A futuristic first-person shooter starring a top Delta Force operative, Shadow Ops: Red Mercury has players on a sensitive mission to find a nuclear accelerant called Red Mercury. In the wrong hands, the substance could be used to build portable nuclear weapons stashed away in innocuous places. Players must avoid this at all costs, which means traveling to Middle Eastern cities, Russian military bases, the Philippines, Bosnia, and Western Europe in an effort to track and then immobilize the deadly chemical agent.
Shadow Ops spans an estimated 20 single-player missions set indoors and outdoors, where players can fight alongside special forces hailing from the United States, Russia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Missions range from hostage rescues to demolition attempts to guarding important people or items. The real-world locales were photographed and digitally re-created using Epic Games' Unreal technology, and characters possess facial animation and motion-captured movement recorded by actual Special Forces teams.
Players can also challenge friends to a variety of multiplayer games apart from the single-player campaign. Up to 16 players can compete on Xbox Live with optional voice support, or up to four can lock-and-load via split screen on a single system. Supported multiplayer modes include Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Plant the Bomb, Capture the Flag, and Escort. Players will arm themselves with over 20 authentic weapons used by the military and Special Forces. Sound effects were created by Soundelux, a Hollywood effects studio whose previous credits include Charlie's Angels 2 and Black Hawk Down.
Shadow Ops: Red Mercury was released on the Xbox earlier this year, and the PC port keeps things largely the same with the notable exception of a whole multiplayer component. The single-player game breaks out of the World War II/Vietnam rut and hops into a theater of war much more in line with current events: the war against nasty terrorists with weapons of mass destruction the size of a briefcase.
You play Frank Hayden, a one-man army in search of a stolen super nuke called Red Mercury. Your quest takes you all across the globe, from the Middle East to the former Soviet Union to Paris. Well, okay, not exactly "all across the globe," but you get around to a number of real-world places. The opening level of the game ends in disaster, with the titular nuke going off and resulting in the destruction you expect and demand. A good part of the game then unfolds as a flashback, bringing you back to the first level (which is now totally different for some reason) before racing to the climax. There are many explosions.
The story is, in fact, the game's strong point -- possibly its only strong point. The cutscenes contain some pretty good voice acting and scripting, and the developers did some neat tricks with split-screen cameras where you get to see the action from multiple angels while it unfolds. Coupled with the "shakey cam" style they're shot in, it amounts to a nice, appropriately chaotic feeling. The story itself is fairly interesting, but really doesn't amount to anything more than a generic techno-thriller replete with tired clichés and plot holes. Still, it's better than what you get in most first-person shooters.
And this is indeed a first-person shooter to the core. As such, it equips you with a few realistic weapons and has you run around shooting the bad guys and solving mission objectives in the form of blowing stuff up or reaching checkpoints. You don't get to swap out any of your weapons during the game, so you're stuck with what you're given at the beginning of each level. Not that it really matters, since most of the weapons feel and work exactly the same, with the exceptions of the sniper rifle and the rocket-propelled grenade. Everything has a scope, so it's just a matter of pointing and clicking and reloading.
The inflexible game design theme extends to the levels themselves, which play out like monorail rides where there's only one way to progress no matter how much it conflicts with the game's obvious pretenses towards realism. It's march from Point A to Point B to Point C, in that order. You're aided by computer-controlled teammates, but they're of little usefulness, as they can't hit the broad side of a former Soviet block country. Fortunately, they're also completely indestructible, but that again erodes any realism you might want to get out of the game. I watched one of my squadmates and a terrorist thug stand inches apart firing at each other for what seemed like a week and a half before I wanted to just plug both of them.
The main complaint I have about Shadow Ops: Red Mercury is that it's really hard. It goes beyond challenging (which is good), but on to infuriatingly frustrating (which is not so good). There's no saving anywhere in a mission (not even save points), and worse, enemies have almost perfect aim and often ambush you out of nowhere. On higher difficulty settings, you die even faster and ammunition becomes incredibly scarce. But even on easier difficulty settings, I was constantly reloading and forced to replay an entire level from the beginning, which got really old really quickly. The game just isn't fun enough to warrant this kind of forced replay.
The multiplayer game isn't a whole lot better. It feels tacked on, with a deathmatch, team deathmatch, CTF, and a fourth game where you escort a vulnerable VIP to safety. It's nothing we haven't seen done way better many times before. Worse, the in-game server browser is barebones, and sometimes it didn't work at all for no discernable reason. Finally, Atari apparently didn't deign to set up any servers for the game, which, along with its lackluster popularity, means that I was incredibly hard-pressed to find a server to play on. If you're downloading this game for the multiplayer, think again unless you've got a pack of friends willing to play with you on a LAN or private server. You don't have a group of friends interested in playing Red Mercury, do you? No, I didn't think so.
Shadow Ops: Red Mercury is just a first-person shooter with all the markings of mediocrity. It's got linear levels, an unimpressive arsenal, and simplistic shooter gameplay for both the single-player and multiplayer games. On top of that, it's got no in-game saves and a rather harsh difficulty level. The cutscenes and story are decent, but it's not enough to outweigh the faults.
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