We get our hands on Kemco's UK-developed stealth action title.
When we signed off our extensive preview of third-person stealth action title Rogue Ops after a lengthy demonstration of its gratuitously violent charms at ECTS, we knew that Nikki Connors was a covert operative, with an arsenal of techniques pilfered from every stealth and action game around, thrown into a series of non-linear environments and asked to behave like Sam Fisher playing The Mark of Kri. In other words - gallivanting around mixing stealthy bone-cracking finishing moves with thoughtful espionage and generally righting the world's more excessive wrongs on a morally ambiguous footing. Perfect.
Capcom - bless 'em - responded to our pleas for code very quickly. In fact, we've had Rogue Ops buzzing around our PS2s for nearly a week now, and although we'd have to cast doubt on developer Bits' assertion that the Xbox and PS2 versions are indistinguishable (hint: look for the jagged edges and frame rate drop-off, chaps!), we are hopeful that the final game will be as good as all this promise deserves.
Sadly for us, a lot of the really entertaining set-pieces were exactly what we saw during our presentation at last month's trade show, and it wasn't until the third proper level that we started to have to think for ourselves, instead of just applying all the clever bits that we'd been shown. And then it was all over - our press preview disk comprised just the tutorial, which walks you through the basics of movement, stealth and combat - very much like Sam Fisher's equivalent - and the first three levels. So we didn't get to play with the buzzing insectoid spybot, which zooms around the level beaming pictures back to Nikki (and being swatted at by enemies), or get our hands on the rocket launcher, or get to surf a bad guy's body down an icy precipice - but we certainly had fun.
At the moment, Nikki's missions seem to be split into two halves. The first section generally centres around a stealthy incursion - laying charges, not being seen by guards or security cameras, hiding bodies and sneaking into position - while the second has you running and gunning, pursuing terrorists into labyrinthine sewers, racing to disarm a nuclear missile, and dodging assault teams sent to kill you.
Nikki is blessed with a huge number of abilities as covered in our previous write-up - she can jump up or drop down to a Lara-style hanging position in order to climb along ledges; she has a map (reminiscent of the Build engine map overviews for those who remember), which can be brought up with L2 and used to sniff out guard positions and architectural subtleties; she can use a grappling hook on certain objects; she can climb pipes; she can use silenced pistols, rifles, shurikens (if they survive the censor's cull), tazers and more; she can kill enemies silently from behind or just pickpocket them; she can search cabinets and dead bodies, and pilfer ammunition from dropped weapons; she can use visors to scan retinas at a distance and to see body heat through walls; she can even climb into lockers in a tribute to Mr. Snake, or go one better than him by hoisting herself up between beams in the ceiling to evade detection. But despite all her abilities and the healthy mixture of styles evident in the level design, Rogue Ops has not yet been pulled off with a degree of finesse to trouble the likes of MGS2 or Splinter Cell - at the moment it actually feels rather contrived.
A little bit of this, a little bit of that
As we said at the start though, we're hopeful that Bits can polish the game and truly make it count. Firstly, the movement is currently more stunted than it is smooth, with Nikki preferring to side step with the analogue stick at a certain angle instead of moving off with proper analogue control. Comparisons to Resident Evil would be far-fetched (after all, she can run at a slight angle and change direction using the right analogue stick, which controls the third-person camera), but it's certainly more P.N.03 than Metal Gear Solid 2.
The collision detection and AI could do with some more thought too, if you'll excuse the pun - the former makes it difficult to obscure laser sensors with bodies as demonstrated at ECTS (often resulting in a painful argument with a ceiling-mounted mini-gun), while the latter means that alerting guards to your whereabouts isn't huge consequential. Even if they spot you and manage to radio it in before you squeeze off a silenced round, you'll be faced with just a couple of rather dim adversaries at most, if at all. MGS2's riot shield-equipped legions of frothing mercenaries they are not. Yet. Likewise, sometimes it's easier to behave stealthily than it should be - in the museum level, for example, we made it through one section surely in full view of guards, and found the shadows kept us hidden even though the security detail had X-Files style flashlights.
Then again, it would only take a few more months to quash bugs (like security cameras that see you through the masonry) and turn Rogue Ops into a real contender. In terms of exploiting Nikki's myriad spy skills, the current batch of levels are minutely tailored and, although ostensibly linear, are happy to throw in a multitude of ways to get round each obstacle. In the museum, for example, it would be possible to run out from under a staircase and shoot down the two guards having a chat on top - since Nikki's pistol gets a bit of auto-aiming assistance when it's not zoomed in ala MGS2 - or it's actually possible to sneak away and find a grapple point to climb up behind them. From here, you could dispatch one of them with a finishing move (demanding a random, SF2-style D-pad combo) then take on his mate - or you could just pickpocket a key card and leave them standing there...
Indeed, although there are some sections which don't work quite as well as they might (racing across a level within a two-minute countdown to find a terrorist would be all well and good, but it's possible to start the countdown without actually realising where he's going to be waiting), there are more moments of genius than there are lunacy. We could do with a little more interactivity in some of the environments (for all the ways to distract guards and split them up for easier stealth kills, you can't slam a fridge door or clatter pans in the kitchen area of the first level), but how many other games let you go rogue in a British museum, shooting down T-Rex skeletons to squash your enemies? Or arranging executed hostages so they obscure laser scanners? And how many games actually let you kill hapless training level inhabitants because, according to your superiors, they failed their training and became surplus to requirements?
In terms of storyline, we've yet to be truly convinced - Nikki's quest to discover why her husband (a former rogue op himself) was killed, and whether terrorists or her minders are actually to blame, is reasonably clichéd Hollywood stuff, but it doesn't have the fascination of the MGS2 storyline (codec nonsense aside). Hopefully the full game will change our minds.
Likewise, the engine is obviously PS2 focused. Characters are modelled and skinned to a basic third person action game level, with some slightly obscure facial anomalies (Nikki's chin, for example), and guards move and explore much like any other guards you've seen. Nikki, for her part, is tightly outfitted and quite bendy, but she moves a lot like P.N.03 heroine Vanessa Z. Schneider - oddly, but acceptably. A lot of the awkwardness is down to the way the game engine handles movement. The best moments though have to go to the environment - particularly the museum level - and the toys. The retinal scanning visor is great - zooming in gradually on a target as the scan progresses - and the regular visor creates a lovely effect out of spying through walls. Otherwise it's a fairly standard-looking stealth action title, with lots of dark corridors, murky rooms and office areas reminiscent of previous PS2 games, punctuated by slow-motion stealth kills. We haven't seen the Cube version yet, but from what we saw at ECTS, the Xbox is the same with more polys and less slowdown during gunfights.
In short, Rogue Ops developer Bits has accumulated a heck of a lot of stealth/action ideas and built a wonderful playground for them (and after the Die Hard Vendetta debacle, we're pleased to see it has got its act together). As we've said all along, the question remains how well the team can bring it all together in the end. On this evidence, it is making good progress, but there's still a little way to go. We await the review code with genuine interest.