Winback Hands-On

Fans of the N64's Winback will be glad to know that the game is getting a PS2 face-lift. Is it different enough to warrant a look, though?

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WinBack: Covert Operations
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Those familiar with the original Winback will attest to its deliberate, yet often intense, gameplay. Released for the N64 in late 1999, the game proved to be a small ray of sunshine for a system that had seen brighter days.

The game's formula was quite in vogue, at the time--in the role of a stealthy secret agent, you must infiltrate a remote terrorist compound, dispatch its inhabitants silently, and escape scot-free. Naturally, this kept the game from becoming just another "walk and blast" third-person shooter, as barreling into the complex with your guns blazing would have invariably left you cornered, exposed, and, ultimately, full of lead.

The upcoming PS2 version of Winback is, aside from a few enhancements and extra modes, a carbon copy of the N64 incarnation. In it, you play as Jean-Luc Cougar, a member of a supersecret covert ops group known as SCAT. After a painfully botched infiltration of a terrorist compound due to the downing of SCAT's chopper, the group becomes scattered. As Jean-Luc, you must creep around the enemy base, icing its inhabitants as slyly as possible and collecting your team members one by one. Only then can SCAT achieve its initial objective--to disarm a horrible terrorist weapon held inside the compound.

Winback plays very well. The game's levels are replete with crates, alcoves, barricades, trenches, and other obstacles, which is conducive to the "hide and shoot" gameplay Winback is designed around. Since stealth is a major factor in Jean-Luc's success, there's a great deal of emphasis placed on backing up against walls, where you can briefly spin out to either survey your surroundings or squeeze off a few rounds at an unsuspecting enemy. In the PS2 version, hitting the square button will automatically cause you to back up against the nearest surface. Thus situated, you can effectively scope out your surroundings and take potshots at both suspecting and unsuspecting enemies. Popping out for a shot is as easy as hitting the right shoulder button, making the control scheme very intuitive and easy to use.

The game's drawbacks have less to do with its mechanics than with some aspects of its design. In truth, the N64 version left some players feeling short-changed by the lack of variety in the levels--it seemed as if each one, no matter how different it was from its predecessors, involved the same kind of "hide and shoot" gameplay. The game's AI was also one of its weaker points; enemies would often seem to forget where you were if you hid during prolonged firefights. They would simply stand in one place and wait for you to pop out and continue to shoot them. Luckily, Koei seems to be heavily revamping the enemy AI for the game's PS2 release. Even in the early build we played, the enemies seemed much smarter and more adept at actually spotting you and seeking you out. Additionally, you actually have something to fear from snipers in the PS2 version. In the N64 version, they only took shots when you were in plain sight, but this time around, their sights follow you, and they relentlessly pick at you, even if you're partially covered. Koei reports that the game is 75 percent complete and that there is still some AI work to be done. A good thing, by all means--the AI system seems much tighter, at this point, and continued work in that department could only yield a more exciting game.

As you'd expect, Winback PS2's production values are much more impressive than its predecessor's. Graphically, the characters boast nearly 10 times as many polygons as their N64 counterparts, and they're dolled up with all manner of lighting, shading, and particle effects. The backgrounds are similarly more robust and detailed. Each PS2 background is composed of 20,000 polygons, whereas the N64 version's backgrounds boasted only 5,000 polygons each. This time around, furthermore, all the cutscenes will feature full voice work--both English and Japanese--on top of the subtitles, as well as improved atmospheric sounds.

You can expect Winback PS2's play modes to strongly resemble those of the original. On top of the single-player and deathmatch modes, though, the PS2 version adds a challenge mode and a two-player bot mode to the mix. The challenge mode is self-explanatory--you'll go through a series of mini combat missions, 20 in all, whose difficulties steadily increase. The bot mode will let two players shoot it out with a series of computer-controlled bots. The mode will allow for team-based play, making any number of player/bot configurations possible.

Fans of the N64 version of the game will surely get into the trumped-up production, gameplay tweaks, and new features. Koei plans to release Winback PS2 in mid-March.

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