“Jimmy Carter? What in the world could Jimmy Carter have to do with this?” I asked myself incredulously as the introductory screen flashed in front of me. Certainly I had grown accustomed to famous, thought-provoking inspirational quotes from former Presidents and military leaders through time after having seen dozens of them in each of the Call of Duty games that I had played before, but seldom, if ever, had I seen one presented through the rose-colored glasses of the utterly pacifistic and inept Jimmy Carter. The quote, “We cannot be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of the weapons of war,” was my first inkling of the disaster that was yet to come.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The game in question, “Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops” from Black Lion Studios bills itself as offering a “refreshingly different approach to the Stealth-Action genre.” That seemed compelling enough at first glance, but as I dug deeper into the story, I started to wonder. “Let’s see,” I thought to myself, “I’m a lone assassin dropped into a war-torn country being devastated by an evil arms dealer. Yep, that’s sure a Far Cry from any story I’ve ever heard before. Oh, and it’s a mix of action and stealth? Wow, that will really Splinter the Cell of the genre!” Another warning bell was chiming....
But, as anyone who knows me well can tell you, I’m “refreshingly” open minded and possess nearly infinite patience when confronted with ineptitude, incompetence, and irritating inadequacy.
Which is to say, if I’m being honest, that I am anything but.
I pressed on anyway. It started well enough as I was presented with a nicely rendered scene of a helicopter chugging along over water, presumably delivering me to whatever backwater dictatorship that was in need of overthrowing. Such eventually proved the case and I soon found myself riding in a jeep, listening to some of the worst voice acting since William Shatner read A Tale of Two Cities - the Braille Version. Note: Shatner doesn’t actually know Braille - he was actually reading dots from the pages. Thank goodness for the subtitles! Without them, I would have had to rely on the utter ubiquity of the premise to figure out what was going on.
In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered.
That’s a little literary device that I used there. It’s called foreshadowing, and you could be forgiven for just stopping right here now that you know how this is going to turn out. Stick with me, though. I had to endure this thing so you won’t have to, so the least you can do is hear me out.So, there I was riding along in the car when the driver let slip an incredibly surprising piece of information: things were apparently not going well in the neighborhood and he felt it likely that violence would soon ensue. Really?? I was shocked! And here I thought smart diplomacy was going to be my secret to success, just as it has every place else that it’s been tried.
We reached the compound of a local warlord safely and I was soon reunited with my gun and odd little head-worn optical device that went entirely without explanation. It didn’t take long to realize that the little gadget could somehow determine the political leanings of everyone I looked at and outline their body in either red or green. It also seemed to provide an interlock on my gun to prevent me from shooting green people, which is a good thing because I felt that I really ought to see if I could figure out whether green was good and red bad, or vice-versa. Since, you know, no one had given me an operator’s manual for this intriguing piece of kit. I figured if I shot that green outlined guy and no one made a fuss over it, green was bad. I think it’s better to just get these things straight before the real fighting starts.
Having been weaponed up, I then went out back to shoot at some bottles. That was the extent of the tutorial.
Soon enough I was out of the compound and left to my own devices, although there was some irritating guy talking in my ear telling me things that didn’t make any sense. Well, they didn’t make any sense until I had finally gotten far enough down the street to get to where the developers should have put whatever trigger I had passed prematurely. Getting there took awhile, though, because there were people shooting at me. I could tell because the AI guys following along with me were shooting at, but not hitting, some other guys that were shooting at us. This all resulted in an odd sort of synchronized popping sound that I think was supposed to sound like a fire fight but actually sounded like well coordinated popcorn popping.
