The recently released Global Operations has long been touted as a potential Counter-Strike rival, though its design owes at least as much to the legendary Team Fortress mod and its offspring as it does to Counter-Strike. In the shadow of Global Ops' big marketing push comes another "ops" game, Tactical Ops: Assault on Terror. In one sense, Tactical Ops is more of a true competitor with Counter-Strike than Global Ops is. That's because Tactical Ops is essentially just a clone of Counter-Strike, built around Unreal Tournament instead of Half-Life. The basic game design is strikingly similar in almost every important way, and while Tactical Ops has some strengths, it isn't nearly as well honed as its model.
Like Counter-Strike, Tactical Ops (originally called SWAT) began its life as a free fan-created mod. Now MicroProse has released this enhanced retail version of the mod with some exclusive new material, including new maps and skins. At the same time, the standard version of the mod is still available as a free download, and Infogrames promises that both the free and retail versions will be fully compatible. However, even with the latest patches, server rejections and dropped connections are common because of version mismatches and other problems.
Regardless of which version you play, don't expect to be wowed by innovation. Anyone who's played Counter-Strike before--and by now that would seem to include every gamer and his grandma--will be struck with a huge case of déjà vu. Gameplay is divided into rounds, with two teams, the Special Forces and terrorists, trying to complete opposing goals, in addition to simply killing the opposition. The Special Forces might need to rescue hostages, while the terrorists try to prevent that rescue. In another mode, the terrorists try to detonate a bomb at a specific target, while the Special Forces try to stop the attempt. Another mode has the terrorists trying to steal the OICW (the US military's advanced objective individual combat weapon), while the Special Forces try to guard it. Then there's a mode in which one team tries to escape from the other. Unfortunately, the maps aren't labeled according to game type, so you'll have to guess which map offers what mode when you start a new session. As in Counter-Strike, you only get one life per round, sitting out the rest of a round as an invisible spectator after you die.
You'll earn money for achievements such as killing enemies, finding evidence like bags of cocaine, and completing mission goals. At the beginning of each new round, you get to trade your cash for new gear. Tactical Ops offers a good selection of the tools of the trade. Helmets, bulletproof vests, and pads will afford some protection from all the bullets buzzing around. You'll get to buy high-explosive, smoke, flash-bang, and concussion grenades, though the latter aren't that different from the HE grenades. Everyone gets a default flashlight, but it's pretty dim. Happily, you can also buy night vision goggles, which are useful on the many dark map sections.
Tactical Ops is one of those shooters that puts the emphasis squarely on shooting over any sort of deep tactical thought or James Bond gadgetry, and the game features a big arsenal. In addition to a knife, you'll get around 20 firearms, including pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, and sniper rifles. A number of the weapons are exclusive to one team or the other to help differentiate the two forces. Both sides' weapons seem decently balanced against each other overall, though arguably some weapons like the M60 are overpowered. Just as when Counter-Strike went retail, the names of the guns have been confusingly changed. A MAC-10 is falsely labeled an Uzi. And just what is a "9F2 Glorietta" or "Berg 509"? One can only assume a Beretta 92F pistol and a Mossberg shotgun, respectively.
Tactical Ops' tiny, almost superfluous manual nicely sums up the game--it's an "action-oriented semirealistic first-person shooter." In other words, it's extremely fast-paced and happens to have weapons based on real-world models. While it's certainly effective to work in concert with your teammates and use flash bangs and the like to thwart the enemy, winning comes down to having the fastest reflexes. Players run quickly, bunny-hop a lot, and can fall far without damage. Many weapons shoot extremely fast, emptying clips in seconds.
This focus on lightning-fast action generates excitement, yet it's often too hectic. The game literally plays even more frantically than Unreal Tournament deathmatch at times. This severely compromises the core idea of offering real-world weapons and other semirealistic trappings. You get very little time to appreciate them as you're zipping across the maps while everyone is dropping like flies. Game rounds often end almost right after they begin. Make no mistake: Tactical Ops has more in common with Quake III Arena than with other contemporary-weapon shooters like Ghost Recon or SWAT 3--or, for that matter, Unreal Tournament mods like Infiltration.
One of the things that often makes or breaks shooters is one of their hardest elements to define: their subtle balance or feel. It's composed of many factors, like player movement rates, average character survival time, weapon physics (both hard data like firing rates and apparent heft and power created with audio and visuals), and so forth. This "feel" is what Counter-Strike nailed almost flawlessly. At least back in its early glory days (and arguably to this day), Counter-Strike had the equivalent of a master martial artist's grace and balance, whereas Tactical Ops is more like a gangly teen at a first kung fu lesson--enthusiastic but really clumsy.
The need for a more finely honed balance stands out not only when playing online, but also when playing offline with and against the AI bots. They tend to make beelines for vital map locations, resulting in instant bloodbaths at choke points. The bots are fairly competent where basic combat skills are concerned, but they can lose track of mission goals or just mill around. Offline play is mainly just useful for familiarizing yourself with the game, so don't buy Tactical Ops for the single-player game, or you'll be disappointed. The dream of a true single-player Counter-Strike-style game will have to wait.
Whatever the shortcomings of the AI, the graphics in Tactical Ops have gotten a welcome overhaul for this retail release, with new player skins, weapon models, and more. In terms of playability, the maps vary widely, but most of them certainly look attractive, demonstrating yet again how far ahead of its time the Unreal Tournament graphics engine was when it was first released. Many of the textures look particularly convincing, and the lighting on many maps is atmospheric, though often far too dark (a frequent vice among mapmakers, particularly on the amateur scene). The visuals certainly seem better than those of Counter-Strike, though visuals in their own right are only so important. For instance, the player skins look impressive, but it can be very hard to tell them apart at a glance, meaning players often end up shooting teammates.
Tactical Ops' audio comes off poorly when compared with the graphics. Most of the weapons sound tinny, underpowered, and downright unconvincing, and most of the voice-overs sound cartoony. On the other hand, the all-new music, which is sometimes pleasantly reminiscent of the Deus Ex soundtrack, helps set an intense tone for the game.
Whatever the merits of Tactical Ops' music or graphics, the game is as far from original as you can get and in need of much better balancing. Still, if you're searching for a Counter-Strike that's not Counter-Strike, Tactical Ops provides an acceptable alternative. It's certainly rough around the edges, but it at least offers something reminiscent of the exciting, straightforward team action that made Counter-Strike such a hit. Looked at as a free mod, Tactical Ops is an achievement its developers can be proud of--but taken as a retail game, it could have used more work.