For the fifth game in a series, Conflict: Denied Ops sure doesn't show any signs of evolution. This may actually be the simplest edition of the shooter franchise that developer Pivotal Games has produced, with gameplay so out of date that it might as well be wearing a plaid flannel shirt and listening to Alice in Chains. But even though the action is a good decade behind the times, the game's rapid-fire pace blurs the fact that you're shooting the same bad guys over and over again. Cooperative play is a highlight and earns the game some applause all by itself given how this shooter feature is so often asked for and so rarely delivered. This mindless shooter is ideal for those moments when you want to switch off the synapses, though some awkward control issues occasionally get in the way.
As with the four previous games in the franchise, the theme here is military and the gameplay is stuck in the neutral zone between one-bullet-and-you're-dead hardcore action games and the more absurd stuff where you can soak up lead like a sponge before meeting your maker. The story in the campaign is typical of these middle-of-the-road shooters, with you taking charge of a pair of Special Forces operatives working to unravel a nuclear-arms conspiracy through 10 missions spread across the globe. Perspective has been switched to first-person from the third-person featured in the previous Conflict games, however, and your squad's been cut back to two commandos from four. These changes don't make a great deal of difference to how the game plays, though. Being able to switch between sniper Graves and heavy gunner Lang is actually so seamless that you might as well be playing a single character.
That said, teamwork can be a key component of Conflict: Denied Ops. Your buddy can be ordered around and healed with quick clicks of the right mouse button, and the smart artificial intelligence adeptly handles firefights. Storming enemy-occupied rooms, for example, is a snap. Just send Lang up to the doorway, where he'll automatically lay down suppressing fire while you sit back and shoot survivors with Graves' scoped sniper rifle. You can always count on your comrade to kill a fair number of enemies if he's positioned correctly, and you can even assign him to take out level bosses such as combat helicopters. The only problem here is that your squadmate takes orders too seriously. He typically won't yield the position you've ordered him to assume even if you're trying to get past him, causing congestion in tight corridors until you issue a new movement command. Likewise, you have to be careful when directing your pal when he's at the wheel of the hovercrafts and other drivable vehicles in the game; he's more than happy to roll right over you if you get between him and his assigned destination.
Other than this smooth-and-simple buddy stuff, there isn't much here out of the ordinary. Level design is the very definition of routine, although the campaign is jazzed up somewhat with the ability to choose the order in which you handle some assignments. While the graphics are detailed and attractive and the missions feature varied scenery representing such diverse locales as the Venezuelan countryside, a Siberian castle, an icy Russian whaling depot, and the dusty streets of a Rwandan city, goals are never more involved than shooting everybody you see and blowing things up. You occasionally steal data from computers and set explosive charges, but generally this is a Point A-to-Point B killing spree.
At least the pace keeps the proceedings from getting too dull. Even though you're gunning down the same thugs and soldiers over and over, you do so at a pretty fast clip. This isn't Serious Sam or anything, but the speed is zippy enough to keep you from feeling bogged down in endless enemies or eternally difficult choke points (although there are quite a few of the latter spread throughout the game's levels). Further excitement is provided by being able to blow up damn near everything. Levels are strewn with barrels, gas cans, and propane tanks ready to go boom at a single shot, and it seems like you can't turn around without running into some catastrophic incident like a helicopter exploding in your face. Sometimes it seems like the simple act of shooting a wooden box causes Fourth of July-style fireworks to go off. All of the speed and pyrotechnics give the game an exciting, if awfully dimwitted, Michael Bay-ish feel.
Sometimes, however, the two console versions of Conflict: Denied Ops are a little too crazed. Given that the game was clearly designed for the precise mouse controls available only in the PC edition, a gamepad doesn't really cut it in the speed department. This is a particularly irritating problem with Graves, since aiming his sniper scope is much tougher with the right analog stick of a gamepad than it is with a mouse. Unless you're a true pro when it comes to console shooters, expect to spend a long few seconds properly lining up each long-distance head shot...and getting regularly gunned down in the process by the quick-draw baddies who have no such control complaints. So both console versions of the game feel a fair bit different from their PC cousin. Whereas it's probably best to take charge of the sniper as much as possible in the PC game, relying on the ability to snap off quick, precise shots with the mouse, on the 360 and PS3 it seems smartest to wade in with heavy-gunning Lang and leave the finicky sniping up to the AI. At least the AI does a good job with this task, quickly taking out dug-in enemy snipers and soldiers with insta-kill head shots.
Visual and audio quirks are further irritants. Graphics are solid (if not cutting edge) in the 360 version of the game, but the color palette is too dark and the text is very tiny. This gives everything a murky, dim appearance that has you squinting all the time. Disappointingly, these flaws are even more apparent in the PS3 game, which also suffers from some occasional drops in the frame rate. Poor audio quality is a major drawback. Although the 360 and PS3 versions of the game don't have the PC edition's weird echo effects that turn every conversation into a simulation of shouting across the Grand Canyon, the voice acting remains hard to endure. Dialogue here is confined to awful buddy-movie stereotypes, with Graves being the grizzled veteran who's gruff but lovable and Lang being the cocky young dude who adds "mother****er" to the end of every sentence. The music is just as obnoxious, too, a cornball blat of generic rock that sounds as if it were clipped from the soundtrack of an '80s cop show.
The inclusion of cooperative play is a plus, though. You and a friend can play through the entire game together online or at home via split screen. Relatively few shooters offer this feature these days that it's more than welcome here, even in such a simplistic game. But the other multiplayer modes are generic takes on deathmatch, team deathmatch, and conquest, so there isn't much here beyond the co-op. Few people seem to be playing the game online at the time of writing anyway, although there's certainly more of a crowd on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network than there is on the game's PC servers.
Go in with low expectations and an appreciation for simple retro shooters and you won't be disappointed with Conflict: Denied Ops. It isn't a great shooter by any means, but it is a competent one for those of you who don't want a lot of interaction or thinking to interfere with senseless mayhem.