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PC Review - 'Undercover:­ Operation Wintersun'

by James King on Nov. 9, 2007 @ 2:49 a.m. PST

Undercover is an adventure game set in the heart of war-torn Europe in 1943, and sees players take on the role of British physicist Dr. John Russell, who is sent into the lion's den by the MI6 to follow leads on German research into a devastating weapon of mass destruction.

Genre: Adventure
Publisher: Lighthouse Interactive
Developer: Sproing Interactive Media
Release Date: August 28, 2007

Undercover: Operation Wintersun focuses on an alternate World War II timeline in which the Germans have developed the technology to create a nuclear weapon. A British professor and several MI6 secret agents must find a way to stop the weapon from being built. As a point-and-click adventure game instead of the traditional shooter, U:OW takes a new approach to the WWII theme; it's a somewhat niche market, but it could be entertaining if the concept is well executed. Unfortunately, U:OW falls short in a number of key areas.

During the game, you play as Dr. John Russell, a nuclear physicist from England. After analyzing plans that have been stolen from German research facilities, you're recruited by MI6 to help stop the German advanced weapons research, working with several other MI6 agents along the way. You'll start the game in London, but you'll spend the majority of your time in Berlin.

U:OW is played from the third-person perspective against pre-rendered backdrops. It has a play style similar to the King's Quest and Space Quest games, with most of the puzzles revolving around the use of inventory items in various combinations. As you adventure through the game, you'll have to help your secret service friends by solving logical puzzles and finding ways into locked or guarded areas. This sounds like a pretty fun start for an adventure title, but you'll soon realize how stupidly obvious the puzzles are. A few of the puzzles require you to complete tasks within certain time limits or perform actions at certain times. In those situations, if you make a mistake, it will lead to you getting caught, killed or stopped, and the game will reload the beginning of the puzzle so that you can try again. Most of the puzzles don't involve a timing element, though, and will provide you with unlimited time to think of a solution.

One of the big problems with the puzzles is that they feel contrived and have very obscure solutions. Puzzle solutions often involve using inventory items in various ways to interact with the environment. Your character automatically knows whether or not to take random objects when you click on them so you'll collect many items before you ever knew you needed them. This can be overwhelming when your inventory suddenly contains over 20 items. Add to that the title's penchant for bizarre puzzle solutions, and you'll end up using the "try every item with every other item/object" tactic. This process gets tedious after the second puzzle.

The difficulty level of the puzzles varies widely. Some puzzles may take you over an hour to figure out, while others may take but a few seconds. Some of the puzzle solutions involve item combinations that most people would never try, which can lead to much frustration as you sit there, not knowing what to do and unable to progress with the game.

Another issue with U:OW is in identifying which objects with which you can interact. The game doesn't provide a clear method for letting the player know that you can interact with an item unless you move your mouse over it. Sometimes the objects can be very small, and it's quite possible you'll never notice them or move your mouse over those locations. This can be solved if you adjust the game settings and turn on the "novice" mode, which allows you to highlight all of the interactive objects in the current area. This really shouldn't have been a problem in the first place, though.

On a positive note, the game's controls and interface work well. Point-and-click interaction is consistent throughout the game, and your inventory is located in a black band that runs across the bottom of the screen. This allows for a non-obstructed view of your inventory items without having to open a separate menu or inventory screen, providing a streamlined playing experience.

The graphics in U:OW are reasonably average for a current-generation game. Nothing really stands out, but much of scenery is nicely detailed. The character models have somewhat poor animations, and a number of the NPC models lack detail and look faded. The most development time was clearly spent on the environments, which are rich with detail and help create an immersive game atmosphere.

The title's sound is decent but not extremely memorable. The music is fitting and fosters the sense of intrigue and mystery, and the voice acting is plentiful, although somewhat lacking in emotion. Every character in the game is voice acted, and your main character has a distinct quote for almost every situation. Many item combinations and uses will also elicit spoken dialogue from your protagonist, which keeps the gameplay a bit more interesting as you go along. This would be great if not for the fact that so many of the voices sound far too artificial and detached, which detracts from the experience to a degree. Much of dialogue sounds strange and superfluous to the situation, and the lip-syncing is almost always off; this is a hindrance since point-and-click adventures rely heavily on story immersion to keep the player entertained. The conversations with other NPCs often seem so pointless that you may want to skip them, but you can't in many cases because you need to complete the interaction in order to receive the item or hint needed to solve the next puzzle.

The overall story is fairly entertaining, but many of the scenes seem rather uninspired and lack emotion. Stopping Hitler from building a nuclear weapon that could turn the tide of the war is a great story arc to build on, but U:OW does not deliver a very satisfying set of events to follow it. The game tries to take itself seriously, but it fails to bring about serious puzzles and solutions that meld with the storyline. Using a slingshot to distract guards so you can enter a top-secret research lab is actually one of the more normal puzzle solutions; just wait until you have to intoxicate a rat in order to steal a pack of cigarettes. Strange situations like that will leave the player scratching his head, and a puzzle game shouldn't make the player so frustrated that he has to look for a walkthrough.

In the end, Undercover: Operation Wintersun can be rather fun despite several shortcomings. At least it's taking a different approach to the WWII theme, unlike so many of the action and shooter titles before it. If you're into these types of games, then you pretty much know what to expect. U:OW delivers a puzzle-based adventure, but it lacks the refinement and polish to really stand out from the crowd. Vast amounts of patience are required for some of the more peculiar puzzles, and this may turn off many gamers. There are better options available, but adventure fans may still want to give U:OW a whirl.

Score: 6.8/10

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