Reviewed: January 26, 2004
Released: October 28, 2003
Just the other day I heard somebody say, “There are no original ideas left in the world, only variations of what has already been done.” This was on a DVD commentary and the speaker was talking about movies, but thinking about it, the same can be said for games. When was the last truly original game released and what happens when there are no more fresh ideas?
For the boys at Bits Studios they decided to do a little genetic engineering at the binary level. I can see the designers and programmers now, using their electron microscopes to deconstruct elements from games like Tomb Raider, Splinter Cell, and even a bit of Metal Gear Solid then reassemble them into their latest techno-thriller, Rogue Ops.
Just as the game is a hybrid of the games that have come before it so is the vivacious vixen Nikki Connors, mixing the stealth, gadgets, and combat of Sam Fisher and Solid Snake with the catlike reflexes and bodacious physical attributes of Lara Croft. And what better character to take into an underground world of terrorist organizations and black ops missions.
Rogue Ops, a third-person action adventure title, unfolds with the hair-raising life story of ex-Green Beret, Nikki Connors, and the ghastly murders of both her husband and daughter. Vowing to avenge her family’s death, Nikki sets out on a personal mission to bring down the members of Omega 19, the terrorist organization she believes is responsible. As Nikki begins her quest for vengeance, Project Phoenix, the most covert anti-terrorist organization on the planet, recruits Ms. Connors as their newest team member. With her new Phoenix associates alongside, it is now time for Nikki to use whatever means necessary to infiltrate and destroy the enemy forces that killed her family.
With a host of engaging missions and locations ranging from Uzbekistan to Budapest, Rogue Ops’ compelling storyline unfolds across eight chapters each with distinctive obstacles, characters and environments. In order to work her way through each of these perilous missions, Nikki must utilize innovative stealth combat capabilities, as well as a slew of weapons and special tools that are available to her.
While there is nothing entirely original about the gameplay in Rogue Ops I have to admit I really liked this game. Sure, it mimics a dozen other games I’ve already played, but at least it mimics a dozen “good” games. In fact, I felt so “at home” behind the controls that I only had to consult the manual briefly regarding voice commands (more on that in a moment).
This is traditional third-person action with some fluid controls that move Nikki with the left stick and the camera with the right. You can run, sneak, crawl, climb, shimmy, and jump and you can bet the designers have given you plenty of situations to do all of these moves countless times. Stealth is handled quite nicely with the ability to hide in shadows, sneak up on unsuspecting guards and “retire” them, or just pick their pocket if you are feeling particularly nice that day.
Stealth activity is where Rogue Ops truly shines. The AI is designed to notice things like dead bodies lying around so you need to clean up after yourself, stay in shadows, and move silently. The most satisfying sequences are the stealth kills where you sneak up on a guard and are given a sequence of moves that you must mirror with the control stick, much like a fighting game combo. Get the sequence done right and you will execute the guard with a very slick scripted fatality move – miss a move or blow the timing and the guard will reverse the attack back on you.
When stealth fails you it’s time to break into that arsenal of high-tech hardware you’re packing including a nice selection of weapons and intriguing spy gadgets that would make Bond envious. These are all easily accessed through some very intuitive controls. To assist you in playing the game there are action icons that pop-up when Nikki approaches an item or piece of architecture she can interact with. These are very easy to understand and all you have to do is press the action button to perform the desired move. It might be argued that this takes some of the guesswork out of the game, but for me it just made things flow much more smoothly so I could enjoy the gameplay without hassling the details.
Nikki gets some cool toys to play with. V.I.S.E.R. is the fancy name for her multi-purpose shades that allow her to see body heat, electronic signatures, and even right through walls. This and other devices like the retinal scanner and the thermal camouflage all require battery power, which is limited. You will find power-ups scattered about the levels but you still need to monitor your power consumption and make sure you have juice when you really need it. The Fly Cam is probably my favorite recon toy. This tiny camera can fly into unreachable locations and survey the level ahead.
