Undercover: Operation Wintersun Review

Spy-story noir meets ridiculous adventure-game puzzles in this misguided tale of Nazis and nukes.

As with far too many adventures, your enjoyment of Undercover: Operation Wintersun depends almost entirely on your tolerance for nonsensical puzzles. This Sproing Interactive game really knocks it out of the park when it comes to that sort of thing. It boasts a greatest-hits collection of maddening adventure-game absurdities, such as digging a potato out of the garbage to distract a crow in order to listen in on a conversation (in the very first scene, no less), as well as outlandish chem-lab solutions to mundane problems such as getting through locked doors. Anyone who can solve this spectacularly hard game without resorting to a walk-through deserves a ticker-tape parade like the kind they used to give generals and astronauts.

So, you've got what you might call a niche game here. However, the storyline sets forth a great spy thriller for the masses that plays out like a lost Hitchcock movie from his WWII period. You play British nuclear physicist Dr. John Russell, an everyman (who looks a lot like a young Eugene Levy with shorter hair) recruited by MI-6 in early 1943 to go undercover in search of the truth about Nazi efforts to detonate an atomic bomb. It's a quick rush from the initial debriefing to a scavenger hunt through various German research facilities, and then a scramble to Stalingrad for a 007-style disarming of a prototype nuke. Aside from the high-school Shakespeare overacting, this story plays out as a respectable, literate spy thriller that manages to build tension without leaning on clichés like sinister, trench-coated Nazis and "Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS" types. The only real annoyance is the accompaniment of a trio of supposed espionage experts who are as useless as red shirts in a Star Trek episode (if not quite so prone to untimely deaths).

Don't mess with the SS…which can be accomplished quite nicely by not playing this game.

Not that the plot matters. It's impossible to appreciate the noirish script when you're constantly wondering what the heck you're supposed to be doing. Undercover throws you into one ridiculous situation after another. If you're not collecting every little bit of junk that litters the scenery like some foppish Brit version of Fred Sanford, you're forced to deal with the most convoluted solutions to simple problems. The developers seem to have some sort of chemistry fetish, given the number of times that you need to whip up various solvents. At first, this is sort of nifty, even if it's rather strange that you go to the extreme of making hydrochloric acid to get through a locked door. But it soon gets flat-out stupid when you're doing things such as making some sort of mineral water to soften up window putty that, in the real world, could easily have been peeled off with nothing more than Russell's trusty pocketknife.

Even nonchemical solutions stick a pin in the great big balloon of common sense. Along with the potato puzzle noted at the top, you also use a flag and floor polish to knock out a guard, deploy a rat to scare off a barmaid, and rig up phone wires to electrocute a guard. Some of your stunts are positively MacGyver-ish. And just to make things a little bit more perplexing, you never find uses for a fair number of items that you pick up, and many are so small and tucked away in dark corners that the developers might as well be purposely hiding clues. Only a single, fixed camera is provided in most scenes; given that it's typically so far away from the action, you often need to engage in tedious pixel hunts.

Some of the half-dozen or so set-piece puzzles will also have you scratching your head raw. Granted, many of these are actually somewhat enjoyable, in that they provide a break from the randomness of the rest of the game. At least you know what you're supposed to be doing when they pop up on the screen. Some involve such boilerplate scenarios as turning code wheels and spinning gears to open secret doors, but others are more innovative, such as the nifty number where you guide a fellow spy past guards by switching off lights in a specified sequence. Unfortunately, none are particularly well-implemented. Even the stealth situation described above is partially wrecked by shadows so dark that you can rarely tell exactly where the enemy soldiers you're trying to dodge are patrolling.

Some of the logic puzzles are a welcome relief from the craziness of the rest of the game, although there aren't enough of them to counterbalance all the nonsense.

Last, but certainly not least, Undercover is also buggy. Very buggy. The game constantly crashes in the opening cutscene when set to 1280x1024 resolution with antialiasing turned on. The game started and remained somewhat stable only after we went with the default 1024x768 resolution and no antialiasing. However, even then crashes continued to occur every so often in all manner of in-game situations, and the audio would frequently get caught in loops in which the opening lines spoken by a character would repeat until you skipped past them or the game fainted to the desktop.

At any rate, if you can't get Undercover running properly, don't bother trying to fix the problem. You'd be wiser to consider this a sign and turn your talents toward something that makes more sense and is easier to solve, such as the political situation in the Middle East.

The Good
Spy-story plot had potential
A couple of intriguing set-piece puzzles
The Bad
Situations are either nonsensical or derivative
Over-the-top voice acting
Lots of bugs
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Undercover: Operation Wintersun More Info

  • First Released
    • PC
    Undercover: Operation Wintersun is an adventure game set during the Second World War, in the heart of war-torn Europe.
    Average User RatingOut of 120 User Ratings
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    Developed by:
    Sproing Interactive Media
    Published by:
    Lighthouse Interactive, Stardock, DTP Entertainment
    Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.
    All Platforms
    Alcohol and Tobacco Reference, Blood, Violence