Unlike most modern-day military-themed first-person shooters, Shadows Ops: Red Mercury is more about pure run-and-gun action than about relatively realistic squad tactics. It seems like a fully featured game on paper, boasting a single-player campaign of more than two dozen missions, as well as several multiplayer modes that are playable online by up to 32 players. As well, Shadow Ops features some impressive audio, and its campaign offers a ton of targets to shoot at and a high level of challenge even on the default difficulty setting (which is an easier setting, and there are two even tougher settings available, as well). The campaign missions can indeed be pretty intense at times, but the underlying action itself lacks the sort of visceral punch that shooters ought to have. This isn't as big of an issue in the heavily scripted single-player levels, but Shadow Ops' clunky multiplayer gameplay significantly suffers for it. The result is a first-person shooter that does little to distinguish itself from many other, similar games.
Shadow Ops was originally released on the Xbox several months ago, and the new PC version isn't much different. It's playable at higher resolutions, though the shortcomings of the graphics just stand out more readily that way. And while the mouse and keyboard controls should theoretically be more precise than the console version's gamepad controls, in reality, the opposite is true. The ugly onscreen targeting reticule here points toward nothing in particular, turning precision shooting into mere guesswork. Unsurprisingly, the PC version lacks the Xbox version's split-screen mode, though it theoretically makes up for this with an expanded multiplayer mode (the Xbox version only supports eight players online). However, online play is still bland and problematic, and barely anyone's playing online anyway. On the plus side, the game ships on DVD-ROM, so at least the installation process is painless.
The game is clearly derivative of successful military-themed arcade-style shooters such as the Medal of Honor series and Call of Duty, though this one isn't based on real events. Captain Frank Hayden is the hero of Shadow Ops' campaign, and he's your typical gruff gun-toting action hero. Apparently he's good at getting important jobs done, since he's part of a Special Forces team charged with recovering something called red mercury--a substance that's capable of bringing nuclear destruction upon the free world--which has fallen into the wrong hands. Hayden's efforts to recover the red mercury will send him to locations like war-torn Middle Eastern towns, the jungles of the Congo, snowy Kazakhstan, and the subways of Paris. The story takes a couple of twists as it unfolds in prerendered cutscenes between many of the missions, and while these cutscenes are grainy and unimpressive for the most part, they're presented with the sort of shaky camera angles and fast editing that has become Hollywood's favorite way to depict military action.
Regardless of what the stakes are and where the missions supposedly take place, they pretty much all play out the same way. They're completely linear, which means there's never any alternative but to keep pressing forward past droves of enemy grunts, who will often come at you in waves, lie in ambush around corners, or snipe at you from windows or rooftops. Though most of the enemy behavior seems to be scripted, foes exhibit some noticeable signs of intelligence, such as when they rush from cover to cover and otherwise stick their necks out only when shooting at you. Foes will also sometimes chuck grenades at you or, better yet, toss back one of your own. These occasionally inspired bad guys are relatively few, though. You'll mostly just be gunning down tons of enemy clones that pop up like targets in a shooting gallery. And even when the situation seems hopeless as foes keep pouring in, you'll learn to see through the ruse--the flow of bad guys stops as quickly as it starts, inviting you to casually scour the area for health and ammo and then move on to the next firefight.
You'll usually have several weapons--a pistol, a sniper rifle, and an assault rifle--in addition to a few grenades. Occasionally you get a shotgun, a heavy machine gun, and a bazooka. Different missions include different weapons, but while one rifle might appear significantly different from another, all weapons of a particular class are functionally identical (except for differences in how many rounds of ammo their clips can hold). The assault rifles end up being the weapon of choice of Shadow Ops, since they're perfectly suited for close- and medium-range combat, which covers 99 percent of the combat in the game.
One of the only reasons to switch from the assault rifle is that Shadow Ops is very stingy with ammunition. Despite facing hordes of foes, you'll only be able to carry a few clips of ammo at a time and will need to scavenge more from your victims--who sometimes will drop more ammo for you to use, but often won't. Ammo is especially scarce at the harder difficulty settings, in which you'll feel like you were sent into the mission woefully ill-equipped to handle the odds--which, actually, is kind of cool.
Unfortunately, the interaction between your guns' bullets and your enemies just isn't very satisfying in Shadow Ops--which is to say that the feel of the game just isn't great. In multiplayer, there's no indication whatsoever that you're hitting as opposed to missing your target. In single-player, at least, you'll see a foe recoil a little bit; but there's no blood (which shouldn't be a surprise given that the game is rated T), and there's little in the way of other evidence to suggest that someone just got shot. The result is that the action feels flat, especially since you don't see a weapon model or a muzzle flash onscreen when firing down a rifle's sights; you'll just line up the crosshairs with the bad guys and watch them fall. Of further note, Halo proved that melee combat could be both satisfying and effective in a first-person shooter, and Shadow Ops likewise gives you the option to clobber foes with whichever weapon you have at the ready. However, you'll pretty much never come into melee range in the game, so there's not much point in swinging your gun around, except maybe to help pass the time as you slowly run from point to point. That's another issue--your running speed, while arguably realistic, seems too slow for a run-and-gun action game such as this.
