I think it was Masamune Shirow's manga masterpiece, Appleseed, that first got me interested in anti-terrorism operations and tactics. However, it was Sierra's 'point & click' adventure, SWAT (4th in the Police Quest series), that turned me into a junkie for this elite-forces type of thing. As a game, SWAT was paper-thin and universally panned by critics. Although it was lacking in the gameplay department, it was filled with deadly accurate recreations of the actual Los Angeles SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team training, methodology, and procedures. Through the full-motion video-laden simulation (that spanned 4 CD-ROMs), I learned about mirroring (using a handheld mirror to spy into rooms or around corners), slicing-the-pie (moving around corners incrementally to avoid surprise attacks), and other stealth actions. I became familiar with what weapons SWAT employed and what specific purpose each one served. I was fascinated with these concepts, but sadly, no game outside of Police Questever made these modern stealth techniques its main focus. That was, until I got my hands on Koei's long-in-development 3rd person action shooter, Winback.
I'm sure pundits will be quick to point out my last statement isn't entirely correct and I'd be inclined to agree that Winback isn't the first attempt to include true stealth elements. So let me quickly address the two other games have attempted to do so, but in my opinion have failed, Metal Gear Solid and Rainbow Six. Out of the two, Metal Gear Solid is a total farce. The game is billed as 'Tactical Espionage Action' but the game is far more make-believe than real-world simulation. The notion of someone sneaking around in a box, snapping necks and remote-controlling rockets is simply ridiculous and more akin to summer blockbuster movies than reality. Rainbow Six, on the other hand, is far more worthy of mention. With a solid foundation stemming from Tom Clancy's techno-babble novel, Rainbow Six gets all the planning and strategizing portions of an operation right, but ultimately fails to empower the player with the physical abilities necessary to move with true stealth precision during the actual execution. Instead, player's actions are limited to an archaic first-person shooter setup.
Winback may lack the team strategy elements of Rainbow Six, but what it does have is an innovative control scheme that maximizes the Nintendo 64 controller capabilities and allows for what I consider, for the first-time, the ability to manipulate a videogame character with real-world stealth techniques that are practically accurate. By using the A-button to back against walls, the Z-trigger to crouch, and the R-shoulder button to peak in and out of corners, Winback allows the user to 'slice-the-pie' under his or her own control. The left and right C-buttons are utilized to adjust camera angles for tactical advantages, which is like 'mirroring' corners. The remaining buttons deal with other necessary functions like weapons reloading, lock-on targeting, and item selection. It sounded a bit complicated at first, but by the time I was finished with the in-game tutorial, I was already very comfortable with the responsive controls and ready to jump into the one-player 'Story Mode' Winback offers.
The plot of Winback involves a terrorist organization taking over a facility and commandeering a satellite weapon in orbit. An independent agency called S.C.A.T. (Strategic Covert Actions Team) is sent in to stop them from causing any further damage. Unlike Rainbow Six, player control is resigned to controlling one member of the group and while the actual plot isn't anything to write home about, at least the developers aren't foolish enough to think that a lone soldier is able to stop an army (unlike some other obtuse, reptilian-sounding person). So players spend the majority of the game sneaking around and getting into fire fights with enemies that possessed AI (artificial intelligence) ranging from paralyzingly dumb to dangerously sharp. All the while, of course, there are a variety of mission objectives to complete. Along the way, cut-sequences of passable quality held my interest by interjecting story elements during and in-between stages that progressed seamlessly rather than feeling like they're worlds apart. Winback also possessed superior level design that correctly balanced out puzzle and action elements with a fair amount of difficulty that didn't overly frustrate me. Winback got my attention early and held it for long periods of time. I was never bored or dissatisfied with playing this game.
As far as presentation goes, Winback is a mixed bag. The polygon models and environments seem a bit simplistic and bland, but the detail of textured skins on characters is as impressive as the stunning animation, which boasts over 300 types of motions according to Koei. Character designs are quite good and breathe a bit of life to the game, but, conversely, Winback has a huge cast of characters, many of whom are severely underused. Sound is also fairly decent, but not a standout as far as I'm concerned. The music, while simplistic, does have a nice touch of becoming more dramatic and tense as player life decreases to dangerously fatal levels. Apparently, Winback has suffered a tad due to its numerous delays because the graphics and audio definitely feel dated.
Winback does have other drawbacks. For instance, due to the inconsistent computer AI, it was not uncommon to find myself in ridiculously close shootouts like the ones out of Naked Gun. On the same note, however, I found that the complaints of many other critics were unfounded. Take, for example, the arsenal of weapons made available throughout the game. Some said it was severely lacking, but anyone who knows anything about real-world combat tactics knows that a handgun (almost universally, the Colt .45), submachine gun (MP5, regarded as the best indoor firearm), assault rifle (M-16 for long range shooting), and the shotgun (used for spread-fire in close-range and for busting doors open) are all standard-issue weapons. So rather than seeing the select choice of weapons as a nod to reality-based simulation, some people chose to see it as a lack of variety (the developers even threw in a rocket launcher for good measure and fun).
Complaints befell upon the multiplayer modes as well and mainly about the ineffectiveness of stealth tactics against human opponents and how the whole thing was reduced to another typical me-too deathmatcher. Again, I found these criticisms to be unwarranted. I thought the stealth elements and the temporary invincibility after taking a shot made all the difference; requiring that there be far more technique and strategy to be successful. It's common knowledge that Nintendo persuaded Koei to invest more time into the multiplayer side of Winback (hence, the long delay) and as far as I'm concerned, it was well worth it. I found the multiplayer experience in Winback to be one of the most satisfying ones around in recent times. Compared to the choppy and inconsistent results of Jet Force Gemini's or Duke Nukem: Zero Hour's multiplayer modes, Winback's outshine the competition with full blown 4-player deathmatches and capture the flag contests as well as two-player versus modes, which were given special attention. Usually, two-player matches get old quick, but Winback addresses that by including a variety of other contests beyond deathmatching, with interesting twists like 'lethal tag' (cat & mouse chase with whomever is 'it' having the scoring advantage) and 'cube hunt' (race to collect or shoot color-coded cubes).
I'm afraid mixed reviews will doom Winback to a cult-sleeper because rather than recognizing the level of authenticity the game brings to the table, many instead chose to focus on what they misperceived as weaknesses and not as strengths. I agree that Winback isn't perfect, but I don't think you need an in-depth knowledge of SWAT in order to enjoy it either (though it helps). To truly appreciate Winback for what it is, you shouldn't unjustly compare it to games like Metal Gear Solid, which are conceptually different altogether. Winback is unique and I found its accuracy toward real-world stealth tactics, rock-solid level designs, gratifying multiplayer modes, and control and gameplay innovations far outweighed any negatives. I confidently recommend Winback and it will remain on my playlist long after I've written this review.