It also resulted in me getting killed. Repeatedly. There were a couple of factors working heavily against my survival. The first was that it was very hard to see the opponents. The odd thing about the Middle East is how overwhelming brown it is. Although it was lighter in color, I have to imagine that this landscape would make the inside of a UPS truck look positively vibrant in comparison. Luckily I had my little head device to outline the enemies for me, and my gun had a fantastic reticule that would turn red when I was positioned for a fatal head shot. The AI guys didn’t move around very much, so as soon as I could fix the location of one of them it was simply a matter of waiting for him to present enough of his head for me to remove it for him. There were no civilians or anything else to complicate the issue, either. The streets were completely deserted. I can’t blame them, really. I wouldn’t want to live in such a ceaselessly drab world either.
Another problem that I had was telling when I myself had been shot. I eventually learned to pay very close attention to the damage counter on the screen. Lengthy load times after each death encouraged me to not only keep a very close watch on the counter, but to explore each and every little hovel in the hopes of finding health packs. In fact, health pack gathering soon became the primary focus of the game for me.There wasn’t much else to concentrate on. Finding my way through the streets, even when forced to flank an enemy, was so linear that no creativity in strategy or tactics was required. There was really only one way to go. The biggest challenge came from getting stuck in places or running into objects that in real life could easily be stepped over. The ostensible infirmity that kept me from walking over even the smallest obstacle did nothing to prevent me from knocking over heavy 55 gallon drums as if they were made of feathers and filled with helium, oddly enough. The incongruity of that was jarring! The drums weren’t filled with helium, as it turned out. As can only happen in oil rich countries that have executed all of their lawyers, the barrels were all filled with highly explosive elements. I soon learned that I didn’t really need to detect enemies; all I had to do was look for barrels and shoot them whenever or wherever I found them. More often than not, unseen enemies would be taken out by the explosion. I was finally getting to the point where I could progress through the game without routinely getting killed, although I have to confess that I wasn’t getting much enjoyment out of it.
And then I met Myra Lee.
Myra drops into the game to provide the second half of the Stealth-Action genre. There’s no running around the streets blowing up 55 gallon drums for her; she prefers to sneak around in the shadows and accomplish with stealth that which cannot be accomplished with action. Or something.
The problem with Myra, or more specifically, the game, is that she actually can’t hide in the shadows. She accomplishes her stealth through the means of an incredibly expensive, sexy little electronic suit that renders her invisible, but only at the cost of a nearly insatiable thirst for hard to come by electricity. It’s much like a Tesla roadster now that I think about. It even has the “range anxiety” that comes with the car. My first experiences with Myra were fraught with frustration because I couldn’t keep her hidden long enough to get where I needed to go. That got better when I realized that I didn’t have to move slowly when I was invisible. Just the opposite, in fact. Run when invisible, crouch and move slowly when the batteries are dead.
Myra’s weapon of choice is the crossbow. Silent, deadly, and horribly slow to reload. Two out of three ain’t bad, and in reality, the reload time shouldn’t matter anyway if you get the stealth thing right. Still, more often than not I got her killed while she was busy reloading. On the occasions when I did manage to successfully take out an enemy, I didn’t have to worry about hiding the inconveniently ostentatious corpse. That’s because Myra also has these convenient little “nanites” that she can inject into the body that make it invisible for hours. Those would have been cool to have to provide invisibility for Myra instead of the voraciously hungry suit, had they not been lethal.
It was at this point that the whole experience became overwhelmingly contrived. At every turn, I was confronted with the feeling that story elements had been contrived to cover the weaknesses in the technical development of the game. Enemies are hard to see, so outline them in red. It’s difficult to code shadows into the world, so render Myra and her prey invisible so they can’t be seen. It’s hard to make a virtual world lifelike enough to guide the player down a path unobtrusively, so provide plenty of jarringly out of place way points. Nothing about the game defined excellence in design or execution. Rather, the overall feeling was one of an almost savage mediocrity. Even the background music was reminiscent of a porn movie that not even the most desperately hormonal teenager would be able to watch for long.
At the end of the day, the idea of Shadow Harvest was, if not evolutionary, at least promising, but the implementation of the idea is sorely lacking. The bar for both action and stealth games has been set exceedingly high, but it was a mistake to assume that the combination of two lackluster attempts at each would result in a superior product.