Reviewed by Mark Hasley
I’ve long felt that World War II is, or at least should be, a rather fertile arena for adventure games. It just seems obvious that since World War II provides a collection of clearly evil villains, obvious good guys, plenty of opportunities for heroism and skullduggery, and the inevitable development and utilization of secret weapons, while allowing the entire planet to be logically used as a gaming area, that history’s biggest war is a gamer’s dream. So needless to say, when Undercover: Operation Wintersun was announced and released, I was a happy gamer. Having purchased and played the game, I’m still a fairly happy gamer, but I do grow weary of reviewing games where the theme of the review seems to be "...what might have been".
Undercover: Operation Wintersun has an unsurprising but completely acceptable plot. The player takes the role of Dr. John Russell. He is a brilliant but unbelievably dull scientist who has been cajoled into helping the British Secret Service MI6. It seems that Hitler’s Third Reich is in the process of developing a type of devastatingly powerful weapon known as a 'nuclear bomb'. This device could bring the war to an end with Germany as the victor. Since this is completely unacceptable to the British Crown, Dr. Russell accepts the job of discovering whether or not such a bomb actually exists and, if so, trying to do something about it. Russell is placed in the 'able' hands of a master spy named Peter Graham, is introduced to a proverbial Mata Hari-type female spy named Anne Tyler, and then, as Holmes once propounded, "...the game's afoot". The only real plot difficulty is that neither of these two supposed experts seem to know very much about spying (or anything else). This fact leaves poor Dr. Russell to figure out pretty much everything for and by himself. At any rate, these three are told the basic facts and instructed to go to Berlin. After Berlin, the characters traipse through a few other areas in Europe while following various clues about the German scientists and their quest to make a super-bomb. Eventually Dr. Russell, his cohorts, and of course the player all wind up in Leningrad, where the final elements of the game are completed. The game is entirely linear and the gamer is never allowed to get too far ahead, behind, or lost. As I said, the plot is not particularly surprising or unique, but is absolutely acceptable.
The interface is the old, reliable, and (for me) much loved ‘point and click’ process. It’s a third person game wherein the gamer uses a left-click to move around and a right-click to actually interact with people or things. The cursor changes whenever something can be used or picked up. It also changes when someone can be spoken to. Conversation tags appear at the top of the screen and are quite easy to use. When it’s time to move from one scene to another, a double right click moves the game from scene to scene with no difficulty. The inventory is easily accessible with a simple sliding motion at the bottom of the screen. The Game Menu, with the usual Load, Save, New Game, Video and Audio Options, etc, is equally easy to utilize and is located at the top of the screen. Subtitles, the savior of those of us who are slowly going deaf, are also readily available.
There was one additional setting that I found quite helpful. In the Video Options Menu there was a spot to check and use something called 'Novice Mode'. It allowed me to hit the backspace button on my keyboard and all the possible active spots on the screen were lit up. This eliminated a lot of 'pixel hunting'. (Oddly, two friends and I were discussing this game and we all liked the feature, but we all had to use a different button to activate it. I can not imagine why this occurred.) There is also a spot in Video Options where the player can check to set the whole game in 'Sepia Tone'. Why anyone would want to play a W.W.II game in all brown colors is beyond me, but it can be done. The reader of this review should note as well that my Windows XP is about six years old now and I have been having some problems with the newer games. But Operation Wintersun ran flawlessly throughout. I had no halts or seizures, and that, as Martha says, is a good thing.
Most of the ‘stuff ’ that makes up the game, and tends to either impress or not impress me, is generally well done in this game. There are plenty of reasonable sound effects and ambient noises. The conversations are clearly presented and easy to follow. I didn’t notice much in the way of background music, but, in honesty, I seldom do anymore.
The graphics in an adventure are most important, and at times the visual impressions of this game are exquisite. The backgrounds are generally 2-D artwork, but usually, especially in the early parts of the game, the detail is very impressive and the impact of the pictures is extremely effective. However, as the player proceeds further into the game, there are some scenes where it appears that not much detail was added. There is sometimes a sense of blandness to the backgrounds. It sometimes feels as if the pictures weren’t quite completed. But I should make it clear that the backgrounds are never bad. It’s simply that sometimes they’re not very good.
As far as the characters themselves, they are acceptable. They are very well rendered 3-D characters functioning in a two dimensional world. They look fine and are visually impressive, but there is again an overall feeling of blandness. One of the problems is actually a plot problem. The supposedly 'expert' assistants who are assigned to Dr. Russell are the most inept aides to ever appear on any screen anywhere. If Dr. Watson had been as helpful to Sherlock Holmes as Graham is to Russell, then Holmes would have become a plumber. Russell is constantly called on to dream up some off-the-wall puzzle answer because neither Graham nor Anne Tyler has any idea what they are doing. Not only do these people seem ineffective, but also the voice acting of all the characters scales the absolute heights of mere adequacy. Anne constantly speaks in a floozy-grumpy voice, Graham is sarcastic and condescending (for no apparent reason), and Russell is simply boring. Again, they all speak clearly and are totally understandable. They're just dull.
