When Capcom invited us to pop along yesterday evening and take in Bits Studios' Rogue Ops, we honestly weren't as keen as we probably made out. After all, Capcom does some odd things - and when they sign up fairly conventional, multi-platform stealth action titles from hit-and-miss UK developers like Bits, we're not quite sure what to make of it.
However, having just met up with a few of our beloved readers and downed a couple of quick halves, we were very much in the "I love you, Capcom" frame of mind. (And we do.) We consoled ourselves by pointing out that there's a 99 per cent chance it'll have a 60Hz mode, made our way up various flights of stairs into a darkened room with a plasma screen and a silvery development Xbox, and plonked ourselves in a chair.
From what we can make out, that sort of behaviour would be suicidal in Rogue Ops. Apart from alerting at least a dozen security guards and making far too much noise, we'd no doubt snag a bunch of tripwires and die a grisly death at the hands of various nearby mini-guns clinging to the ceiling. That is unless we could clamber above their line of sight in time and wait for them to give up and deactivate the alarm - and we had enough trouble hauling ourselves out of bed this morning, so it seems unlikely.
Rogue Ops, you see, is a lot like Metal Gear Solid. It's a heck of a lot like it in fact. But it doesn't stop there. Along with the traditional tenets of the genre (sidling along walls both standing and crouched, crawling through air ducts, hauling bodies into the shadows, distracting guards to stealth your way past them, dispatching clueless enemies with silenced pistols, etc), Phoenix agent Nikki Connors has a lot more going for her. Well, apart from her family being bombed, leading her to intern in her late husband's special forces team in order to find out why. In game terms, too, her world isn't quite so generous.
For example, although Nikki has the ability to sneak up behind enemies and silently kill them by cracking some vital body parts, she has to perform a random button combination on the D-pad, against the clock, in order to execute said move. The closer she gets, the easier the task (as indicated by a little stealth kill meter that pops up), but if she gets too close she might be seen, and if she screws up the combination she might not manage it. In either case, it'll be ample time for the guard to notice her presence and radio for help. "But why not just shoot them then?" I hear you say. Well, friends, brain-splattered sentries tend to leave a trail, and the AI in Rogue Ops is smart enough to look for one...
Fishing for Snake
Fortunately, Nikki is a lot more versatile than her Hollywood-drenched predecessors, and she has a lot more options than Snake or Fisher. Indeed, we were told that each level can be approached in a multitude of different ways thanks to our heroine's flexibility. In one area, for example, Nikki was faced with a spiral staircase guarded by a laser field. Rather like the field of mist in the HR Geiger's face hugger den, the surface of this field reacts to contact - and it reacts by triggering some rather unpleasant heavy weapons.
In order to get past, Nikki could run through it and tumble down the stairs in search of a dead spot to wait out the mini-guns, or she could use an ID card pickpocketed from a nearby guard, or she could take a look at the environment and realise that there's just enough of a handrail running round the central column of the spiral staircase to clamber round like Lara Croft and drop to the floor beyond the lasers.
Lots of alternate routes exist, and many rely on keen observation. Thanks to a clever visor scavenged from her enemies, Nikki quickly gains the ability to locate enemies by their heat signatures - even through walls - as well as power lines running beneath the floor. This gives her the chance to plan her approach to each task. Stuck in a museum with a room full of assassins between her and the prize, for example, she can run in shooting, use her standard issue grapple hook to climb up into the rafters and go for quick and untraceable kill shots, or even look for a nearby button which activates a starry light show - making easy pickings of her now blinded, night-vision equipped adversaries. In certain situations, Nikki can also turn to her MGS-style radar to find the way forward.
The Evil Dead
Instead of needlessly questing to stand out from the crowd (and we're talking mainly about Metal Gear Solid here), Rogue Ops incorporates most of the best bits of many games in the genre. It even has a few nods to the likes of MGS2, with a mechanic for hiding in cupboards, or hiding bodies in there instead (although Nikki, bitch that she is, throws them in upside down and occasionally has to kick the door a few times to make sure the head stays inside), and a puzzle in which she has to shoot steam pipes to uncover infrared laser tripwires. It doesn't stop at the boundaries of the stealth action genre though - later on Nikki even picks up some adrenaline, which speeds her up and thus slows down proceedings for the player rather like a certain popular film technique.
Back on the topic of bodies though, Rogue Ops makes much more of them than either MGS or Splinter Cell, where dead people are dirty little things which are good for nothing except causing you problems later on. In Rogue Ops, sometimes it pays to keep track of fallen enemies - you might just need them to lie across some searing red laser beams and crackle like bacon - as you squirm past to safety - or to fall from nooses and interrupt a ground-level laser search beam, soaking up some mini-gun ammunition and leaving you to waltz past undetected.
It's a game that offers you lots of choices, and we like that about it. Our guide was so keen to demonstrate this that he must have shown off at least 10 noteworthy scenarios - waiting for one of a couple of nattering guards to wander outside an installation for a fag (for the benefit of outraged American mothers, that's the English for 'cigarette'), then locking the door behind him on your way in, for example, or turning on some office lights so that a security guard across the hall will come check, giving you just long enough to sneak into his booth and secure some access codes. We also got to see enemies in a museum taken out by shooting the tethers suspending skeletal exhibits in the air above their heads, including one poor sod who lived through the ordeal only to splutter "I can't feel my legs..." as Nikki sauntered past. Another hilariously violent incident helped Nikki overcome a couple of guards refusing to emerge from their barricade. As physical objects in the world (rather than pointless little sprites), Nikki's throwing stars remain dangerous even when they fall from whichever surface they've become embedded in - as these fellas learned to their cost when it started raining metal death.
We also applaud Bits' approach to the general game design - like using one context-sensitive button for everything from climbing onto ledges to pickpocketing enemies, and highlighting interactive items in a room when you get close to them, rather than forcing you to look too hard or not look at all.
Their engine too is something of a marvel. It looks identical on all three platforms according to a spokesman, and "that's not PR bullshit" either, but it doesn't look like the sort of bogstandard seen-it-all-before third person rubbish that gets trotted out on the PS2 each week. Truthfully, it has more in common with the smooth contours of Io Interactive's Freedom Fighters - both games offer some highly detailed character models and elaborate environments without penalising the game for lack of hardware firepower. There are also some nice stylised touches, like bullets streaking visibly through the air, glass fractures radiating outward from a bullet hole like ice cracking under weight, and of course an array of rather unpleasant death animations - if you find people who crack their knuckles disturbing, just wait till you see some of the things Ms. Connors gets up to...
We're going Rogue
So you see, Rogue Ops caught us a bit unawares, and we came away thinking that we'd definitely have to write something about it. It's due out on PS2, Xbox and GameCube sometime towards the end of the year, and will be playable at the PlayStation Experience from today. However we will be waiting a little while before we revisit Ms. Connors, as Capcom has promised us some playable code in very short order. Expect full impressions of the game as soon as we've had a chance to get to grips with that.
Oh and one last thing - we somehow doubt this stealth game will fall foul of a lack of violence or abuse of cut sequences. In fact, when you think about that, it's less likely to end up an acquired taste than either of the games we'd generally compare it to. With that in mind - where's the phone? Capcom? Code! Now!