Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops Review

Stupid AI and sluggish performance are just two of the many problems that plague Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops.

Searching through the collected speeches of Jimmy Carter probably isn't the best way to scrounge up an inspirational quote to use on the splash screen of a shooter. So seeing a line from the former President kicking off third-person shoot-'em-up Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops is rather disconcerting. This terrible game is every bit as odd and inappropriate as the quotation in question, which criticizes the US for dealing arms while claiming to be a nation of peace right before you start indiscriminately killing foreigners. Virtually nothing is handled right. Levels are stuffed with idiotic enemies. Controls are sluggish, visuals are murky and blurry, load times are long, and crashes are frequent. There is no save-on-demand, and auto-save points are spread ridiculously far apart. And both the sound effects and the voice acting are so grating that you could use them on a block of cheese.

Blurry and ugly is no way to go through life, son.
Blurry and ugly is no way to go through life, son.

The only mode of play is a solo campaign set in the year 2025, in a smelly dystopian future where the world has gone to heck in a handbasket and the US of A is policing the globe via a grammatically challenged group called the Intelligence Support Activity, or ISA. You alternate playing as two of these world cops: the gruff but lovable Aron Alvarez and the sneaky sniper babe Myra Lee. Bad stuff is going down in a bad part of the world because of bad people, and you need to set things right by killing folks. Your main goal is the assassination of a Somali warlord named Kimosein, although things go off track and you wind up trying to find out who's supplying the tyrant with high-tech weaponry outlawed by the UN.

Being able to swap between two different types of soldiers gives Shadow Harvest a solo co-op vibe. Alvarez is the standard kill-'em-all tank with heavy weapons good for frontal assaults against enemy grunts, snipers, and even mechs, while Lee is a stealthy sort who slinks around and dispatches baddies up close and personal with retractable claws. But even though this duo offers different ways to play the game, levels are paint-by-numbers simple because of poor AI and linear level design. Neon signs might as well tell you when you need to switch soldiers, since it's obvious when Alvarez is needed to go on killing sprees and when Lee is required to break high-tech locks or some necks. Some of Lee's stealth sequences are somewhat nifty, however. The mechanics are simplistic, in that you crouch down, creep up behind dim-witted guards, put them in headlocks, and turn out their lights, but Lee's gadgets are undeniably cool. She gets to don a cloaking-device suit, shoot nano crossbow bolts that instantly kill baddies and conceal their bodies, and kill with those Wolverine-like claws that both slash enemy throats and inject them with nanites that hide their corpses.

Glaring design flaws present more challenge than the Somali troops you're called on to kill. Poor damage feedback makes it hard to tell when you've been shot without checking the depleting health stat in the lower left of the screen. The beyond-frustrating auto-save system forces you to replay huge areas because the checkpoints are spread way too far apart. This save setup is so awful that parts of the game are nearly unplayable. One section in level six requires you to trudge past sniper emplacements, take out a good 20 or so goons in a huge firefight, destroy a machine-gun nest, and sneak around to deal with more sentries plus a helicopter--all before getting the chance to finally save your progress. And taking cover has been automated to the point of extreme awkwardness. You latch onto cover-providing terrain far too readily. This causes big trouble when you try to get away from hiding spots, because you then have to expose yourself to enemy fire by backing away from the terrain feature before moving forward or sideways again.

Some of the sneaker sections of Shadow Harvest are mildly diverting.
Some of the sneaker sections of Shadow Harvest are mildly diverting.

Environments have a strange, smeared quality last seen the morning after you had one too many margaritas. Somali street rubble has a blurry filter over it, as though the city has been overexposed with too much bloom and then smeared with mud. You can shut bloom off, but then the brown gets so dark that sections of the game are pitch black. The inability to adjust the gamma in-game makes it impossible to deal with these issues manually. Performance is far from ideal as well, with frame rates frequently dipping into the teens on a machine that more than matches the system requirements. As a result, it often feels like you're dragging an anchor around when you move the mouse.

Audio quality is so bad that you'll want to emulate Van Gogh, and perhaps even go all-in and lop off the right ear, too. All of the spoken dialogue is from the Fun With Phonics School of Voice Acting. Your commandos complain to HQ about being left to die in Somali slums with all the heartfelt passion of ordering lunch at a drive-through window. Real human beings sound more upset when they break a shoelace. The sound effects are equally grating. Weapons go off with little pops so tinny that the resulting lack of impact is almost surreal, given that the noise heard is so far removed from the tracers flying all around in firefights. Popping bubble wrap offers more auditory excitement. Only the soundtrack is something of a highlight. While a fair number of the tunes are generic, bombastic shooter fare, some parts of a few levels boast fantastic African tribal chanting and beats that sound like lost Peter Gabriel cuts.

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops is a terrible shooter in every way save the occasionally diverting stealth sequences. Oh, and just in case you needed some more nails in the coffin before dismissing the chance of ever playing this one, you can't skip cutscenes, crashes to the desktop for runtime errors are depressingly frequent, and there is at least one spot where you can fall through a floor and drop right out of the entire level. Consider that a lucky escape.

The Good

  • Commando-swapping concept is an interesting one
  • Great African-style music in parts of some levels

The Bad

  • Linear levels and clumsy controls, especially when taking cover
  • Brain-dead enemies
  • Save checkpoints spread much too far apart
  • Choppy, blurry visuals
  • Grating voice acting and bland sound effects

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