"The gameplay meets the first two requirements: it is turn-based and there is a grid. Eureka! The word “solid,” however, will not be used to describe the combat. Speed isn’t the issue; while far from lightning-quick, Operation Darkness moves at a fair pace. The game fails because, no matter what you do, it just doesn’t want to work."
Growing up, Operation Darkness had big dreams. Like a small child exploring the world for the first time, it fantasized about being a third-person shooter. Oh, the excitement of becoming a respected member of the shooter community! When gamers weren't enthralled by gunfire and explosions or distracted by a cursing match over Xbox Live, Operation Darkness would sit on a shelf next to Halo and Gears of War.
One day the game decided that it no longer wanted to be a third-person shooter. Like any child consumed by the lure of multiple career options – Fireman or police officer? Doctor or lawyer? – it decided to become a strategy/RPG.
Or at least that was the plan. Upon its high school graduation, Operation Darkness couldn't decide between the two career choices. After four years of college, the game wound up with a BS in strategy, a minor in shooting, and a pool of employers looking to hire graduates from the Gears of War Cloning Institute of America.
Nonetheless, Operation Darkness was not about to settle. It kept searching for the perfect opening, that one unique position that hadn't been filled. Then, by some unlikely chance, we met. The moment read like a movie script: "He was a gamer looking to fill a strategy/RPG vacancy. It was a strategy/RPG looking for full-time employment." Having graduated from Atlus University, Operation Darkness was an easy hire. But did this game spend its college years building a foundation for life, or focus on getting an A+ in abundant partying?
Operation Darkness (the “employee”) seemed to be capable of meeting the basic job requirements: turn-based gameplay, grid-based movement, and a solid combat system. Battles should be deep, not frustrating, and move quickly without ending too soon. Unforgettable characters and a memorable soundtrack were also desired.
But in its rush to be a little of this and a little of that, Operation Darkness begins in the most uninteresting way possible: by telling a story no one is ever going to care about. World War II, zombies, vampires, black magic…it sounds like something out of Onimusha. Though any script could be entertaining with the proper execution (in theory, of course), developers have to be careful when writing or translating text, and must be extra cautious when hiring a team of voice actors to bring their stories to life.
But while Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest broadened their horizons by enrolling in Voice Acting 101, Operation Darkness spent its days and nights partying with Night Trap and Winback.
“Yo N-Trap, great party last night.”
“Any time Op-D. But, uhh…can you not invite so many friends next time? I’m still cleaning up after Sewer Shark.”
“Aw man, did he puke on the sofa again?”
“Yeah. Third time this week.”
Operation Darkness does not recover from its sleep-inducing intro. The gameplay meets the first two requirements: it is turn-based and there is a grid. Eureka! The word “solid,” however, will not be used to describe the combat. Speed isn’t the issue; while far from lightning-quick, Operation Darkness moves at a fair pace. The game fails because, no matter what you do, it just doesn’t want to work.
Like something out of a messy cubicle, the battles are terribly unorganized. The order of attack is random; allies and enemies alternate frequently, limiting your ability to coordinate an assault with specific comrades. You’ll always know who will attack next, thanks to the tiered character pillar displayed on the right side of the screen. But that data is useless since you can’t relate the models on the battlefield to their respective notes on the pillar. Upon selecting an enemy, you’ll expect to see his icon (a rectangle image with a drawing of his head) light up. It doesn’t. This is a serious problem because, in other RPGs that use a tiered attack system, you can gain the advantage by picking off the enemy that’s next on the list, removing his turn before it ever comes. No such option is available here.
Operation Darkness was wise in offering multiple battle lengths, ranging from 10 minutes to over an hour. But while the pace felt appropriate, the battle interactions are disgracefully sluggish. It’s not just the animations, which are awkward and stiff, but also the lack of urgency among the characters, good or bad. No matter how fast they run toward the place you’ve assigned, they never seem to be in a hurry. There are dozens of snipers in the area, but hey, we’ve got all day! Why rush it? The “fun” is just getting started.
Experience points are awarded to the best performers, not the whole party, so you’ll only level up the characters that are used. This is common for a strategy/RPG. Permanent death, however, is not. When a character dies in Operation Darkness, one of two things occurs: either the game ends because you failed to protect a character that needed to survive that particular battle, or the game continues but without the fallen ally. Drawing inspiration from the Fire Emblem series, death is an ongoing, permanent curse in Operation Darkness. The only way around this is by reviving dead characters before a mission ends, which can only be done with a specific character that is also perishable, thereby eliminating your ability to revive anyone.
If you’re wondering why I’m referring to these characters generically, it’s because they aren’t worth mentioning specifically. Edward Kyle, the boneheaded blonde and leading cast member, is sappy, unlikable, and hard to watch. You can skip his and other characters’ sequences, but only during the story segments that occur in between battles. Those that occur on the battlefield (either before the battle begins or after it concludes) cannot be bypassed, forcing the player to endure the game’s true darkness.
These flaws, while painful and distracting, are not the most damaging thing to creep its way into the game. At the onset of each turn, the view dissolves, movie-style, to the soldier you’re about to command. Then, just as you’re about to utter the word, “cool,” the camera leaps into its mode of confusion and delusion. The only consistent thing about the camera is that you can never be sure where the view will take you – only that it will never be where it is most needed.
Operation Darkness is not managed by a fixed, top-down or isometric view. Rather, it’s up to the player to control the camera – with twists and spins like a partygoer that’s had too much to drink – while scrolling through the grid in a massive 3D environment. When the game switches characters, the camera jerks away from your target. As you spin the camera around a character, the view jerks upward nearly every time. It’s enough to make a person car sick. And no, that isn’t a metaphor; this is easily the most nauseating camera I’ve seen in my 20 years of gaming.
It is heavily apparent that while Operation Darkness made it to graduation, the game is not yet ready to compete in the strategy/RPG marketplace. In many ways, it felt like a game that wanted to be Advance Wars meets Full Spectrum Warrior. Employee performance often suffers when dreams cannot be realized, and that is certainly the case here. Operation Darkness should meet with a professional counselor twice a week to deal with these issues.
While there is no dress code, some of Operation Darkness’ visual choices were a bit ballsy. The things you can get away with in a normal strategy/RPG – say, for example, standing completely still in front of enemies that are ready to attack – do not have the same level of believability or acceptability when you’re trapped in a real-world battleground with characters dressed in military uniforms. That’s a bit different from the usual strategy/RPG setting of knights, witches and sorcerers, or even the pixelated, anime-driven army of the Advance Wars series, where almost anything seems natural.
Though it would be wrong to say that Operation Darkness is a total failure, the game failed to fulfill its duties as a strategy/RPG. Consequently, it should only be hired on a part-time basis – that is, assuming you must hire it at all.
Freelance review by Louis Bedigian (September 01, 2008)
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