In development since 1996, Koei's WinBack: Covert Operations has been around for quite some time. The game saw a long string of delays before it was released to mixed reviews on the Nintendo 64 back in 1999. Koei promoted WinBack as the Metal Gear Solid of the N64, but the gameplay was more reminiscent of Time Crisis, Capcom's duck-and-shoot light gun series. After disappointing sales of the N64 version, WinBack has returned for a second go--this time on the PlayStation 2.
WinBack follows the Department of Defense's secret SWAT team, SCAT, as it attempts to "win back" a powerful satellite weapon from a terrorist group called the Crying Lions. The Lions have already detonated the weapon once, and as the SCAT team is being flown in to infiltrate the installation, its helicopter is shot down. With the team scattered about the complex, you take up the role of the shy Jean-Luc Cougar. As he comes into contact with various SCAT team members--some alive and some dead--hidden agendas are exposed, betrayal occurs, and love interests are established. The story, WinBack's strongest trait, often changes depending upon Jean-Luc's performance. While it borrows heavily from the Metal Gear series, there are enough twists and turns in WinBack's plot to keep things interesting.
The control scheme used in WinBack is both innovative and frustrating. The majority of the controls are handled with the case-sensitive action button. The action button does a lot more than just flip switches and pick up objects. Pressing the action button while Jean-Luc is near a wall makes him place his back against it. Once he's locked on the wall, using the analog stick makes him slide from one side of the wall to the other. If you approach the edge of a wall, pressing and holding R1 makes him pop out around the corner and lock onto an enemy. Releasing R1 causes him to recoil into his stealthy back-against-the-wall position. In similar fashion, holding the L1 button makes him duck behind obstacles. You may run while crouched down, and while doing so, the action button will make him perform an evasive roll. Using these hide-and-shoot tactics is the key to progressing at WinBack, and for the first half of the game, it's quite cool. While the ideas behind it are admirable, it's just not executed tightly enough. The autolock is finicky, the manual aiming is worthless thanks to the lack of an aiming reticle, and Jean-Luc will often lose his lock on the wall for no apparent reason. Another gripe is that it's impossible to shoot while moving, so leaving cover is the equivalent to suicide. Watching Jean-Luc try haplessly to lock onto enemies while getting pelted with bullets and kicked in the head is a real gas.
The story mode is broken down into 31 levels, with checkpoints located in the middle of each one. The mundane objectives consist of finding and shooting laser-generating boxes, locating and flipping switches, and obtaining keys to open doors. In between, there's an exorbitant amount of duck-and-shoot gameplay when you use the game's limited arsenal, which is absent of all gadgetry. You get the basics: a pistol, shotgun, C4 explosive, machine gun, flamethrower, and rocket launcher. Ammunition is scarce, and if you don't save the ammo for your most powerful weapons, you'll get your tail kicked in the numerous boss fights. Jean-Luc's bottomless clip of a pistol quickly and reluctantly becomes the weapon of choice. The enemy AI is a complete joke, but if the enemies were to act intelligently and rush in, the unwieldy control scheme would make the game impossible. Members of the Crying Lions, who were supposedly intelligent enough to take control of a satellite weapon, will stand on the other side of a small crate and play hide-and-seek with you until you're dead. But that's not to say that you won't die. The enemies are deadeyes, and on the higher difficulty settings, succeeding at WinBack boils down to enemy placement memorization and health management.
WinBack's four-player multiplayer mode has enjoyed quite a few additions since it appeared on the Nintendo 64. Winback now includes six different multiplayer modes, as well as a 20-stage one-player challenge mode. In addition to the usual deathmatch and tag modes, there's a team battle mode that plays similarly to a tournament fighter and a point match mode in which you're awarded points based upon the number of shots landed. An interesting mode called cube hunt asks you to collect cubes of your designated color while stopping the other players from doing the same. The frustrating quick-draw mode asks you to shoot seven cubes without the help of the lock-on feature. There are 28 different characters to choose from, and they're gradually unlocked as you make progress in the other game modes. You may even play as the story mode's bosses and gain access to their unique weapons. If you don't have friends to play with, WinBack's bot mode for up to two players will fill each of the 14 playable maps with computer-controlled opponents. With all these gameplay options, you would think that the multiplayer mode would hold some serious replay value. But WinBack's hide-and-shoot gameplay doesn't translate into an exciting game of deathmatch. Due to the game's forgiving autolock feature and your inability to shoot on the run, you end up standing toe-to-toe, taking turns emptying clips into one another. Needless to say, this gets old rather quickly. Making matters worse, the controls are so unintuitive that friends stopping over for a quick play session will be looking through your game collection after just a few goes.
WinBack wasn't the best-looking Nintendo 64 game, and it isn't the most gorgeous PlayStation 2 game, either. The character models have been beefed up significantly and now feature soft skinning and fully animated faces. These impressive models are shown off constantly in well more than an hour's worth of real-time cinemas included in the game. The direction for the cinema scenes is solid, with dramatic camera angles that show off the action from unique perspectives. The textures, while now in high resolution, are the same simplistic polygon wraps used in the N64 version. The same brown crates are scattered throughout the entire game, and the few areas that are included look like they're constructed of painted cardboard boxes. Enemies come in a wide variety, but the same can't be said about their animations. They do little more than raise their guns and shoot or erratically fly back when hit. One positive outcome of the modest graphics is a flowing frame rate that never stammers. WinBack looks like a port. Its lack of graphical detail gives it away. Koei has let far too many visual elements from the Nintendo 64 version of WinBack become a part of the PlayStation 2 iteration, resulting in graphics that fail to impress.
Koei went back and remixed the tracks from the original version of WinBack with varying success. Some of the offbeat drum 'n' bass tracks from before have been cleaned up significantly, and the bass sounds more rich. As Jean-Luc inches toward death, the intensity of the music climbs steadily. Sound effects, like bullet casings hitting the ground, have been added, but the same three enemy taunts repeat continuously. The voice acting for the cinemas is a bit overzealous, but the lip-synching is nearly perfect.
Anyone who has played WinBack on the Nintendo 64 has little reason to check out this graphically upgraded edition. For those who are new to WinBack, it will be a nice, stealthy diversion until Metal Gear Solid 2 is released later this year. Once mastered, the inventive gameplay mechanics have a way of becoming addictive, and the no-frills graphics get the job done. The mundane multiplayer modes won't add a great deal of replay value, but with 31 missions in the story mode and a 20-mission challenge mode, there is plenty of gameplay to sink your teeth into. While not in the same class as the Metal Gear Solid series, WinBack still manages to carve out a niche of its own.