There are nearly a dozen weapons Nikki can use such as the ATAC 9mm pistol, Gibson Crossbow, 26 Watt Stun Gun, M7 Sniper Rifle, and assorted throwing weapons like Shurikens and a variety of grenades. The D-pad is cleverly used to allow you to select weapons with the up and down and gadgets with the left and right, but even more ingenious is the support for the headset communicator, or any Xbox compatible headset. With this device attached you can push the white button and speak one of many single-word commands to pick and equip a weapon or gadget of your choosing. It might not be any faster or more efficient than using the D-pad but it’s definitely cooler.
The missions are quite long and feature multiple objectives. You will have to avoid or eliminate many guards and think your way through some challenging environmental puzzles that rely on nimble ability and more often one or more of your fancy gadgets. The game is nice about auto-saving your progress throughout the mission, so if you do die you won’t have to replay too much.
Like most female video game characters, Nikki is better looking in her rendered form outside the game. Naturally her sexy image is plastered all over the box art, the website, her own calendar, and even this review. Her skintight jumpsuit and pulled-back blond hair will have you reliving your favorite Seven-of-Nine fantasies as she slinks through the game putting the smack down on the enemy.
Animation is a bit rough. Each of the individual segments like creeping, climbing, running, etc. are all done quite nicely but they don’t seem to blend together that well. This is more than likely a side effect of the icon system where once you click on an action Nikki just jumps into that move. For a hot chick in a skintight jumpsuit I was hoping for some slick moves along the lines of Sam Fisher or Prince of Persia.
The levels are varied and have a unique artistic flavor to them. While most of these games try to keep things on the gritty end of the spectrum, Rogue Ops uses rich and vibrant colors to create an almost cartoon-like feel. It works as a whole but you’ll never forget you are playing a game. The use of bright colors allows the designers to be quite creative with their special effects, especially the gadget effects like the various vision modes and sniper zooms.
Lighting is important and so are shadows for hiding both yourself and the bodies of anybody you have put down. Many levels are overly dark, so lasers and other light sources can be used to show off the cool colored lighting effects. The interface is quite pleasing, informative without being invasive, and the mini-map is a wonderful addition.
While I enjoyed the movies and cutscenes within the game I was puzzled and even annoyed that they were highly compressed and just didn’t look as nice as they could or should have on the Xbox. This is one of those rare games where the gameplay visuals actually exceed the movies.
The in-game music is your standard military issue soundtrack designed to enhance the stealth missions and put a tingle in your spine. The sound effects are all rock solid from some loud and reasonably authentic weapons fire to some high-tech sound effects for the various gadgets. The Dolby Digital mix does a pleasing job of surrounding you in the experience.
My only complaint with the audio portion is the terrible voice acting. I can blame some of this on the sophomoric script but most of the blame has to go to the actors who just sound like they are reading their lines from the pages. There is very little inflection and when any emotion does make its way into the reading it’s way over the top.
There are eight rather large missions that can take anywhere from 12-15 hours to complete. With no branching plot lines or unique endings the only reason to revisit the game would be to try it on a harder skill setting.
I can wholeheartedly recommend Rogue Ops as a rental, but you might want to wait for the price to drop before investing in a permanent addition to your Xbox library. Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid II: Substance are far more substantial games and give you the same thrills as Rogue Ops.
Rogue Ops offers one of the best stealth gameplay elements seen in an action title to date. I really got into that little combo move, cackling with glee when I snapped a neck or cursing when I flubbed the move and got taken down. I also enjoyed the icon-driven environments that made moving and interacting with objects very easy, and some will argue, too easy.
At the end of the day I had fun, and that’s why we all play games. Rogue Ops didn’t set out to reinvent the stealth-action genre or even replace any existing titles. It simply builds upon what’s already out there and ultimately gives us a new perspective on a tried and true genre. I highly recommend playing it, but the decision to buy or rent is up to you.