Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops could have been the best GI Joe game ever. Too bad that Black Lion Studios didn’t secure the proper licensing, because its rich history might have injected some desperately needed personality into this buggy, bland mess of a third-person shooter. Full of clichéd characters, generic plot points, a wonky mix of stealth and cover-shooting, and very little else, Shadow Harvest delivers an experience about as uninspired as its title suggests.
You move, shoot, grenade, take cover, use night-vision, crouch, and temporarily become invisible. You do not jump, vault cover, blind fire, or melee. Also, there are no multiplayer modes to speak of. If that narrows the game's appeal, at least it can boast something few others in the genre offer these days: a lengthy campaign, clocking in around the 8-10 hour mark.
The action splits between Delta operator Aron Alvarez and crossbow-toting, ponytailed secret agent Myra Lee. Both are sent to Mogadishu by their respective handlers to deal with a piracy problem that's escalated into a major high-tech threat courtesy of strongman Karim Kimosein. In your pursuit of stopping him, you track his weapon suppliers eventually to Dubai and Cuba.
Timely as all this sounds, the gameplay, graphics, audio, and general presentation feel like throwbacks to games I played five or ten years ago, minus their attention to detail. Red diamonds tag enemies a la Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, but unlike a professional Tom Clancy terrorist, the enemy AI morons tend to step out into the open and stand still until either they run out of bullets or I give them one. They are, however, good enough to occasionally shoot Aron through his cover.
But they make the enemies Myra encounters look like Mensa members. While sneaking around in Splinter Cell-esque stealth missions, Myra's enemies only become mildly suspicious when she runs right in front of them in a well-lit room. This comes in handy, actually, since shadows don't impact your enemies' ability to see you; instead, detection is rendered purely through line-of-sight.
Ah, but Myra can also cloak herself for a burst of extra-sneaky fun. Even better, she can grab and stab Kimosein's witless chumps with nano-blades, or nail them with one-hit-kill nano-bolts, turning the corpse invisible. While a ridiculous game conceit, these magical weapons are great for taking out multiple sentries, and tripping any alarm insta-fails the mission. That said, guards almost never investigate anything unless you purposely lure them away with an attractor bolt.
While Myra technically covers the stealth angle, you'll spend Aron's missions creeping around, too. Black Harvest's difficulty revolves around a combination of non-regenerating health, realistic damage, no quick-saves, and a thin supply of med-packs. Three good hits will send you to the restart screen. In this game, you're either behind cover or you're dead.
To put it another way, things got pleasantly tense when I made a checkpoint with only 10 hit points left, half a level to go, and no obvious way to get more life. By the end of the mission, I had exactly one point left, and that's the kind of exhilaration everyone should experience. The difficulty might be Shadow Harvest's saving grace... if only its mechanical flaws didn't drag everything else down.
Cover is sticky and staggeringly inconsistent given its importance. Other glitches abound: I got stuck on the environment several times, forcing restarts; it's even possible to trip mission-failing alerts while you're stuck in a cut-scene. This allows you to fully savour a cast of voice actors who sound less convincingly human than the voice function on a GPS device, with dialogue to suit.
Even more damning, the complete lack of subtlety suggests a general inexperience in level design. The twisty maps rely heavily on gotcha-style ambushes and repetitive flanking manoeuvres. Exploding barrels frequently telegraph exactly when and where enemies will appear. Finding those precious med-packs involves hunting through dozens of thoroughly boring side-rooms.
Despite all this, I wouldn't label Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops as horrible so much as glaringly unremarkable. The shooting works, and once Aron and Myra start working together you can tab between them mid-mission. That's a nice touch, and I can easily see Black Harvest developing a small, loyal following once it drops to the $15 range on Steam. Otherwise, the weak design, slim replay value, and superior alternatives are reasons enough to let this harvest remain uncollected.