How many Nazis can you kill with the same five weapons? That seems to be the theme of most games based on World War II these days. Not to knock the very good WWII-themed first-person shooters, like the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series, though long-in-the-tooth they may be. Brothers-in-Arms breathed some new life into the genre with its emphasis on squad tactics. Yet the subject matter has been in need of a fresh approach for some time, and the way has been paved by such admirable entries as the submarine combat simulator, Silent Hunter (III and IV), and the excellent real-time strategy opus, Company of Heroes. It was on the heels of playing these two "revivalist" titles that the WWII-based graphic adventure, Undercover: Operation Wintersun, crossed my desk, filling me with the hope that we had at last broken free of the mix-and-bake, 1940s combat FPS and I could return my Panzerschreck to its place of honor in the garage next to my golf clubs.
I will tell you up front so that you don't have to wait for it: Undercover: Operation Wintersun (Wintersun) disappointed me. It wasn't the Noir-ish yet somewhat bland World War II setting, or the laid-back and worry-free pace. It wasn't even the rather stilted voice-acting for the main character which sounded as though the actor was improvising his script while playing the game. The voice acting for other characters was actually much more palatable. And even beyond that, it wasn't the difficult, bordering on ridiculous puzzle challenges. In all of that Wintersun is the consummate classic graphic adventure. And that is precisely why this otherwise adequate title failed to satisfy me.
Take a trip with me back to the text-adventures I played in the late 1970s and you would find a boy who couldn't get enough of them. When graphics were added to the mix somewhere in the 1980s I was newly enraptured with these journeys of imagination. Through the intervening years between then and now the genre channeled the mythical Phoenix time and time again. As much as I once loved those games I think it's time to stick a fork in the genre, at least when it comes to the brand of puzzle-solving that ends with the player cycling twice through his inventory to see which ridiculously unlikely item will unlock the magic treasure chest. The key found lying next to the chest apparently belongs to the liquor cabinet or something.
If Wintersun had appeared on my Apple IIgs in 1986 I would have wept for what could only have been a heaven-sent miracle. But in 2007 this kind of gameplay just feels completely uninspired to me. The sometimes ludicrous combination of unmatched inventory items required to solve often mundane puzzles is about as pointless an exercise as digging one hole in order to fill in another. Wintersun is full of such tedious obstacles to fun, and I now wonder if the joy I extracted from those 25-year-old games was simply the product of the state of the art at the time.
And speaking of art, the graphic elements in Wintersun often seem a bit inconsistent, particularly certain exterior scenes which appear like background paintings that the characters are walking past rather than immersive settings that the characters should be walking through. This is not a show-stopping problem, but in the company of wanting gameplay it becomes noteworthy as yet another almost-but-not-quite-polished feature. Minor issues like this normally escape my notice if there is at least one overwhelmingly attractive feature of a game, however for my experience Wintersun sadly lacks any such stand out.
Wintersun is in every way the classic graphic adventure of old, and in that respect it both excels and stumbles. What "wowed' us in 1986 no longer does, and so Wintersun likewise fails to deliver as a classic game in contemporary attire. Today's graphic adventures are found, I feel, in the likes of Half-Life 2 and its sequels. While categorized as "shooters" such modern adventure games fulfill all the prerequisites of classic adventures: story, setting, scene, dialog, and a generous helping of puzzles. And add into that something that most classic adventures lack: action and tension. The days of consequence-free adventuring are long gone, I think, especially in the face of competing genres that immerse the player in much more compelling ways than we see in Wintersun. I'll leave it at this: if you are incurably nostalgic for the old-style graphic adventures, then you will be suitably pleased with the stylish presentation and sometimes engaging gameplay of Undercover: Operation Wintersun. If you are a fringe adventurer or have otherwise "moved on", then you can safely live out the rest of your days without giving this worthy yet lacking opus another thought.