Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops Review (PC)

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops, as well as having a name taken straight from the Tom Clancy Title Generator (seriously, why have a damn subtitle?), is a third-person action/stealth game. There are two playable characters, Alvarez and Myra, who you can switch between from Chapter 4 onwards. Alvarez plays like a third-person cover-shooter, and Myra as a Splinter Cell-style stealth game.

The general idea is that you can swap between these characters and play each situation how you want to play it. In practice though you’ll quickly find that one of the characters is often utterly unsuited to certain situations, but it’s more annoying that Alvarez can’t use stealth at all, even when he’s crouched and being quiet as a dead mouse enemies still instinctively know where he is.

Shadow Harvest at its most realistic

Black Lion’s main problem is that they don’t seem to understand the difference between a fun challenge and a frustrating one. A fun challenge tests our skills but we will always acknowledge that those tests are fair, and if we lose it’s because we made a mistake. A frustrating challenge is having your health shaved off bit by bit by enemies who are a far better shot than you are, with an absence of medkits, dying and then starting stupidly far back because the checkpoint system is atrocious.

One early level features a difficult on-rails vehicle section, which is made a lot tougher by the Bloom and HDR Lighting making you unable to see what you’re shooting at through your gun muzzle flashing. After dying (as your vehicle’s health doesn’t regenerate and can’t be replenished), where do you think the checkpoint was?

Halfway through the fifteen-minute long section, before you fight the helicopter? At the start of the section? Before the cutscene or the long and painfully dull in-game conversation before this? Or before the several enemies you face right at the beginning of the level? It’s the last one. There isn’t a single checkpoint in the entire chapter.

Some may argue positively that no checkpoints is a very old-school thing to do, like Super Meat Boy. Well, SMB saves after its cutscenes, doesn’t have boring in-game unskippable conversations, and doesn’t drag its levels on for too long. Furthermore, Shadow Harvest does have checkpoints, it’s just pathetic at placing them correctly.

Playing as Alvarez and his action style is the most average cover shooter I’ve ever played. It only manages to be difficult through factors such as a dearth of medkits (no regenerating health for this old-school shooter, but even older shooters had plenty of medkits around) and enemies having much better aiming than Alvarez does. The AI is terrible, and yet every single enemy instinctively knows where you are and will shoot accurately the second you’re in sight.

To make matters worse, Shadow Harvest features a cover system that doesn’t keep you covered. Enemy soldiers can hit you almost as easily behind a wall as standing out in the open, with the added frustration that it takes two buttons to aim from cover (three to actually shoot). Alvarez has to slowly edge round the wall, then while holding that movement key you have to press Right Mouse Button to aim. By the time you’ve taken down one single enemy from cover you’ve probably lost 50% health or more, and with only 2-3 medkits over the entire level that’s a serious (and not at all fun) problem.

Myra’s the stealth operative and is by far the more enjoyable of the two, mostly because you have a chance to avoid enemies or stab them in the neck with your Wolverine claws. Soldiers don’t instantly know where you are the second you enter a room. While that’s good, being able to watch enemy soldiers shows off the terrible AI a lot more clearly. While sneaking up on a guy I ploughed through a stack of boxes by accident and he didn’t even break his stride.

Stab ‘im! Stab ‘im! Stab ‘im! Stab ‘im!

It’s still relatively entertaining, but it’s still not a particularly good stealth game. That’s the biggest problem Shadow Harvest has (apart from the atrocious checkpointing) really. While it’s nice that there are two different games here, both of them are utterly mediocre.

Furthermore, by putting a big divide line between the two styles and saying “no, you cannot do stealth when you’re playing as the shooter guy” you might as well play two better games instead of one average one. I don’t see why Black Lion couldn’t have combined the two characters like Alpha Protocol did instead of having to switch between them clumsily.

Obsidian’s game was also massively flawed, but at least the dialogue in that game was good. Shadow Harvest’s story is poorly written and poorly acted. Alvarez and Myra start out working for two different outfits, but end up working together after randomly meeting and escaping. Want to know the reason the organization Myra works for gives for pairing them together? “Destiny”. Uh, yes, very professional reasoning there. The story doesn’t get any better and the actors sounded like they didn’t care, so I didn’t either.

Graphically the game looks acceptable in screenshots, then you see it moving and realise that it’s all gold and black. I was hoping the Mogadishu setting was just part of the opening chapters and that after a scene on the Phantom Ops command ship we’d get a new place to visit. Nope, straight back to the two-colour (if you count black as a colour) Somalia. For the entire game. Ever hear of variety, Black Lion?

Maybe that’s not fair. There is a fair bit of variety here, not just the two completely different play-styles but also vehicle sections and setpieces. There’s even some Mech combat thrown in. It’s just the game’s problems continue to rack up against it.

Want a quick list? Loading times are terrible. The game doesn’t save your weapons between missions that take place immediately after one another. Myra can’t pick up dead bodies. Tutorials stretch out for whole chapters. Three guys can hide behind one barrel. I haven’t seen comedy ragdoll bodies for a while. The checkpoint system is terrible. Oops, I’ve said that one. Never mind, happy to restate it.

The Bloom and Lighting effects are so extreme you can’t see anything half the time you fire

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops is an idea that had a lot of potential, but two average games stapled awkwardly together does not a good game make. Furthermore, not saving at sensible moments (like after cutscenes or before battles) and not giving out enough medkits does not a challenging game make either.

Someone who hasn’t played many third-person shooter or stealth games in the last 15 years will probably find things to like about Shadow Harvest, and the two styles do in essence make two games in one so that’s arguably value for money. For anyone else though the multitude of flaws and the absence of even an interesting story will put them off fast. It’s not a terrible game, but it is a deeply average one.

Top Game Moment: Sneaking around as Myra snapping or Wolverine-claw stabbing the necks of soldiers. Lovely.

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