Reviewed: February 8, 2004
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Released: December 8, 2003
Mission: Impossible Operation Surma is the latest techno, spy-thriller to hit next-gen consoles. Following in the footsteps of stars like Sam Fisher, James Bond, and Solid Snake, Ethan Hunt has his own legacy, both in theaters and electronic games, but can this super-spy stealth his way into a place in gaming history?
Operation Surma presents a surprisingly topical backdrop for the missions you will be undertaking. The nefarious international conglomerate, SURMA, possesses a deadly worm (computer virus) that can hack into the most secure systems all over the world and steal their data. When they find their way into IMF’s systems and compromise their top-secret data, it’s up to Ethan and his team to save the day.
My first major concern with Operation Surma is that Mission Impossible (both the series and the movies) has always been about teamwork. In this game you are pretty much running the show as Ethan. While you are in contact with various members of your team via radio and they will offer you indirect support, you only get to actively play as Ethan.
With this limitation in place, Operation Surma is quickly reduced to a Splinter Cell knockoff with a few twists. Not that this is a bad thing – you could find far worse games to emulate than Splinter Cell. So, in keeping with the fine traditions set forth my Sam Fisher you slink around levels and use a variety of cool gadgets and weapons to take down guards, solve various puzzles, and make your way through numerous levels to locate and secure the Ice Worm and put the hackers behind bars.
There are more gadgets in this game than the last three Bond flicks. My favorite, or at least the most useful is the high-tech binoculars that allow you to zoom in on distant targets, eavesdrop on conversations, and even snap a picture and email it to Luther, who is usually in constant radio contact. Once interesting element is that you can take pictures of certain people and Luther can have one of those famous latex masks made so you can impersonate key players in the story.
Your multipurpose EWG (electronic warfare gun) is great for knocking out camera systems, tagging individuals with tracking darts so they show up on your radar map, or distracting guards with noisy beeps, all in one handy microchip. Other gadgets like the Micro-cord allows you to fire a grapnel and climb up or down, and the Electronic Lock Pick (ELP) is an invaluable tool for getting past locked doors. When the ELP fails you can try the Laser Cutter. Before going through any door you can scan who or what is on the other side using the Sonic Imager that actually sees through walls and doors.
Ethan has some nifty combat moves including a 3-hit combo, a running jump kick, and a variety of stealth kills from behind, above, and even around corners. It’s nothing we haven’t seen Sam Fisher or Wolverine do in other games, but it rounds out a nicely crafted stealth and non-weapons combat package. When it does come time to sling some lead Ethan has his normal pistol, a sniper pistol, tranq gun, and the FAAR-7 automatic rifle.
With all of these excellent components in place it’s hard to imagine this game could be anything less than spectacular, but somehow Paradigm managed to spoil the mix by simply making the game too obvious. Note I didn’t say easy, but obvious. Operation Surma is often challenging, but never for the right reasons. More often your challenge comes from poor camera control, twitchy AI, or repetitive try and repeat encounters with the enemy.
As you make your way through level after level you are required to sneak past dozens of guards and just as many surveillance cameras. You can hide in shadows and wait for guards to pass by or you can take them out and hide the bodies. Just don’t do anything where another guard or camera can see. Vision cones clearly indicate where guards and cameras are looking at any given time. If an alarm does happen to sound chances are there is a switch 3-5 seconds away that will turn it off, instantly putting any alerted guards back into a state of total pre-alert oblivion.
Regardless of the encounter or the puzzle I was never required to “think” in this game. If there were three guards on patrol the shadowy nook where I was supposed to hide was in plain sight. If I was supposed to climb up a wall the “node” where I was supposed to fire my Micro-cord was lit up like a Christmas tree. Need to climb over a pit; chances are there is a pipe or cable nearby with a sign and arrow saying, “Use Me” – well, maybe not that obvious.
What ultimately happens is that the game becomes one long linear sequence of puzzles that are never really that challenging. You’ll move along until its time to hide then you’ll hide. You’ll climb or shimmy when you have to and snap pictures when you are told. You’ll pick a lock and if you fail you’ll laser cut it. Operation Surma quickly become an exercise in procedure, almost like a tutorial or ten-hour training mission. Gadgets are even automatically selected when you approach the “node” where you need to use them, eliminating any guesswork on what to use.
Even though much of the game seems to be on autopilot the missions and the levels are quite ingenious and offer some exciting locales and mission types. Since you aren’t really required to think about gameplay you can immerse yourself in the story and the environments.
I’ve already mentioned the problematic camera that resulted in my premature demise on several occasions. You are constantly forced to tweak the camera and sometimes you can never get the angle you need for the desired action. It gets worse when you are trying to move both Ethan and the camera at the same time. Once you come to terms with the camera system you can settle back and enjoy some otherwise pleasing visuals.
Operation Surma has some great lighting and shadows that are actually part of the gameplay. You will need to seek out these dark areas and hide, or perhaps hide incapacitated guards. Most of the game is dark so anything that generates light is in high contrast to the environments. Colored lighting is especially nice and there are some great visual effects when you use your night-vision or sonic imager. There are also nice blur effects, particle effects, smoke, fire, and lens flares. The PS2 version is only a slight step down in overall quality from the Xbox.
Character design and animation are nice enough. It doesn’t approach the fluidity of the hand-drawn animation of Sam Fisher but everyone moves and interacts with each other and the environment in a believable fashion. There is particular attention to detail on the character textures, especially on Ethan who is often outfitted in a stealth suit and loaded down with weapons and gadgets.
Apparently Tom Cruise isn’t as willing a Pierce Brosnan to have his likeness mapped onto a video game character, so I’m not surprised to find a voice stand-in for the lead role. Not to worry, Steve Blum pulls off the part with confidence and flair and manages to maintain the lead-role status even in the shadow of Ving Rhames who graciously lends his voice to Luther. All of the voices from IMF agents and SURMA villains to the random pair of guards engaged in idle chatter all sound great.
Sound effects are excellent. Weapons and gadgets all have realistic sounds and there are subtle touches like radio static and that displaced effect when you are eavesdropping with your binoculars. The soundtrack is your typical techno spy tracks with plenty of ambient music to create some tension and a bit of the original show’s theme cleverly mixed in. There are no licensed tracks capitalizing on huge mega-groups like the movies used for their tie-ins, so unless you want to hum a few bars from “I Disappear” there will be no Metallica for you.
Operation Surma is about an 8-10 hour ride. I say “ride” because it often feels like you are in the passenger seat while Paradigm guides you through a virtual stealth tour. With Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow and 007: Everything or Nothing on the horizon, Mission Impossible might be a good training exercise, but it is hardly competition.
There is no multiplayer, not that I would know how they could implement it, and there are no branching plots or multiple endings, so once you have saved the world you aren’t likely to save it again anytime soon. Operation Surma is a fine weekend rental but only worthy of a budget purchase.
If you found Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Substance too hard then Mission Impossible: Operation Surma is likely going to be the game for you. You have all the wonderful toys from the genre along with some impressive combat abilities, a great story, excellent (albeit linear) levels and creative mission objectives that keep you interested. There are plenty of great moments, but unfortunately they don’t add up to a great game.
If you’re like me and this is just another stealth-action title in your growing collection then you’ll find the lack of any real challenge a bit disturbing. The gameplay and puzzles are spoon-fed to you in easily swallowed bites, but much like Chinese food, when it’s over you will be full but not terribly satisfied.