You can never be sure with Eidos. The publisher releases some genuinely brilliant games (the previous two Tomb Raider titles, Chili Con Carnage, Just Cause, Rogue Trooper to name just a few), but also some very dodgy titles (Commandos: Strike Force, Kane & Lynch, Infernal, Reservoir Dogs, Angel of Darkness...). Sadly, in the case of Pivotal Games' Conflict: Denied Ops it's all too obvious which category it's going to fall into moments into the first level. This isn't a game to show off your new next-gen console with.
First things first. You're no longer part of a four-man team. In an attempt to make the Conflict series more appealing to casual gamers the team has been reduced to two and the third-person POV has been dropped in favour of a first-person viewpoint. Had these been the only changes to the series we might have still had a decent action game on our hands, but things get worse from this point on.
A major problem is how dislikeable the two main characters are. Both are hardened CIA Paramilitary operatives, but that doesn't really come across; instead, it's like you've gone out on an important military mission with two high-school jocks. Lincoln Graves is a sniper expert. He's also the older of the two men, a committed Christian with a loving wife and daughters, and he loves his country. Reggie Lang is far younger and a specialist in heavy weapons. He supposedly gave up his career as an American Football player after 9/11 to serve his country. He's apparently an impetuous and fearless warrior, but he comes across as an arrogant man with a few too many smart ass comments.
The two of them just can't shut up, constantly throwing one-liners at each other, with Lang by far the worst offender. The story makes some attempt to bring the two men closer together but it's about as believable as the paper thin characters, with Lang never more than a few minutes away from a comment in reference to being black. It's painful to listen to and leagues away from the kind of banter and personality Pivotal was obviously looking for.
As bad as this is, it could have been glossed over had the gameplay actually been up to anything. The problem is that Denied Ops feels like a Nintendo 64 era shooter trapped in the body of a PlayStation 2 game that's just come out of an expensive full body plastic surgery op. The premise behind the game is co-op play, but when playing alone you're going to have to hop between characters and direct your AI comrade. This just doesn't work. Both men have their advantages, with Graves' sniper skills always handy from distance and Lang's heavy machine gun the best choice during hectic fire-fights, but they just can't work together.
Denied Ops features a very simple point and click squad control system, so you aim somewhere, push a button, and your team-mate moves there. You've also got a command to make him follow you, something you're going to have to remember to use all the time. If you forget to issue a regroup command you'll find your partner half a map away, most likely at a time when you need him to give you medical assistance before your heart stops beating. In a dangerous situation he won't do it himself anyway, so you'll probably have to take direct control.
Mission objectives are generic and dull. You'll rarely have to do anything more than reach a location and plant a bomb, or use a computer terminal. Then there's the inevitable attack on the landing zone, which you'll have to clear up before your ride arrives. There's nothing overly bad about the controls during these combat situations, but it's all so uninspired. You'll gain new weapon add-ons as you progress (Graves' shotgun attachment for his sniper comes in very handy), but enemies never put up anything approaching a decent fight and you're always having to contend with your idiotic partner.
Missions take you to locations across South America, Africa and Siberia, and you often get some choice in the order you tackle these. The plot makes some attempt to link them all together, but you'll never feel like you're doing anything more than killing terrorists, over and over again, sometimes in a tank or hovercraft. The vehicle sections in Denied Ops are plain bad, with dodgy controls and almost no reason to be driving them in the first place. Most the time you can hop out and take on the enemies just as easily, if not more so, on foot.
Cooperative play via split-screen or online does make things more tolerable. You can at least play with a team mate who isn't going to get lost and hopefully will shoot enemies without you telling him to. It doesn't change the fact that the missions are dull and the enemy AI is dire though, leaving you with a fairly empty feeling. In fact, most situations can be overcome by Lang covering a door while Graves picks distant enemies off with his sniper - hardly riveting stuff.
To say Denied Ops looks bad isn't really fair. It features plenty of shiny, bumpy next-gen effects, plenty of explosions and even has some destructible scenery, but it just doesn't look good together. It's as if the game had been designed for last-gen consoles and then given a graphical facelift, in an attempt to paint over the lack of geometry in the environments. Nothing in the game seems to sit well in its environment. This is made all the worse when the frame rate starts to chug when anything of interest happens on screen. As an Xbox 360 launch title we'd have been questioning the console's power, but now you can only question the developer.
Multiplayer modes are supported for up to 16 players online (four via split-screen) and sadly there's little good to be found here either. It's incredibly hard to find a game and getting a full server is next to impossible, although this might be a good thing given the lag experienced during the less than half full games I played. A decent Conquest mode in which you must hold onto control points is the best game mode on offer, but lag and too few players ruined the little fun on offer.
At one point in the game I walked up to a friendly, key NPC. He was someone the two of us had been assigned to protect. Being a nice chap and with a 'Press A to talk' command on screen I obliged. This resulted in my man slamming the butt off his gun into the soldier's face, killing him instantly. I was lost for words. Conflict Denied Ops is a mess of a game in all senses of the term. Its gameplay is at least one generation behind the competition, its presentation is like a collection of every graphical effect thrown into a mixing pot and poured onto the screen and the online implementation leaves a lot to be desired. Sadly, it joins a growing list of next-gen shooters that must be avoided at all costs.