Review: Operation Darkness

Operation Darkness starts like other any video game based on World War II: you play as part of a division of heroic Allies (British, in this case), and end up in a unit that specializes in behind-enemy-lines operations. You start taking the fight to Hitler, and get to hear lots of really old guns firing, bombs going off, and fighter planes flying overhead. Pretty basic stuff—you may as well be playing Super Call of Duty RPG.

Then a few missions in, everything changes for the awesome. Zombies, vampires and living skeletons start popping out of the ground—and that unit you’ve been fighting with? They weren’t what they seemed, either.

Seems what really happened during WWII is that Hitler got control of the undead, and was using them to turn the tide of the war in his favor. Fortunately, on your side are a clan of werewolves, and what pretty much amounts to the Occult League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Fireballs and wolf claws join machine guns and rocket launchers, and a good time is had by all.

Take Advance Wars and Fire Emblem, toss them in a blender, add much bigger maps than either of those two titles, and a way cooler premise than either series has ever come up with, set the whole shebang on “puree,” and you have Operation Darkness. (Heck, after Days of Ruin’s story made me roll my eyes out of their sockets, this was so much a breath of fresh air for me it’s not even funny.) We had to write up the official strategy guide for this thing, which usually means playing a game until we’re sick of it. To OD’s credit, that didn’t really happen here, though Lord knows we came awful close on many an occasion. (Occupational hazards, don’t’cha know.)

This is because OD has a lot to love about it. It’s presented in a different way from most strategy games: that is, up close and personal. There’s no way to see the entire map from a top-down view, and that’s because, for an SRPG, these maps are absolutely huge—they’re battlefields in the truest sense. Instead, there’s a lot of theatrical camera work going on as units attack and defend, and lots of motion blur on impacts. It has a large selection of WWII-era weaponry, along with just enough magic on both sides to make things interesting. All of these armaments are used well, such as the implementation of cover that grenades can be thrown over, the abundant and very satisfying use of sniper rifles, or the, uh, ability to punch or slash a tank to death. Fine, so two out of three isn’t bad.

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Every battle is epic, and rare are the moments where you will have any sort of upper hand. It’s to the point where you have an auto-revive ability just to deal with the amount of times your characters will inevitably get one-shotted by tanks. It’s also to the point where a new and novel strategic hook—the preemptive-action-manipulating Cover system—was implemented so that your party system could better get the drop on the hordes of enemies that come towards your meager party. Picking off armies of German soldiers with sniper rifles before they even get a chance to take their turns is one of gaming’s most cathartic experiences, let me tell you.

What I’m trying to say here is that this game does not play around, but it makes sure that you’re having fun when you do. Between the game’s star power, the over-the-top story (seriously, one of the later boss battles pits you against Hitler himself, who has dark wizard powers and calls forth *giant freaking dragons*) and the solid play mechanics, there’ll be a lot to keep you busy and hooked.

It also throws in something novel—cooperative play over Xbox Live. You and up to four friends can play in bonus missions that are unlocked as you play through the campaign. Your reward for victory is a German weapon (usually one that can only be obtained in limited quantities by looting corpses in battle) being unlocked for purchase back at your home base in the single-player campaign. It’s a shame the entire campaign isn’t co-op, but what’s here is still great to play, and those rewards are really useful. So hats off.

And now, the part of the review where I talk about how no game is perfect!

There are a few nitpicky issues in OD that may affect full enjoyment of the title. The greatest of these is the graphics. They are, quite simply, original-Xbox caliber. True, some of the 360’s power is used for the gigantic battlefields which stay on-screen in real-time, but those character models and territory textures are *old*. The camera is also of issue, though not quite as much as you might have heard. Once a player gets the hang of selecting units with the bumpers and trigger buttons, and using the camera only for quick surveillance or line-of-sight, then the issue is moot. Play smarter, not harder, kids.

The last issue is the difficulty. OD is by no means unbeatable, or even unfair, but as mentioned above, it is tough as nails. Much like its presentation, its game mechanics are set up in stark contrast to other strategy games, where solid defense tends to win the day. In OD, you’ve got to go in hard, fast, and explosive, making sure to kill as many units as humanly possible in every turn you take, because you’re always so vastly outnumbered. People who die (at least, the ones who don’t trigger an instant “mission failure” when they bite it) stay dead, and once you take an action, even simple movement, there’s no way to undo it—you’re committed. Towards the end of the game, your adversaries get astronomical speed boosts, such that level-grinding (though fortunately not *too* much of it) is mandatory. This will all prove jarring, but you’ll get used to it.

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Closing Comments:

Now, any one of these hiccups by themselves wouldn’t be much to deal with, but with all three at once, this game just isn’t going to click with a significant amount of people. Fair enough. Operation Darkness may be rough around the edges, but it still deserves to be played by any SRPG fan. (Including you. Yes, you.) It innovates from the usual set of strategy titles in so many areas without falling flat on its face, and it’s a meaty title besides. Sixty dollars won’t get you the prettiest game on the market in this case, but it’ll get you one with plenty of substance and personality—especially if you can look past its faults, most of which are but cosmetic.
score3.25
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360