switch between characters in some mission to add an extra layer of gameplay which could get you to play the game again, if you really enjoyed it that much the first time. This is a gimmick that would work incredibly well, if it wasn’t for the fact that the game is incredibly bland and does nothing to even make you want to continue past the first few missions.

Replayability Rating: Poor

BALANCE

Despite the fact that some of the early levels could really use a sniper rifle to complete some of the objectives, there isn’t really any type of difficulty curve here. The game starts easy with stupid AI and ends in similar fashion. Some parts of the game are rendered artificially hard by making health packs scarce and by reloading from checkpoints with the same low amount of health that you possessed before you died. Even then, it is easy to get around as once again, the enemies are very, very stupid. At least, the game isn’t really frustrating.

Balance Rating: Mediocre

ORIGINALITY

Sure, Shadow Harvest is set in the future, but it isn’t really noticeable in any aspect of the game. No matter how you look at it, this is still a shooter set in environments we have seen before, with familiar guns and faceless enemies. There isn’t one thing in the gameplay that differentiates this game from its competitors outside of the multiple characters, and even then, the second character is just another spy à la Solid Snake or Sam Fisher, but with breasts.

Originality Rating: Poor

ADDICTIVENESS

Whatever this game tries to do, there’s probably another game in your library that does it better. The action is plodding, the plot lacks excitement, and the result is a game where you feel entirely detached of what is happening. Without attachment to the characters or storyline, it’s very hard to care and thus, you are left with no reason whatsoever to be addicted to this game.

Addictiveness Rating: Dreadful

APPEAL FACTOR

It’s a shooter, so of course there will be people who will want to take a look at this product. However, the price tag is $39.99, which is a lot to ask for an unknown studio with a run-of-the-mill concept. Sure, the trailer looks competent enough, but how many people are willing to spend that kind of money on an unproven developer when there are more popular and appealing alternatives out there? I know it’s sad, but this is the way it goes with gamers.

Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre

MISCELLANEOUS

The game is loaded with destructible environment which makes for some entertaining explosions, if nothing else.

The game loads very quickly from save points, and is very light on your computer’s resources if you have the minimum requirements. It is easy to get a good performance out of this game with standard equipment.

The game is loaded with glitches, both graphically and in terms of gameplay. It is not uncommon for your characters or enemies to get stuck in the environment, and the hit detection seems a bit off when it comes to navigating in around the map. There seems to be invisible obstacles everywhere.

This is not a bad game, per say. It is just a bland product where nothing really stands out in a genre where a game desperately needs a hook in order to be successful.

Miscellaneous Rating: Decent

The Scores
Story/Modes: Mediocre
Graphics: Mediocre
Sound: Mediocre
Control/Gameplay: Poor
Replayability: Poor
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Dreadful
Appeal: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Decent
Final Score: Below Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Forty dollars is a lot of money for a bland shooter with only one mode of play. At that price, one could expect a multiplayer mode, or a longer campaign, or anything to put a little bit of meat around the bone. As it is, Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops is a pretty dull product that lacks the memorable moments or features that could make it a contender. Even if you are really desperate for a new shooter, I’m sure you could easily find something that is either cheaper or more fun.