Conflict: Denied Ops Review
The idea of two kick-ass military agents heading into dangerous situations all over the world is intriguing. In this way, Conflict: Denied Ops is similar to Army of Two, although the latter is probably a better choice if you want to team up with a buddy and take on hordes of bad guys. The problem with Pivotal's title is that it fails to live up to next-gen standards and quickly becomes an exercise in boredom and tedium, which isn't an attractive trait. We would've expected something far more accomplished after researching the preview, but as usual, good ideas need good implementation in order to result in a good game. Instead, poor implementation of good ideas results in a mediocre game, and it becomes all the more evident the further you progress in Denied Ops. Much of the time, you're forced to focus on the flaws and shortcomings, and only briefly do you get to revel in some good old-fashioned FPS entertainment. And quite frankly, that's just backwards.
The graphics are lacking in a variety of areas, especially when it comes to character modeling. They're worse than mediocre, and strangely enough, it seems as if the enemy soldiers actually look better than either Graves or Lang. The backdrops tend to have a lot of good detail, but it's often lost amidst bad clarity and some other technical issues. The frame rate lags and even freezes up during times of intense action, and when you're up close and personal with the environment, you'll quickly realize that the hodge-podge of grays, greens and browns are mostly disappointing. You will explore relatively diverse locations, but there's nothing too inspired about the level design, so despite the difference in appearance, most every level feels exactly the same. Furthermore, considering that the technical achievement of most high-profile FPSs is pretty damn impressive, this effort's glaring drawbacks in the graphics department are even more obvious. Conflict: Denied Ops doesn't even live up to some launch titles on the PS3, and that's definitely not a good sign.
The sound isn't any better. Only the explosions are jarring and intense enough to have a home in what's supposed to be a supremely hot shooter; the rest of the effects fall well shy of the target. There's not enough distinction between many of the weapons (and there aren't many firearms to begin with), the voice acting ranges from barely average to downright horrendous, and too much of the battle sound is either muted or off-balance. Just to keep us from falling asleep, we started using heavier weapons and grenades to maintain a certain level of immersion. The generic movement and impact effects aren't exactly bad, but they're certainly not of the highest quality, and everything just seems...bland. The repetitive and unimpressive soundtrack doesn't help, either, although the music does tend to have the required sense of urgency. Provided developers can at least match the atmosphere with passable sound and a rousing soundtrack, things should come out okay, but Pivotal only half-completes their goal in both respects.
You will play as both Graves and Lang in this cooperative-based adventure, and you can switch between them at any given time during the single-player campaign. Obviously, if you play with a friend, one of you will play as Graves and the other as Lang; it's a fairly straightforward scenario and one loaded with excellent possibilities. It can add an entirely new dimension to the standard FPS formula, and let's face it, this is one genre that could use a little originality and innovation. It's even better that Graves and Lang have different attributes and weapons: Graves is the grizzled veteran that prefers to sit back with a sniper rifle and survey the situation. Lang carries the heavy weaponry and prefers rushing into battle with little regard for his own safety. Graves is quicker and quieter, making him a better candidate for stealth kills, while Lang is slower but more powerful and capable of taking more abuse. Now, on the surface, this is a gameplay scenario that should appeal to most any gamer.
Unfortunately, everything starts to fall apart almost immediately. We have a laundry list of complaints: poor AI, a simplified yet somewhat unreliable co-op combat mechanic, slow load times, a lack of weapons, iffy vehicle control, erratic collision detection, etc, etc, etc. One of the most frustrating problems centered on the AI of your partner during the single-player campaign; unless you constantly issue commands to take a certain position, he could very well lag behind and just sit there, waiting for you to die. You can revive the other member of the duo by giving him a quick adrenaline shot - and he'll do the same for you if you go down - but the two just don't work well together. Graves really dislikes his rookie teammate, so maybe that's the reason he takes so long to revive Lang when he goes down in another hail of bullets. It's also no fun to be a gunner in a vehicle while your partner simply sits behind the wheel, refusing to drive. Factor in the bizarre control system when tooling around in a tank by yourself (any particular reason we can't drive and shoot at the same time without zooming in?), and you've got a game that's just riddled with problems.
Thing is, we wouldn't be so annoyed if these problems didn't directly impede the flow of the game. But sadly, almost all of them do. The game introduces several sweet new weapons and gadgets over the course of the game - that camera gun on Graves' rifle is both realistic and a lot of fun to use - but everything just boils down to one tried-and-true style of play: when approaching a fortress or enemy installment from a distance, it's best to switch to Graves and snipe away. If you don't, he definitely won't take the initiative. When negotiating tight areas indoors, it's probably a good idea to switch to Lang with his trusty machine gun. You can instruct Graves to take up a convenient sniping position while you tear things up when going toe-to-toe with the enemy. But beyond this, there's really nothing else to think about; strategy is mostly reliant on your ability to weed out the majority of baddies before waltzing in like Rambo, and battling with the co-op system. The one you aren't controlling just never seems to know what to do.
The game is entertaining at times, though. The basic control and aiming mechanic works very well - even though we think the characters bounce a bit too much when they walk - and issuing a command is as easy as indicating a spot with your aiming reticle and hitting the L2 button. You use the same button for when you fall in battle and need your buddy to get you back into the action. Even so, there are problems even here- for example, we had a very difficult time trying to figure out how to issue the "move here" command and the "come to me" command, simply because you use the same button for both. As for the revival technique, we often had to press the L2 button more than a few times to get "resurrected;" we once watched Graves crouch right next to our prone body, unengaged by an enemy and just ignoring us. We had to press the L2 button again to get him to actually move. But at the very least, the majority of the gameplay remains accessible to most anyone, and there aren't any crippling issues when it comes to control. If only Pivotal put in the requisite amount of effort to refine the overall gameplay.
Conflict: Denied Ops sets out to deliver a fun-filled engaging cooperative FPS experience, but it quickly trips and stumbles due to numerous problems. The AI is very poor, the graphics and sound could've been much, much better, there are a few irritating eccentricities with the co-op mechanic, the story is lame, and each mission basically ends the same way. Yep, clear the extraction zone and get the hell out of there. We also hated it when our dead-on sniper shot appeared to miss the target entirely, forcing us to make the shot a second time (what the hell?!). On the good side, the checkpoints are generally well positioned and the weapons and gadgets are pretty cool, but that's about all we have. Oh, and the online gameplay is only average the entire way 'round and quite unremarkable. Run around with 15 other players in Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Conquest), and use either Graves or Lang in each multiplayer mode. It's nothing special, and being limited to only one character and one weapon is ridiculous.
This game could've used another few months in development so as to iron out the flaws and little glitches, because this entire production feels rushed. If you're looking for an action game to play through with a friend, Army of Two is probably the better choice (even though that's no gem, either), and we really can't recommend Denied Ops for any reason.
5/19/2008 Ben Dutka