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Operation Darkness - updated hands-on

Not since Return to Castle Wolfenstein has killing Nazi zombies felt so good - but after 45 minutes with this strategy RPG-cum-WWII shooter, it becomes apparent that something’s weird about Operation Darkness. About the second motionless cutscene in, it hits you: this game is a zombie made up of parts of rotting genres. Those genres typically don’t have much to do with each other - fantasy RPG and strategy RPG might brush up against one another, but World War II and third-person action-shooter? Where do those parts fit in?

The World War II part makes up the setting. You can tell because everything has a sort of gray or brown monotone like the old WWII flicks and there are lots of tanks and wrecked Supermarine Spitfire Mk Is lying around. This feeds directly into the fantasy RPG component: the Nazis have made an unholy alliance with a group of vampires called the Blood Clan and the allied forces have turned to the Fang Clan, a pack of werewolves from Scotland and/or Ireland. Our hero (whose first name you can choose, but last name remains as Kyle - which is a first name anyway, so what’s the point?) and his buddy Jude Lancelot are soldiers deployed to North Africa on assignment. Kyle gets shot and receives a blood transfusion that turns him into a werewolf and he and Jude are scooped up by a secret military outfit called the Wolf Pack. Together with other weirdo mutant people (a Fire Starter?!) from all across Europe, the Wolf Pack is frequently sent to deal with sundry WWII tasks, like killing Nazis and capturing nuclear scientists.

The strategy gameplay might be harder to recognize because instead of cutesy sprites, we have real 3D human-looking people to move around and the camera attempts an action-style over-the-shoulder angle (when it isn’t zooming crazily around building and tanks during the movement phase of your turn). For weapons, RPG fans might be distressed to see lugers, bazookas, rifles and bayonets instead of swords and magic and stuff. The magic part comes in later (like 7 hours later), when your unit’s supernatural powers allow you to raise fallen allies, cast fire balls and other Dragon Ball Z-style projectiles - but for the most part, the strategy is matching weapons to characters’ stats and then trying to move them across the battlefield so enemies fall within the weapon’s range (while avoiding being shot to shit in the process).

And lastly, there’s the Atlus flavor of RPG that’s meant to tie the random genres together. If you’ve played any Shin Megami Tensei game, or even its estranged child, Persona 3, you know the drill - angst, cutscenes with anime still shots, more angst and a lot of dialog. Operation Darkness manages to make most of the angst and dialog relevant to the World War II setting (and props to them for historical accuracy in the parts of the game that don’t talk about vampires and werewolves), but the tedious scrolling through text boxes while nothing happens onscreen is in full force, and for people new to Atlus brand of plotlines, this might bug the hell out of you (more so when you see the handful of cutscenes where the mouths actually move about 4 hours into the game).

All in all, from what we’ve seen, Operation Darkness deserves credit for trying to do something different by combining a bunch of game elements we’re sick of - WWII, turn-based movement across an isometric field, endless and unskippable cutscenes - and making a game that targets more than one kind of niche gamer. Whether or not that actually works out to game you want to buy remains to be seen when the game comes out in June. In the meantime, there are a few kinks we’re hoping to see worked out. For one, the camera - trying to locate an enemy on screen in reference to where your character is can be downright nauseating. And while the voiceovers are outstanding quality - real British accents, mind (Stephen Pierce says so!) - having the subtitles match the dialog is basic requirement of text-heavy games that should never be overlooked.

Check back for our review sometime soon and be sure to read our previous hands-on preview of the Japanese release for a look at the combat system.

Apr 28, 2008

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