World War II has been a popular setting for games in recent years. In fact, it's quickly becoming the Atlantis of first-person shooters, or the Egypt of real-time strategy games. And yet few adventures have followed suit so far, presumably because there weren't a lot of slider puzzles, mazes, or dialogue trees on the battlefield. Behind the front lines, however, are a multitude of intriguing storyline possibilities, and it was only a matter of time before adventures took notice. It appears that time has come.
The first to step up is Undercover: Operation Wintersun, the debut adventure from Austrian developer Sproing Interactive, released last year in German-speaking territories and making its way into English markets later this month. Admittedly, the last time something was born in Austria, promoted in Germany, and culminated in World War II didn't turn out so well, but that was then and this is now, and if my early experience with a playable preview of the game is any indication, the results will be a lot more favourable this time around.
A traditional third-person, point-and-click adventure based in part on real historical information, Undercover casts players in the role of Professor John Russell, a mild-mannered, soft-spoken British physicist by day, and a... well... mild-mannered, soft-spoken British physicist-turned-reluctant spy by night. When the Secret Service discovers that Germany is on the verge of building a devastating new weapon prototype, Russell is called upon to lend his expertise in discovering and interpreting the plans hidden deep in protected German territory.
Why Russell is personally sent into the field isn't exactly clear, but it's a good thing he is, because the various trained operatives that accompany his forays into such authentic locations as a Berlin research institute, records archive, and production facility are virtually useless. Luckily, Russell has an even more secret agent on his side, and that's where you come in.
Your wits will be put to the test repeatedly, too, as Undercover is easily one of the most puzzle-intensive games I've encountered in recent memory. That's entirely in keeping with the narrative, of course, as one wouldn't expect to simply waltz into Nazi buildings and conveniently find top secret documents lying around. No, like any good spy, you'll need to do things the hard way, continually outsmarting guards and piecing together clues to pinpoint the location of the information you seek.
Inventory applications represent the majority of challenges in the game, and while some strain credibility at times, for the most part they are logical. Which is good, because the number of objects you acquire in each location adds up fast, so random trial-and-error would not be your friend here. There are other types of obstacles to overcome, as well, including such staples as jigsaws, code deciphering, and gear puzzles to provide some variety. I also encountered a two-part stealth section that required attention to timing, but rest assured for those who dread such things that the secret to succeeding is in recognizing patterns and strategic planning, not fast reflexes. And while it is possible to get caught at various times, you are automatically restored to the moment prior to blowing your cover, so the repercussions are minimal.
The pre-rendered graphics in Undercover aren't dazzling, but they're crisp and clear, with just enough ambient animations to inject some life into the environments. Technically, the game can be run in multiple resolutions, and includes various options to improve either performance or visual pizzazz. The latter includes a sepia filter, though the colouring is so dense that it seems unlikely anyone will choose this option. The audio is generally solid, too, featuring the voices of several professional actors that you may find familiar from other German-produced games. I found Russell to be a little too sedate for his circumstances at times, but his occasional MI6 companion Anne Taylor brings just the right amount of energy and cheek to her role, and I looked forward to the sections where Russell would meet up with her again.
The interface is simple and straightforward, revealing no unwelcome surprises for point-and-click enthusiasts. One key feature, made popular by last year's Secret Files: Tunguska, is a "novice mode" that enables the option to highlight all available hotspots on any given screen. While some may believe this waters down the challenge, others will find it a welcome addition, particularly as Undercover does possess some unfortunate pixel hunts on occasion. A simple keystroke can quickly solve that problem, and reveal a surprising number of non-essential interactive objects in the process. This game leaves most current adventures in the dust when it comes to optional details, although most are there solely for observation.
One effect of Undercover's high degree of interaction is slowing the pace of what is already a slowly paced game. With its heavy puzzle emphasis and a linear story that tends to drop you into fairly confined environments, any progress is generally hard-won, at times presenting multiple challenges in the same location. The end result is a game that feels more goal-oriented than plot-oriented. Rarely did I find myself wondering "what happens next?", not out of disinterest, but because I always seemed to be wondering how to overcome the next of many hurdles in my way. This is not a criticism. It's actually a credit to the game that it maximizes the opportunities of its relatively small scope, but it may be an important distinction for those expecting a taut, high-energy espionage thriller. Mission: Impossible, it is not. The plot does pick up towards the latter stages of the game, hinting at deeper mysteries, unexpected twists, and a worthy payoff for your efforts. For the better part of the game, however, you'll need to think like a spy: slow, cautious, and clever.
Fans of traditional adventures will find plenty to like in Undercover: Operation Wintersun, but with all of the continually recycled themes in the genre, the World War II setting is ultimately the most appealing feature. So if you've been finding your adventures a little interchangeable of late, a covert trip into Nazi Germany may be just what you need. And you won't have much longer to wait, as Undercover is expected soon on store shelves in both Europe and North America, so be on the lookout for the game's release in the coming weeks. But if anyone asks why you're prowling around, just don't tell them who sent you.
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