The year is 2025. As Hideo Kojima would say, war has changed. It's no longer about nations, ideologies or ethnicity... Well, actually it probably is still about those things - Shadow Harvest developer Black Lion hasn't explained exactly what's going on with the story yet, so we're not sure - but one thing is certain: war is still about crouching behind walls and firing at people over the top of them.
Crouchers-in-chief this time are Aron Alvarez and Myra Lee, operatives with US "military intervention unit" the ISA. They're on the trail of an evil dictator in the continually war-torn Somalian capital of Mogadishu - and on that trail they encounter a lot of concrete blocks and low walls to crouch behind using the game's third-person cover system.
Aron is the usual blunt instrument. He's got an assault rifle and he can attach explosives to walls to blow them out of the way. He also likes blowing up explosive barrels (yes, they're still helpfully positioned next to enemies in 2025), which often then precipitate the collapse of nearby structures that tumble dustily and realistically into the street.
Myra's the stealth option. She has a Predator-style cloaking shield, which she can use for as long as she has shield energy indicated on the HUD, dashing through mazes of shelving units past bad guys who hear her footsteps but can't catch sight of her. She also has one-hit-kill darts in a small crossbow, a retractable BloodRayne-style metal knife on one of her wrist-straps for close-up kills, and a range of other quiet skills like lock-picking and climbing.
At the start of the game Aron is heading out into Mogadishu with local rebels when his convoy is ambushed and he has to fight through the streets to reach his destination. He soon runs into Myra and they join forces.
Across the 10-hour campaign some levels will focus on Aron's bulldozing military muscle, while others opt for Myra's lighter touch. Black Lion says the dialogue (none of which we hear, sadly) will be a bit like a buddy cop movie. Hopefully not Cop Out.
There are other levels where you can switch between the two characters at will, giving you the broadest possible range of options for any situation. For example, when pinned down by snipers and their telltale laser sights, Aron can do some crouching behind walls and try to pick them off out of cover, or Myra can use her darts from distance. But it's also possible to equip the cloak and scamper over the open ground, work your way up to the snipers' vantage points and snap their necks.
The game is ostensibly linear but Black Lion tells us the environments will generally offer a few routes around particular set-piece battles. At one point Aron's rebel friends are under fire from an M60 on top of a personnel carrier, so he blasts his way through a building and exits behind them, where he's able to shoot them happily in the back. Elsewhere, tanks threaten to pin him down until he works his way to a rooftop to retrieve one of the locals' spare RPG tubes.
Myra can use these areas - and indeed only she can access some of them, thanks to her acrobatic skills - to hide and evade. The stealth system is meant to be forgiving, says Black Lion, and so it sacrifices realism to this end - you can pass right in front of your enemies providing an awareness meter above their head doesn't fill completely.
At least the stealth isn't slow - Myra moves quickly through environments, as she has to when her enemies are splitting up and roaming through them seeking her out. If they get too close, she always has the cloak.
Later on the duo infiltrate the dictator's palace and have to work their way through the interior to reach him. Myra takes the lead, changing into a dancer's costume so she can get closer without being thought out of place.
We're not shown how this sequence plays out, but we're shown a room with podiums and pole-dancing setups and told she has to plant a GPS tracker on his jacket, so you can probably use your imagination. With the tracker in place the action switches to a Dubai, where Aron and Myra have to shut down an illegal arms sale, before the game moves on to Cuba for its finale.
And did we mention there are giant robots? The year is 2025, and there are giant robots. They're the illegal weapons that the Somalian dictator is after, and they look an awful lot like your everyday MechAssault or Metal Gear walker, complete with machineguns, clunky ED209 gaits and stompy sound effects.
Your first brush with one of them comes when Aron has to mine a bridge it's moving across, but then Myra hacks it so Aron can jump in the cockpit. Infantry, tanks, helicopters - nothing's going to stop you until the next cut-scene.
Shadow Harvest is currently only due out for PC - Black Lion says it will consider an Xbox 360 port if the PC one is successful - and lacks multiplayer. The code we're shown is sufficiently early that many of the animations are said to be unfinished, and the voices haven't been recorded for the English version yet, so it's hard to get an exact read on how it will end up.
Even so, it's hard to imagine Shadow Harvest changing the world. There are a couple of nice touches - like the way Myra's darts and bladed weapons inject nanites into the target, which then activate a cloak so the body is concealed wherever it falls - but the gameplay is straightforward and unremarkable in the main. Hopefully those last few months of polish will make the difference.
Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops is due out for PC in early 2011.