In an era in which tactical first-person shooters have excelled, with impressive games such as the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series leading the charge of the smarter action games, Shadow Ops: Red Mercury excels at one thing: sucking. It sort of seems like a tactical shooter at a glance, since it shares some key elements with the genre (like a reasonably realistic locale, limited weaponry, squads, etc.). But it's not a tactical shooter; it's actually more in the vein of traditional first-person shooters, but only sorta kinda. For the life of me, I can't figure out what the hell the designers were envisioning with this one. It's a myriad of assorted action clichés hashed together into a craptacular game that is fun in the same way that repeatedly stubbing my toe on my coffee table is fun.
The game is designed to suck players into an intense, realistic war atmosphere. From the swelling outer-space music to the constant sounds of gunfire, explosions and random yelling, it seems like the designers were going for a game that captures the unpredictability and intensity of urban combat. But then I started picking up ammo and health packs from fallen enemies. Wait, what? I was under the crazy impression that shooters were getting away from such nonsensical clichés. Then I started noticing that no one in my squad ever died unless it was scripted for them to do so. In fact, they can take all the rockets to the teeth the enemy can dish out without batting an eyelid, and then succumb to a dramatic death at the hands of a nicely scripted grenade dropping or other such catastrophic event. In the meantime, they'll duke it out with the bad guys, but they're mostly just moving targets stuck in the game for visual and a dramatic panache to make it look like real combat. Most of the time, if I wanted a bad guy dead, I had to shoot him myself.
Speaking of me making bad guys dead, the tools of the trade reach new heights of lameness and the action itself is sloppier than an Amish drive-by. The guns vary from mission to mission (arbitrarily, since players are not afforded the option to choose their weapons), and they all look and feel like something from a toy aisle. The targeting reticule simply turns red when an enemy is in the line of fire, so dispatching enemies is rather easy and monotonous, even though they can usually take a number of bullets without so much as flinching (although when they die, they do so in dramatic fashion—one enemy leapt about fifteen feet forward from a balcony after I pumped his chest full of lead). Most ridiculous is that the "red sight" aiming takes away most of the usefulness of the zoom option that is included. Players can zoom by holding the left trigger, and then lean left and right with the left analog stick. But with enemies coming from all sides, zooming is a great way to lose track of the action and get shot. And since the targets are highlighted even without the zoom, big butt-kicking guns like the minigun become precision long-range sniper rifles.
What's even more snooze-inducing is the return to an old-school health and save system that I haven't seem for a long time—mainly because developers had figured out better ways to do it. It's possible for the protagonist to be shot repeatedly, even at close range, before dying. And if he dies, it's game over—players have to restart the level. And with plenty of cheap, scripted ambushed and wow-that-was-close explosions, restarting becomes ritual. At one point, an enemy got a few feet away and started shooting. I aimed, saw the reticule turn red and unloaded a clip on him, and he simply stood there, silently mocking me under his digital smile as I reloaded and shot him again for the kill, but not before losing three-quarters of my health. Frustratingly, health power-ups are usually placed either very close together or way too far apart.
The game gives off this air of pretentiousness that would suggest that lots of time had gone into the presentation. The heroic score swells during intense action sequences, and the scripting is omnipresent as players fight what is ultimately a one-man war against a powerful and mysterious enemy. But it's all for naught because really, none of it is remotely impressive. The graphics are blocky and plain, the character animations are clunky, and the sound is poor. The voiceovers during the scripted sequences are decent, but nothing truly exceptional. And the acting during the cutscenes is stiffer than a corpse. The greatest joke on the gamer is that all the let's-get-emotional music, plot development, scripted sequences and near-constant sound effects are being placed in a lousy looking game that is based on contrived and outdated play mechanics.
Shadow Ops was designed to engage the player in a story-driven action game with a somewhat realistic, modern military setting. But it flops in a big way on every count. Right when I started to think it might be cool, I began seeing what eventually amounted to a litany of problems. Frustrating, boring, and poorly executed, this is a game that is destined for the dustbin.