Undercover: Operation Wintersun
First posted on 22 February 2008. Last updated on 17 July 2010.
All adventure game fans know that recent years have been difficult times for the beloved genre. New adventure games come rarely, and the few that arrive on the shelves are so different from their classic origins that many longtime adventure game fans are driven away. Now, a daring Dutch game publisher, Lighthouse Interactive, attempts to reinvent the genre by experimenting with games that are decidedly different from the genre ideal without stretching the genre too much. Undercover: Operation Wintersun is just such an experiment.
The story of Undercover: Operation Wintersun begins in January 1943 during World War II. In an alternative timeline, the Nazis are gaining military control over Europe and, more worryingly, they may be developing a nuclear weapon. Britain's Secret Service, MI6, has come across a copy of plans that may be a prototype of this dangerous weapon. If the plans are authentic, the whole world will be in great danger. MI6 contacts Dr. John Russell (you), a British nuclear physicist, for help. As the country's leading expert, you confirm that the plans' calculation seems correct and the weapon is a genuine threat. Unfortunately for you, MI6 also wants to send you on a dangerous mission to infiltrate the heart of the Third Reich to stop this weapon.
Immediately, you leave the relatively safe haven of Britain to the dangerous Nazi Germany. The spies who have been sent supposedly to help you (agent Peter Graham and agent Anne Taylor) are pretty helpless, so you are largely left to fend on your own. You have to distract the guards, open locked doors, and sleuth your way into the secret Nazi compound. From the very beginning, you even have to "MacGyver" up a few gadgets to accomplish your mission.
As your dangerous adventure continues, you discover several facts confirming that the Nazis may in fact have developed a usable prototype of the atomic bomb. Tension rises and unexpected events come to light. Your fellow agents may not be as trustworthy as they seem. Is it because they have their own agenda? Or is it just difficult to trust each other in a time of war?
From a technical perspective, Undercover: Operation Wintersun appears to break little new grounds. All the scenes are static, pre-rendered 2D drawings; the characters are the only real 3D objects. A closer look, however, shows that the character models can cast shadows on background scenes based on their position as well as the light source. The use of dynamic lighting (as well as anti-aliasing) makes this game more demanding than what you may expect of an otherwise 2D or even hybrid 2D/3D game. It is noteworthy that the game engine is not perfect: in some rooms where the only light source is outside, the characters still cast shadows on walls and floors that are not lit by the outside light.
The game is somewhat lacking on sound effects or musical scores. Most audios come from the voiceovers. In the English version, the characters speak slowly and clearly. This is probably because the cast wants to make sure that the dialogs are spoken accurate to the era. Still, the slow delivery of some speech is almost too painful to listen at some points. Fortunately, it is possible to turn on subtitles and skip forward the spoken lines. All the main characters rightfully speak with a British accent, but the Germans also speak broken English rather than German even to each other. This is obviously done for the convenience of the player and is no different than what is done in Hollywood movies or televisions where all the characters speak English no matter what country (or even planet) they originate. Of course, a few distinctive native words like "Halt" and "Ja Wohl" are thrown into the dialogs in good measures to create an illusion of nationality among the cast.
Strangely, there are actually more Latin than German in this game. The reason is that your character, the professor, knows a bit of Latin and uses a few of these lines from time to time. When he meets a priest who also knows Latin, the subtitles do not provide any translation and the dialogs are simply transcribed verbatim on screen. Just say they know more Latin than I do... In the end, it does not matter much as the dialog is not vital but just some random conversation.
Undercover: Operation Wintersun is very good in setting a correct mood, without breaking the fourth wall or being over melodramatic when foreshadowing future events. This way, the game is deadly serious, as perhaps it should be, since the game deals with a serious subject matter. Very few developers dare to try to make an adventure game with this theme. The only adventure game series I can remember which has successfully dealt with this theme is the Indiana Jones series. However, that series is set in late 1930s and years earlier than this game. Moreover, while Indiana Jones features a humorous action hero globetrotting to a fantasy quest, Undercover: Operation Wintersun offers no such distraction. In fact, the game is rather humorless. This may be a good way to maintain a tense atmosphere, but it can also be pure boredom when you end up stuck in the game. There are no funny commentaries or inspiring voiceovers to keep up your interest. Instead, you are forced to listen to the monotonic voice of a slow talking old man who tells you, in a very boring manner, "It is not possible to connect these two objects."!
For novice players, the game offers a mode that can be triggered to instantly show all the objects and possible exits hidden in a scene. This is, of course, a great feature to avoid pixel hunting and ensure that the gameplay will move forward swiftly. Since the difficultly level of this game is pretty high, I recommend this novice mode to most players, except for the most diehard of fans.
Undercover: Operation Wintersun plays like a typical point-and-click adventure game. Right clicking is used to examine or look at objects but also to select specific actions such as use, talk to, or go to another scene. The dialogs interface has a nifty feature that marks the dialogs lines in a darker color if you have spoken them earlier. This can be useful if you are resuming from a saved game and want to check if there are new dialogs. The inventory is triggered by simply moving the mouse cursor to the bottom of the screen.
The game includes a few timed puzzles where you have to act quickly. You cannot die, however. Rather, the game just resets itself to the start of the puzzle if you are unable to do the correct actions in time. There is no need to keep saving the game all the time to mark your progress.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of Undercover: Operation Wintersun is the fact that it requires a high-end computer system with an adequately powered video graphics card. This is uncharacteristic in an adventure game, even for a current generation title. Moreover, the game supports only Windows XP but not Windows Vista officially (though the game appears to run well in the latter, except for playback problems of some pre-rendered videos).
The bottom line is that Undercover: Operation Wintersun is mainly targeted to experienced adventure gamers who have a vague interest in World War II. This is a game best suited for players who are looking for a real challenge to solve the quests on their own, rather than hoping for random bits of hints to be dropped onto them whenever they appear stuck. The game features a great atmosphere and dwells in a serious manner on historic events that have defined our times. Undercover: Operation Wintersun may be not a game for all adventure gamers, but it is a great challenge for a selected few.