When someone says “WW2 game”, you might wonder if they were talking about a) a strategy game, b) a shooter, or c) a squad based shooter. But an adventure game set in WW2? Do they even make adventure games anymore? Studios such as Lucasarts, Sierra, and Activision might not be putting these out by the boatload as they did years ago, but others such as Telltale Games and Funcom have made sure that there are still stories to tell, and Lighthouse Interactive has decided to add something different to the genre by trading in big armor and shell casings for a more puzzling stab at WW2.
Professor John Russell, I Presume?
The story behind Operation Wintersun takes on an interesting “what if” scenario that supposes that the Third Reich’s research into nuclear energy was much further along than anyone had realized, dropping you into a puzzle solving adventure against the backdrop of WW2 when it starts in January, 1943. Professor Russell is asked by Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, to verify information that had been smuggled out from the Third Reich and he comes to the conclusion that the Germans are close to building a working nuclear weapon. Fearing the implications of what might happen if the Nazis manage to succeed, they ask the good professor to head into the heart of the Reich to find out more with a trusted agent at his side and possibly stop their nefarious plans.
Realizing that he’s not secret agent material, the professor is hesitant to go but after a little prodding, agrees to use his expertise to help piece together the nuclear puzzle that lies ahead. Little does he realize that he’ll be heading in to do more than expose the secret research of the Nazi regime as his very life will be at stake with every decision that he makes.
Wintersun uses a mix of 2D art and 3D graphics to create its world, filling it with a collection of interesting characters that will either help or hinder our reluctant hero as he tries to stop the plans of the Third Reich. The stylized characters from the seductive secret agent to the jowled, growling face of the villain look exactly as you’d expect, and although the voice acting isn’t painful to listen to, the hero’s sleepy delivery is. Some of the story’s moments of surprise and shock are dulled when the professor delivers his lines with all of the excitement of someone looking for an afternoon nap. Fortunately, the few pieces of music that are in the game help to lift most of the scenes where the voice acting fails.
Many of the scenes have plenty of detail, although don’t expect anything to tax the heatsink on your graphics card. Even at the highest settings, some of the backdrops and textures can appear grainy, but they still manage to capture some of the feel if not the history as you’ll be greeted by Nazi flags bearing the iron cross instead. There’s also a sepia filter that can also be enabled to give everything the look of an old photo which can really change how the title is experienced. Getting around is as easy as clicking to where you want the professor to walk, or if you double click, will try to run to. Double right clicking on an exit point from a scene will immediately quick travel you to the next area.
The graphics also tend to have plenty of clues and items hidden in the background. Unlike some adventure titles that might point out something important by making it stand out in some way such as with a halo or a brighter palette, Wintersun can often feel like a painful, mouse sweeping pixel hunt since most everything blends into the scene including possible exits which can be highlighted with the Tab key. If you start the game in Novice mode, though, you can use the backspace key to highlight all of the objects in a given scene, similar to the kind of system used in Dreamfall.
With plenty of items scattered around, there are also a few red herrings to confuse you as you fill John’s magic coat with everything that isn’t nailed down, unlike many other adventure titles that give you only the things that will be needed. The puzzles in the game are varied as they range from safecracking to sabotage and the solutions to most follow a logical pattern meaning that you won’t be expected to do anything as crazy as melt rubber boots down in order to create a set of miniature tires.
That’s not to say that the puzzles are any easier. You will still need to figure out how to put what you find to creative use whether it is to create a trap to get rid of a patrolling guard, or rely on your own wits in figuring out how to piece together a broken machine. But while the solutions to the puzzles can make sense, the results can push your sense of disbelief when you see a seasoned soldier fall for the old tripwire trick and knock themselves out. In addition to clues and items being hidden in the background, it is also easy to miss certain other things such as a tiny hook that you can use with an item simply because it blends in with everything else unless you sweep around with your mouse. To add more nuclear fuel to the fire, some of these puzzles are also timed.
Your companions tag along and look as if they might actually be as helpful as Nico from the Broken Sword series, or Sophia Hapgood from the Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, but unfortunately, that isn’t the case which is kind of odd considering that they’re the secret agents. At one point, the professor asks his friend if he can open a safe and his friend from MI6 replies that he can open it given explosives, a torch, and ten hours. And when it comes to the guards you encounter, guess whose job it is to handle them? By the end of the game, our erstwhile scholar has managed to rack up a bodycount higher than those whose job it is to actually do the dirty work.
It’s moments like this that can make the story behind Wintersun something of a mixed affair. The pacing moves everything along with every solved puzzle, although it can stretch your sense of disbelief at certain points when Russell pulls a solution out of thin air after fiddling around with your inventory, such as a label for a bottle of wine that I needed to make up. How he knew how to draw the proper label was a mystery. Apparently as a professor, his head is filled with more than physics equations. There are also a few oddball issues that are just as bizarre, such as a journal dating itself as having being written in December, 1943, when it is still January. Or how he was able to get out of Stalingrad to get back to England which is left to your imagination. The ending is just as vague, giving you a small reward that leads into the possibility that the game may have a sequel as it leaves a few threads untied.
Back on the Homefront
Undercover: Operation Wintersun isn’t a bad game and it can still provide a refreshing change of pace from the glut of “me too” titles in the WW2 genre, but it’s definitely a mixed bag. As long as you aren’t expecting too much from the world that the adventure takes place in and can put up with the B-movie plot, you may find yourself spending several hours thinking your way through enemy lines on the eve of what may be the Third Reich’s greatest triumph.
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