Go back to the shadows.
"Striking while the iron is hot" and not "missing the window of opportunity" are perfectly viable clichés, but some irons, no matter how hot, can't be struck by just anyone, and some things can't be squeezed through even the widest of windows. Atari's new mediocre stab at the first-person shooter genre is a perfect case in point.
Shadow Ops: Red Mercury has most of the elements found in its more enjoyable FPS forbears, but sans the polish, originality and sheer fun that games like Halo and Rainbow Six 3 injected into the genre. Instead, what we have here is a contrived, one-dimensional fragfest that only serves to retread the ground paved by those that came before it.
The story does little to change this. You play as Frank Hayden, an elite operative trying to track down a ubiquitous weapon of mass destruction known as Red Mercury. Your quest will take you through several countries, such as the lush Congo, the streets of Syria and France and a few more, all teeming with one firefight after the next. Sometimes you have A.I. buddies making embarrassing attempts to cover your ass, but mostly it's you solo, inching your way through levels and popping well-armed but mentally-challenged opposition.
There isn't much subtlety here, only one or two instances that require any sort of stealth dynamic. For the most part, bullets fly and bodies fall, as Shadow Ops pits you against scores of enemies who fire from seemingly hidden vantage points. In fact, you often won't even realize you're being targeted until it's too late, just relying on your directional indicator to show you from where those painful bullets are coming. Plan to die quickly and frequently.
While you're at it, plan on going insane due to the linearity of the two dozen single-player missions in the main campaign. You'll move into an area, blast anything that moves, grab whatever you find lying around, then continue onward. The tactical aspect of the game is almost nonexistent, though Shadow Ops does make up for it with an almost endless barrage of enemies. When things get going, you're in for some seriously hectic gunplay.
You're also in for a relatively uninspired list of guns. While some missions offer different weapons, you will always have an assault rifle, a handgun and a long range sniper rifle of some sort. The handguns and sniper rifles handle adequately, but the assault rifles essentially function identically with wild, inaccurate sprays. They serve their purpose once you get used to them and since most of the firefights are close-range, things eventually work out fine. But various types of grenades, RPGs and optional explosives would have been great to see. I guess our boy Frank is a no-nonsense kind of operative.
While the guns are simply standard fare, the true thunder-stealer is the absence of any identifiable hit detection. If I can't tell that my shots are punishing the enemy, then what's the point? Shadows Ops' paltry use of rag doll physics can't cut it alone. Enemies show very little reaction to being shot, taking all the fun out of the copious killing. Plus, there's no blood, which is weird for a military first-person shooter. The kinetic punch of shooting itself simply isn't satisfying.
Thankfully, the graphics are, for the most part. The textures are vivid and colors hold just the right vibrancy. The character animations are handled well, although death animations need more polish. The environments are a bit less thrilling, though, and the sounds of war in the distance are oddly absent in a game that should be rife with ambient chaos. Some of the audio is great, but discerning the direction of footsteps and other supposedly positional audio cues is hopeless.
Shadows Ops falls hardest where it should have stood tall, specifically in its multiplayer. You can play two-player co-op via a split screen, but the game was obviously not designed for this because the maps are too small and way too linear. The co-op missions are merely disjointed ops with no cohesive story to tie them together, as one player follows behind another and misses much of the action due to cramped space and poor level design.
After you've stopped wasting time with the co-op, you can try your hand online via Xbox Live in eight-player Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and V.I.P. Escort. However, the gameplay issues that plague the single-player are no less noticeable here. The poor hit-detection and sad level design lead to a general lack of strategy or fun. Rainbow Six crushes this in every conceivable way.
Apparently, there was an empty seat on the bandwagon and this game decided to sit in it. Many of the right elements are in play – lots of bad guys, decent graphics, online functionality - but it seems Shadow Ops: Red Mercury is merely following an old recipe without adding the proper seasoning to spice things up. The result is just a shadow of the competition.