|System: X360||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Success||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Atlus||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: June 24, 2008||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1-4 (Online)||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Mature||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Jason Lauritzen
Sometimes you go for broke; sometimes you head so far in an absurd direction that - instead of the sheer randomness of your ideas scaring others away - they end up being your saving grace. From obscure developer Success, Operation Darkness takes a niche genre - the tactical RPG - and not only proceeds to stand it on its head, it then spins that head around a few times.
The game is set during World War II but with an alternate history twist. Playing off Hitler's fascination with the occult, it pits a special unit against an army of Nazis - undead Nazis. Yep, the game has werewolves, zombies, and even vampires. The World War II market may be overcrowded, but Operation Darkness has definitely carved out its own home. Seriously, can you name one other game where a werewolf can lob a grenade at a vampire SS officer?
Sure, this plot may be off-the-wall, but it comes off as so silly it's actually fun to see it unfold. Paired with some solid RPG mechanics, the game has a lot going for it. Plus, the number of tactical RPG games is few-and-far-between. Aside from the portable offerings of the Final Fantasy Tactics and Advance Wars series, there really isn't much out there in the strategy gaming landscape. When you throw in the fact that Operation Darkness is on the 360, the game has a very small potential audience. That's why it's so disappointing to see it falter in such major ways. The game may have an original story and great tactical gameplay, but it's all marred by a horrid camera system, last-gen-like graphics, and a steep learning curve.
Beginnings can be deceptive and this is the case for Operation Darkness. As a series of black-and-white news footage plays, a narrator gives you a very generic overview of World War II - nothing beyond the familiar Axis vs. Allies material most with a public education already know. Thrown into his first battle with a British unit, the main character (Edward) is wounded in battle and taken to a military hospital. He learns that his gunshot wound healed in just a couple of days. Not only are the doctors amazed with his recovery, so is a special unit known as K Company, the Wolf Pack. Edward is asked to join them and in the missions that follow he learns the unit is made up of people with supernatural abilities (that range anywhere from werewolf transformation to spells). The group has one simple objective: stop Hitler's group of occult super-Nazis made up of legions of the undead.
Since Operation Darkness is a strategy-RPG, it utilizes a grid-based system for battles. Each character has a certain number of spaces they can move per turn. Attacks are based on hit chance and potential power - the closer you are to the enemy the better chance of getting a direct hit and dealing maximum damage. However, you have to be careful for line of sight. If there is any object between you and the enemy - whether it be a tree, car, or building - then an attack can't be carried out. Besides the generic attack command, anyone on your team can use cover tactics. The two that help the most are Cover Attack and Cover Ambush. The former attacks any enemy who steps within a set perimeter - allowing you to attack from a longer range. The latter follows a similar rule set, but allows you to attack more frequently (at a damage discount). These cover tactics allow you to attack more than once per turn, provided enemies step within your set perimeter.
It's too bad the game doesn't go to sufficient lengths to explain the basic battle tactics. Instead of including an in-depth tutorial, developer Success opted for a strange approach. The first time you select a command, you're given a very brief overview of what it does and then you can never call it up again. Didn't completely understand cover attack? Too bad - the game isn't going to hold your hand. Also, it will violate its own rules. For example, line of sight is needed for nearly every attack, so the computer is quite picky about the targets you choose. If you position yourself on a hill and there's a direct line to the enemy, sometimes the computer will claim there's a zero percent chance of a hit and won't allow you to fire. While you're being penalized, the computer will violate its own rules for a distinct advantage. On one particular mission, Nazi troopers kept firing through an embankment to hit the Wolf Pack. In a strategy game, rules of engagement are important, so that kind of blatant violation sticks out.
The omission of a tutorial and sometimes inconsistent rule set is problematic, but those two areas pale in comparison to the game's spastic camera. Most strategy games utilize a top-down view, so you can get a read on the entire field of battle. Operation Darkness has a 3D camera you can swing around, but it never seems to find a comfortable medium. You're either too close to the action or stuck in a top-down view that doesn't let you see everything. You can fiddle around, but then the camera gets stuck in the side of buildings or glitches through enemy units. There is one way to get around these issues - the game allows you to use the left and right triggers to select potential targets. It's a nice feature, but correcting the camera would have been a much better solution.
Operation Darkness takes a trial-by-fire approach to the first section of the game. Before you get to the supernatural bits, the battles you fight have a very strict condition: no one in your party can die. Sure, they're all story characters so this makes sense, but since there's eight of them it makes the early battles a tense affair. You can recruit other characters to your unit, but they all start at level one and tend to die off before you can level them. To curb the beginning difficulty, the game allows you to carry over kill points (essentially cash) you earn from each battle (even if you die). You can use kill points in the supply depot to buy new weapons and items, but for some reason you can only buy one of each item at a time. This leaves you to continually hit the A button to buy the same item over and over. Since you'll visit the supply depot a lot, it becomes a tedious process.