If I may be a bit picky here, there is also a real problem with Anne’s clothing. In all the scenes after the introduction, she slinks or struts around in a pair of slacks so tight that they couldn’t have been painted on, they had to be shrink-wrapped. The developers of this game would have a player believe that the English, at the height of the Battle of Britain, while attempting to survive the worst siege bombing in the history of the planet, had taken the time to invent Spandex just so their spies wouldn’t be noticed. It didn’t offend me, but it certainly looked silly.
Of course, any adventure game is only as good as the puzzles and problems with which the player must deal. In this context, Operation Wintersun is a lot like Alice’s Restaurant: the player really does get just about anything he wants. There are lots of inventory puzzles. In the guise of Dr. Russell, the player does several of the old-fashioned 'combine stuff ' puzzles. There are also several inventory puzzles that are well-clued chemistry problems and are rather unique. These kinds of puzzles seem to require a good bit of running back and forth to obtain the various materials needed, but they do provide the feeling of accomplishment that adventurers seek. There are a couple of code puzzles, the usual collection of 'find the key' difficulties, and at least one 'put together the torn up letter' situation. There are even a couple of strange (to me) things called 'stealth puzzles'. I really enjoyed these, but one of my friends hated them so much that he refused to finish the game. Anyone who likes a great deal of variety should really enjoy the puzzles in this game. They are not too easy while not being overly difficult. They are varied and therefore never dull. In addition they usually fit the plot rather well.
Anyone thinking about playing this game should be warned that there are a couple of timed puzzles, but there was always plenty of time allotted. At these puzzles and a couple of others, Dr. Russell could get killed, but the game always put him right back where he could try again without losing significant parts of the game. And I must admit that a few of the puzzles would have been virtually impossible to solve if I hadn’t used the 'Novice' setting mentioned above. But that is true mainly because I generally don’t have the patience for pixel hunting that a lot of adventure gamers have. I personally found the variety, difficulty, and appropriateness of the puzzles to be a really positive element of this game.
A few final observations need to be made before I can conclude this review. I probably do not need to re-comment on Anne’s pants, but there are some other oddities that should be mentioned. There are a couple of really strange vocabulary problems in the game. At one point Dr. Russell is trying to find and use a Bunsen burner. Now every American child who took Chemistry in the tenth grade knows what that is, but the people who put the English version of this game together clearly do not. So, for the developers who might someday do this again: a Bunsen burner is not a blowtorch, or vice versa. Also, in the game there are a bunch of huge, thick, locked metal doors, which should simply be called 'doors'. In this game they’re called 'sluices'. I have no idea why, and I am sure that the use of the word 'sluice' will confuse any English-speaking player a good bit, but 'sluices', not 'doors', is what they are called.
Finally, there are two visual things that bothered me. The game is played at night in Berlin, in London, in a small German town, and in Stalingrad. However, aside from a few guards needed to facilitate the story, there are no other people. It often seemed that our intrepid trio and a few German soldiers were the only people actually fighting in the war. Also the gamer knows that he is in Germany. He’s told he’s fighting Germans. He knows that they are Nazis, but there are no Nazi symbols. Evidently it is illegal today to use a swastika anywhere on anything in Austria (where the game was developed). That is an interesting footnote.  However, using some silly, maladjusted Maltese cross instead of the world’s most easily recognized symbol of evil seems a bit odd.
So those are my picky complaints about absurdly unimportant details. But just remember that it is, at least in part, the silly unimportant details that separate the Mysts and Syberia from the large pack of average games. In the end, Undercover: Operation Wintersun was good enough. I liked the story, accepted the bland acting, and enjoyed the varied puzzles. I was impressed by most of the visuals, and the smooth ease and perfection of operation. I simply found myself thinking, at the end of the game, that if they (whoever they are) had only done this or adjusted that, then Operation Wintersun would have been a great game, and not just a good one.
© January 2008 Mark Hasley
Visit the Official Undercover: Operation Wintersun Website to learn more about the game and to see some artwork and more great screenshots.
Developed (2006) by Sproing Interactive and published by Lighthouse Interactive (2007 In North America) and dtp Entertainment (2006 in Europe +).
Rated: T for Teen 13+ (alcohol and tobacco reference, blood, violence)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: 1 GHz Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon Processor; Windows 98 SE / 2000 / ME / XP; 256 MB RAM; 4X CD-ROM / DVD-ROM Drive; 64 MB DirextX Compatible Graphics Card; DirectX Compatible Sound Card; Approximately 1 GB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX 9.0c; Mouse and Speakers
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