PC Preview - 'Undercover:­ Operation Wintersun'

by Alan Butterworth on Aug. 7, 2007 @ 4:45 a.m. PDT

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

Why is it physicists have all the fun? In the Half-Life series, we witnessed theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman leaving his day job to rampage around the Black Mesa Labs and City 17 with his gravity gun. Now in Sproing Interactive's Undercover: Operation Wintersun you get to play Dr. John Russell, another physicist with a preference for action over equations.

Operation Wintersun is one of that rare breed of truly classic point-and-click adventure games set in 1940s Europe at the height of World War II. You play the part of reluctant thinking-man's hero John Russell as he is thrust from being an adviser on all things nuclear and explosive for the British intelligence to an investigator on the front lines in Hitler's Germany racing to prevent the development of the ultimate weapon. Being a weedy physicist and not armed with a gravity gun, Dr. Russell must travel with MI6 agent Peter Graham. Later, you meet another British agent, Ann Taylor, and as your investigation takes you deeper behind enemy lines, the intrigue grows as it becomes clear that not everyone is playing with a full deck.

Your adventures will take you to German intelligence archives housed in mammoth edifices, quaint German towns nestled at the foot of mountains, and war-torn ruins, all of which are drawn beautifully with excellent lightning and attention to historical detail. Small animations such as flickering flags, heat waves and falling snowflakes add life to the picturesque backdrops. Character modeling and animation are likewise handled well, although lip-synching tends to be off — not surprising when considering the number of languages in which the game is available.

Adventure games live or die on the basis of their puzzles and those in Operation Wintersun can be difficult — especially for those new to the genre who might not be used to MacGyver-like antics where common household objects can be juryrigged into amazing gadgets to get you through locked doors or knock out unsuspecting guards. The puzzles are made even more challenging because your character has the depthless pockets of any self-respecting adventure game character, as well as kleptomaniac tendencies which lead him to pick up inventory items that you'll never even need to use during the game. Not only does this complicate the cardinal rule of adventure gaming — to pick up everything you see, but it also means the game has more red herrings than a John West canning factory.

There are a few dead-end puzzles that really test the limits of logic or sanity — puzzles so obscure that they probably come from a different space-time dimension. However, these are the exception, and the majority of puzzles tend to be logically structured, giving you just enough clues and prompts to make your guesswork a little less random. This meant that I never had to resort to the ultimate desperation tactic of combining every inventory item with every other inventory item. Well, maybe once. Thankfully for these times, the game's interface is fairly intuitive and well designed, so mixing up your inventory isn't all that strenuous.

There are even some original set piece problems requiring a sense of timing, if not reflexes, such as when you must navigate your partner through a library patrolled by Nazi soldiers by turning lights on and off. Other puzzles put you against the clock but are never particularly difficult. In one, you must put out a fire before time runs out, but if you don't succeed, the game simply returns you to the same spot and resets the clock so the potentially dramatic tension is somewhat diffused. What's nice about Operation Wintersun is the balance struck between the artificial set piece brain teaser sequences and those that revolve around combining inventory items and interacting with actual objects in the game world.

Possibly the hardest part, and the bane of most of the classic point-and-click style adventure games, is the revenge of the hidden hot spot. To the uninitiated, a hot spot is an interactive game detail that will show up on screen only when you hover your mouse over it. In Operation Wintersun, these infinitesimally small yet critical points are sometimes painted into the background so well that you'll really have to pay attention and comb the area with a detective's eye to spot them. Turning up the gamma does help a little, but it still requires patience and an eye for detail — two things most of us traded in for trigger-finger reflexes and an MTV attention span a long time ago.

There are a few other game characters you can talk to, and the designers have tried to inject some humor into these dialogues for comic relief. For the most part, the conversations are just chatty and don't really tend to offer any character or plot insights, or clues on how to proceed next. Voice acting is largely adequate but the protagonist sounds almost a little too convincing as the polite English physicist. He intones with a voice drier than the sands of the Kalahari and this is, in theory, not a problem since he is, after all, supposed to be the stuffy academic pushed grudgingly into the action spotlight. But there are some dramatic moments, for example, at gunpoint or under sniper fire where he still sounds like he's trying to lull a room full of small children to sleep.

The game proceeds in a fully linear direction and for the most part uses locked doors to limit and direct the player's movement. Whether this comes in the form of a Nazi guard, a belligerent bartender or just a plain old locked door, your task is usually to get past the obstacle.

The plot is fairly straightforward and doesn't take many risks or sharp turns. There is one dramatic twist, but it comes with all the unexpected subtlety of an armada of clown cars. The preview build is completely stable and can be completed in somewhere less than eight hours, depending on how much you think like Angus MacGyver.

Despite its fairly short game life, Undercover: Operation Wintersun should be anticipated by veteran adventure gamers for its nostalgic old-school interface, its challenging logic puzzles and promise of intrigue and spy games in WWII Europe.

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