Despite sounding like some strange cross-section between Splinter Cell and a farming and/or cult simulator, Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops is a fitting name. See, like an actual harvest, Phantom Ops is an absolute chore. It's like someone walked in on a bunch of gamers joking about everything that's wrong with modern shooters, took it all seriously, and then decided to toss it in a blender along with all of society's greatest ills. We wish we were joking. Phantom Ops is all at once horribly paced, buggy, ugly, archaic, stifflingly linear, confusing, and laughably cliched. Honestly, that should be enough to send you fleeing back into any other videogame's comparatively warm embrace, but if you really want to dive into the hideous bowels of this horrible mess, read on.
One of most unfortunate things about Phantom Ops is that it begins. Initially, the game sees you squeeze into the thoroughly unimpressive combat boots of Aron Alvarez (read: bald military man so lacking in distinctive features that he bears a horrifying resemblance to Voldemort), but it's not long before Myra Lee (whom Alvarez is shocked to discover – gasp – isn't a man) joins the fray. The two then alternately blast and stealth their way through a series of painfully linear missions en route to bagging fictional Somalian warlord Kimosein. But of course, twists abound, all is not as it seems, the greatest Somalian warlord of all – camera zoom – is man, etc.
That character-switching dynamic is literally the only interesting thing in the entire game. Even then, however, there's no strategy or intrigue to it. If a bunch of dudes need shooting, Alvarez is your man. If you need to avoid being seen, well, come on. Burly bald Rambo man or girl in a cat-suit who's actually capable of turning invisible? If you need to think about this, you may want to reconsider your attempt at blending in with human society, because it's becoming pretty obvious that you're a rock.
Above: Beautiful, huh? Every shade in the brown rainbow
Depending on who you pick, the game's either one of two things: a bad Metal Gear rip-off or a worse Gears of War clone. Lee's sections, at least, have a few redeeming values. Her arsenal of gadgets ranges from a crossbow that turns its victims invisible (and therefore, hidden) to Wolverine-style claws... that also turn their victims invisible. So she's a bit of a one-trick pony; it's still a neat trick. The actual stealth mechanics, however, are at best creaky and at worst downright silly. If you played a stealth game between the years of 1997 and 1997.5, you know the drill: memorize patrols, dart by at the exact right moment, rinse, repeat. And if you're spotted? Just dive into cover, wait a couple seconds, and enemies who've had time to count your every eyelash will literally mutter “Oh, I guess it was just the wind.”
Alvarez, on the other hand, doesn't fare quite so well. Basically, he inherits all of Lee's flaws (an overly sticky cover system, linear and repetitive levels, vague objectives) and none of her high points. His levels are metaphorical minefields – although they'd probably be less frustrating if they were real minefields. Typically, he's forced to stop 'n' pop his way through trial-and-error-centric shootouts chock full of “oops, six guys just magically spawned on top of you haha now you're dead” moments. In most games, this would only be fairly infuriating, but Phantom Ops takes it into keyboard-tossing territory with a terrible health system and annoyingly lengthy load times. Stirred in with absolutely abysmal checkpoints, that's a perfect recipe for slow slogs back to the last place where you bit the dust. Here's the kicker, though: if you checkpointed with low health (and thanks to the game's refusal to replenish your medkit supply, it's a very real possibility), you'll probably just end up six feet under again. This perfect storm of poor design choices had us replaying multiple 20-or-so-minute sections more times than we could count. The number of new curse words we invented was equally incalculable.
Above: Our intrepid hero, Videogame Character
Which brings us to the next stop on this trip through the many, many circles of game design hell: terrible AI. Now, normally games ask you to endure one of two species of crummy AI: the wall-starer or the robo-genius. Phantom Ops' AI somehow manages to be both. So it may look pretty silly when enemies gaze at walls like they're going to drop down on one knee and whip out a ring, but there's a reason for that: they can shoot right through them. Sometimes, anyway. It's inconsistent. Meanwhile, shooting enemies usually doesn't produce a noticeable effect until they, you know, stop living, so it's an imprecise system at best.
As a production, the game seems utterly effortless - by which we mean we're pretty sure the developers put no effort into it. Indoor levels look like brown mud. Outdoor levels look like brown mud. Mud looks, well, let's just say it's the high point of the experience. Despite its bland, low-res ugliness, however, the game still manages to be a tremendous resource hog. Sound design, meanwhile, is shamefully amateurish. For instance, gunshots on an allegedly chaotic battlefield reminded us of slow-popping popcorn, the gentle pitter-patter of a summer rainstorm, and childhood. Oh, and let's not forget the bugs. We encountered multiple crashes that required us to reboot our machine altogether. We used that time to reflect on the life experiences we were missing out on thanks to this game.
Above: Hey, this is kind of coo-- “Hades Nanites”? Well, you had a good run
If it wasn't already clear, Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops is bad. No, not “maybe it'll at least be a decent laugh” bad. Just normal bad. It's frustrating, derivative, at times nearly unplayable, and frustrating. Did we mention frustrating? Even if you've somehow exhausted all other similar options in the gaming industry - for instance, by being an ageless being who exists outside of time - we'd sooner recommend taking an actual bullet to dodge this one.
Apr 20, 2011