Not to be confused with the similarly titled Shadow Ops, which was recently released on the PC and Xbox, Operation Shadow is a third-person-perspective, arcade-style shooter that's defined by its faster-than-life pacing and intolerably campy dialogue. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to 3DO's critically panned Army Men 3D games, Operation Shadow shares many of the shortcomings of that series. While its frenetic action is a refreshing reprieve from the numerous plodding, choppy shooters on the N-Gage, Operation Shadow still isn't recommendable, because its gameplay is so unbelievably mindless. Neither strategy nor skill will serve you here. Instead, your biggest asset will be the rote memorization of level layouts. Those who replay levels dozens of times will eventually uncover the keys to advancement, but they still won't have any fun.
In Operation Shadow, you play Jay, a thick-necked counterterrorist operative who's essentially a walking tank. So, naturally, he's as tough and as dense as one. Jay is frequently summoned to deal with terrorist uprisings around the globe by using his own brand of vigilante justice. While his lust for destruction makes him a danger to himself and to those around him, Jay has proven effective as a last line of defense against the steady stream of splinter groups that, if allowed to flourish, would surely threaten our democratic way of life. While this might sound like deliberate political satire--perhaps inspired by our current efforts to squelch Iraqi insurgents--be assured that there is no humor to be found in this bland shooter.
What you will encounter is painfully stilted dialogue between the pugnacious Jay and his dispatcher, a heavily decorated colonel who's equipped with a stately demeanor and an equally stately mustache. All conversation between the two follows a set format in which Jay will vociferously express his desire to devastate, only to meet the harsh reprove of the Colonel, who tirelessly stresses the importance of exercising caution. Of course, you wonder how reticence and calculation could benefit Jay, because he endeavors to both blow up buildings and execute war criminals, along with their legions of minions in black pajamas.
As various regions of the globe explode with terrorist activity, Jay is called in for cleanup duty. These groups of heavily armed miscreants have diverse names like the "Ixan" or the "Red Dawn." Operation Shadow won't restrict you to "peacekeeping" in the Middle East. Rather, it's a multicultural affair spanning several continents. After you complete a series of missions, a short newscast will summarize your progress and hint at where you'll next be headed.
Most of Jay's missions will somehow incorporate the use of one of the game's underpowered vehicles. In infantry mode, Jay has access to grenades, antitank missiles, and an assault rifle with unlimited ammo. However, most of the game's vehicles only sport a single machine gun that has a limited amount of ammunition. While grenade and missile ammo can be found easily, machine gun shells seem to be much less plentiful. To make matters worse, the enemies that have so much trouble hitting Jay (when he's on foot) seem to fare much better as soon as he steps into a vehicle. It's clear that Operation Shadow's developers were among the millions who played and enjoyed developer Bungie's breakthrough first-person shooter Halo. They correctly ascertained that Halo's vehicular combat was part of what made it uniquely outstanding. Unfortunately, Operation Shadow was unable to match that game's excellent implementation of vehicles. Here, they feel like another bullet point on a list of gameplay features. Most players will likely only use vehicles when the mission expressly requires it, or they'll just use vehicles for transportation between points A and B.
Operation Shadow's perfunctory multiplayer mode makes even poorer use of these crafts designed for land and air. Players are given the opportunity to deathmatch in a whopping four different environments, each of which is just about identical to the last, save for some color-palette swapping. Vehicles are plentiful on each of these maps. Unfortunately, however, server-filling bots are not. Playing against a single opponent, you'll spend the majority of your time putting around in your tank, Humvee, or buggy in an unavailing search for your would-be adversary. As it only takes one well-placed rocket to frag your foe (regardless of whether either of you has wheels), choosing a vehicle--even more grievously than in the single-player campaign--just makes you a bigger target.
In general, Operation Shadow's Bluetooth multiplayer feels like an afterthought (which is not to suggest that the single-player missions have benefited from a great deal of forethought). The run-and-gun gameplay that makes sense in areas glutted with enemies just seems ridiculous in the sparse multiplayer maps. Imagine if the hero of the arcade classic Gunsmoke tried to light up a ghost town. It would just be a poor use of his time. While Jay is only half the character Billy Bob was, he's equally ill-suited for wandering around vast, sparsely populated maps that look like they belong in a Tribes game rather than in an arcade-style shooter.
To Operation Shadow's credit, animation in both modes of play moves very, very quickly. Sadly, this fast frame rate is likely facilitated by the game's low graphical fidelity. Shadow's visual artists have used as few polygons as possible here, piecing together buildings and characters like tangrams. While this shows a high aptitude for spatial reasoning, the result is pretty ugly. Worse, when you move more than a few feet away from an object, it will abandon its third-dimension properties entirely, instead reverting to a sprite-based representation of itself. Recoil a bit more and it will pop out of existence entirely. Moreover, this formula actually works in reverse when you're approaching something.
It would be possible to forgive Operation Shadow's clunky graphics if they didn't severely hinder gameplay. The game features several types of enemies, each with different offensive abilities. It's important to be able to differentiate between these so you know you're not charging directly into the path of a missile-equipped tank. Unfortunately, it's impossible to know exactly what you're facing until it evolves beyond a blob of pixels, which means that you'll have to be almost on top of your enemy before you'll be able to ascertain its type.
Yet, even with all these shortcomings, Operation Shadow could have escaped infamy, if not for its incompetent mission design. Although your objectives are always accompanied by short descriptions, they don't elucidate particulars of the mission or advise you of relevant pitfalls you might face. For example, in an early mission, you're asked to rescue some prisoners of war by securing an enemy area. To do this, you'll have to destroy some of the opposition's barracks while sparing those that house your comrades. The only way to learn which buildings need to be destroyed is through simple trial and error.
The problems don't stop here. In another instance, you're charged with the task of ferrying important war documents to four headquarters before time elapses. You are chased by tanks and infantrymen, and, given your assignment's time restrictions, it would be too time-consuming to engage in combat with them. You're equipped with a tank, but it's required that you exit this tank to deliver the documents--a fact that is never expressly stated. While it would make sense to guide your character into these buildings to deliver the relevant papers, what you do instead is place him atop a nearby green target and then press the 2 key, which is the same one used to enter and exit a vehicle. This means you'll not only have to exit your tank, but also you'll have to leave it far enough away so that pressing the 2 key won't make you reenter it. To make matters worse, whenever you're close to an HQ, the tanks that are chasing you target the building itself in an attempt to destroy it. Should they succeed, you will fail in your mission. Of course, as soon as you leave the area, the tanks apparently forget about you and return to patrolling. Passing this level isn't a test of your shooting skill; it's a test of how many times you're willing to restart the mission, because Operation Shadow--fiendishly--doesn't allow you to save after completing individual objectives.
Operation Shadow's best feature is probably its audio, although this is hardly a ringing endorsement. The game's signature track is pervaded by some genuinely funky breakbeats, as well as a gritty and growling bassline that sounds like the result of some oscillator knob twisting on an old Moog synthesizer. You'll only truly appreciate the tune while hanging out in the game's menu, however. During gameplay, the music is greatly overpowered by the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire, and there's no option to balance the music and sound, either.
Operation Shadow is a very flawed game that would be impossible to recommend--for any price. It's amazing that such a title appears on store shelves alongside shooters like Gameloft's Jungle Storm or Torus' own Ashen. This is a game destined for the "shadows" of obscurity, which is just as well.