Red Storm's Shadow Watch is the sort of game that grows on you. Initially, the turn-based strategy game may put you off due to its odd implementation of movement commands and its stringent constraint that prevents you from continuing on if any of your team members die. But if you stick with the game for a little while, you may just find yourself hooked by its unique look and addicting gameplay.
The events of Shadow Watch surround the development of the International Space Station that's being handled by a multinational consortium of private corporations. As leader of the consortium's security force - code-named Shadow Watch - you lead a small group of operatives in a series of missions to protect the project and the personnel associated with it. The game's branching campaign engine is pretty impressive, as the game can begin in a different location each time you play it. Also, as you speak with nonplayer characters between missions, the path of the campaign will twist and turn according to the tone and nature of your conversations. The ever-changing campaign adds to the replay value, but you will notice that in some cases the game channels you toward certain types of missions no matter what dialogue options you choose.
The missions of Shadow Watch take place in 18 different locations scattered across three geographic regions: Hong Kong, Baikonur (in Kazakhstan), and Rio de Janeiro. Essentially, you must clear each location before moving on to the next one. Missions include basic surveillance, raids on heavily defended installations, hostage rescues, and some good old fashioned thievery. For each mission, you may select a group of up to six operatives, each of whom must survive for the mission to be a success. This is an area in which Shadow Watch differs from other tactical combat games, where you can typically replace lost team members with new recruits. But Shadow Watch limits you to the same six characters each time you play. And since each character has a very narrow area of expertise, you must carefully develop each one so that he or she becomes more potent and reliable as the game progresses. Fortunately, because you only have a small number of characters to keep track of, you can make sure they all develop into hard-core fighting machines. Your troops can train between missions and learn much-needed skills, as each one has a unique tree of ten skills that he or she can eventually master.
The game's most notable and impressive feature is the slick, hand-painted artwork that gives Shadow Watch the look and style of a graphic novel - and a good one, at that. The interface screens and static menus look great due to the stylish illustrations, but the actual gameplay unfolds with hand-painted characters moving fluidly against hand-painted backdrops. The overall effect is both unique and attractive, and it sets Shadow Watch apart from other tactical-combat games. In addition, Shadow Watch has an excellent musical score, which is reminiscent of the music in Rainbow Six. The game's sound effects are also top-notch, though the quips uttered after a character is shot can be repetitive and annoying.You view each mission from the same top-down isometric angle typical to many other tactical-combat games. Although Shadow Watch does a decent job of making walls and other obstacles transparent as you direct characters behind them, it's often very difficult to see doors and windows in those transparent walls. This can be frustrating as you discover enemies walking through unseen doors to pump bullet after bullet into your characters' backs.
However, the game's most potentially frustrating feature is the movement system. Shadow Watch is a turn-based game that relies on the conventions of map grids and action points for maneuvering your characters around. But instead of using the mouse to click on a destination, you must guide each character step-by-step through each mission. What's worse, at the beginning of the game, most characters have very few action points to work with, and only a few can earn more as you proceed. As a result, missions can seem tedious and unnecessarily awkward. Yet while it isn't the most sensible of movement systems, it'll likely grow less annoying after you bear with it through several missions.
Besides that, the only real problem with Shadow Watch is the sometimes-bizarre turn sequence that seems to give the computer a distinct advantage. For example, during your turn, you may only get to issue a movement order to one character before the game returns control to the enemy side. So instead of setting up a well-coordinated move involving three or more of your characters, you may find that the first guy you moved is a sitting duck for enemies who have lined up to shoot him. This can be extremely annoying, especially considering the no-casualty restriction on each mission.
Rather than forcing you to keep the same six characters alive the whole time, the game instead could have greatly benefited from a larger pool of available troops. Not only would that have significantly enhanced the replay value, but it also would have allowed for more flexibility in the missions. However, aside from repetitive sound bytes and a few questionable design decisions, Shadow Watch is an entertaining tactical-combat game. Its artwork is superb and its gameplay can be a lot of fun, despite its shortcomings.