The campaign itself is somewhat longer than average, partly because the missions are pretty tough right from the get-go and force you to restart from the beginning if you die (and sit through a pretty long loading time before restarting, to add a little insult to injury). Generally, you can take a ton of damage before getting killed--but you'll always have tons of enemies gunning for you, so death can still come swiftly and suddenly. Taking lots of damage is basically unavoidable, since many of your foes will fire from concealed positions and have fast reflexes and good aim--so you'll end up spotting many of your enemies only because of the onscreen indicator that shows the direction from which you're taking fire. Then it's just a matter of killing them before they kill you, and that can take a good several tries. However, since the opposition pops up from the exact same points in the level each time you play, you can get through even the toughest scenario with patience and a trial-and-error approach.
The missions soon become a desperate struggle for health packs, which can be found tucked in the corners of the environments and will sometimes (mercifully) be dropped by killed foes. It's not exactly a perfect formula for fun, but Shadow Ops' tough, enemy-infested missions are loaded with screams and explosions and can certainly be tense as you inch your way to the next finish line. Some campaign missions let you fight alongside several other squad members, but they're mostly just for show. Sometimes the squad members will get in your way, and sometimes they'll actually take out a target, but you'll mostly end up doing all the work, same as always. There's also a little bit of obligatory sneaking to be found at one point in the campaign, and on several other occasions, you'll have to blow stuff up by planting explosives, which happens automatically when you press and hold the "use" button. So the campaign is pretty monotonous, but it's also the best part of Shadow Ops.
The game's multiplayer features feel pretty tacked on. You've got your standard deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture-the-flag modes here, as well as a VIP escort mode, in which one team has a poorly equipped player that must be defended as he or she travels from one end of the level to the other. There are a decent number of multiplayer maps to play on, though many of these are ugly and predictably laid out. Besides, the variety of maps doesn't address some of the fundamental problems here. Since the core shooting action itself is so underwhelming, Shadow Ops' online mode is a disappointing counterpart to the scripted single-player portion. As such, it's only good in theory that the game supports as many multiplayer options as it does. That the game's readme file is rife with "known issues" pertaining to the multiplayer modes and that we found barely anyone to play with online during a number of attempts during the days subsequent to the game's release, also doesn't help paint a pretty picture.
Shadow Ops often looks better than it plays, and sometimes plays better than it looks. But that's only because sometimes it just doesn't look good. The weapon models are probably the best aspect of the presentation, along with some of the effects and animations. Enemies actually look fairly convincing as they rush to and fro, and rag-doll physics are used sparingly to pretty good effect as some foes get sent flying from explosions or go toppling off of rooftops or balconies. The environments look believable if you don't inspect them too closely. The levels themselves are quite small, and the character models are quite blocky and unremarkable. One strange effect is how enemy bodies vanish as soon as you look away; usually by the time you look back, it's as though nothing ever happened. Also, much like how the game does a poor job of convincing you that your bullets are hitting live targets, it does a poor job of convincing you that your bullets are hitting inanimate objects, such as walls. Just a few small pockmarks tend to indicate the aftermath of a firefight, even if you've been unloading a fully automatic machine gun for the past 30 seconds.
The audio is the highlight of Shadow Ops, which is a game that, at its best, convincingly sounds like a Hollywood war zone. Gunfire and explosions are always happening all around you. Yet, some subtle effects, such as empty shell casings ejecting onto the ground, manage to pass through the cacophony. There's decent voice acting throughout the game, which is notable especially in that your enemies will shout at you in their native languages. Even if you don't know the languages, though, you'll still notice how a lot of the enemies repeat the same lines. Meanwhile, there's a surprisingly diverse and intense soundtrack that plays during the campaign missions. Many of these rousing, militaristic compositions are very impressive, though the game's action doesn't quite hold up its end of the bargain, resulting in music that often sounds overblown. Outside of the single-player campaign, in the absence of that dynamic soundtrack, the game still sounds good but not remarkably so.
If only everything about Shadow Ops was as good as its audio. The game initially seems to offer everything you'd want out of an action-packed military-themed shooter. However, online multiplayer features are of little value when the action itself isn't good. Luckily, Shadow Ops' campaign isn't a total wash if you're not easily frustrated and aren't expecting anything out of the ordinary.