One man and his gun.

Now hear me out on this one. How bizarre would it be if the first ever third person cover shooter ever made was not, in fact, Western made, but instead by a small Japanese team more famous for the Dynasty Warriors franchise? It sounds like something I’ve just pulled from thin air, but, it’s actually the truth.

Operation WinBack (known simply as WinBack outside of Europe and Australia) was indeed the earliest form of cover shooter as we know the subgenre today. You play as Jean-Luc, member of a counter terrorist unit known as SCAT, who are as inept as they are unfortunately named. On a mission to stop the Crying Lions terrorist cell from nuking the earth with deadly satellite laser beams, members of the group initiate the titular Operation Winback, but as you’d expect, are slowly whittled down, The Raid style, until just a few are left. It’s a bare bones narrative, but as an early cover shooter, it never had to be anything else. Plus, the game itself knows the actual plot is minimal, so developer Omega Force made up for this with one of the best intro scenes to a video game ever produced.

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Cover Me in SCAT

Operation WinBack is a unique beast, even within the infamously limited confines of the subgenre it helped create. It plays like a charming cross between Metal Gear Solid and Time Crisis; while most of the time there isn’t a time limit to speak of, the rapid pace at which you’ll move through the stages, ducking and dashing between cover spots is quite reminiscent of Namco’s classic arcade shooter. In addition to this, you’ll be sneaking around and snooping out the best vantage points to best dispatch any hapless terrorists you come across.

The levels themselves are all based around the headquarters of the Crying Lions. Starting on the outskirts of the base in wide outdoor areas, you’ll eventually make your way inside the base where the game can occasionally become a literal corridor shooter. Level design and progression is reminiscent of Resident Evil 4; you’re led primarily along one path with the occasional branch in which to explore, but you’ll also cover old ground a few times as you backtrack to pick up health kits, insert keys into doors, throw switches and whatnot. Unlike Resident Evil 4 however, the level design in Winback is certainly nothing special, comprised largely of cramped corridors, sewers and office spaces. Thankfully, it’s the cover shooting mechanics are where Operation WinBack stands out from the imitators.

No, Jean-Luc. That metal container isn't the real threat here...

No, Jean-Luc. That metal container isn’t the real threat here…

You know when you were a kid and you would run around the house, forming your hands into a pistol shape and peeking around corners looking for imaginary enemies? Because Operation WinBack reminds me a lot of that. As Jean-Luc, you’ll run between every piece of cover you can find, poking out to shoot the baddies as they appear. Initially Jean-Luc has an arsenal of three weapons: a handgun with unlimited ammo, a sub-machine gun, and a powerful shotgun that fires three bullets at once. While the latter two certainly aren’t useless, the handgun is powerful enough that it’s what you’ll be using most of the time. Further into the game Jean-Luc can make use of additional one-time-use weapons such as a silenced pistol or a rocket launcher. There’s also the occasional C4 pickups, but they’re only particularly useful in certain situations, where they can admittedly save you a ton of trouble.

You’ll mostly rely on the game’s auto-targeting feature to quickly kill your terrorist foes. Manually aiming, by contrast, is a pain in the bum.

Similarly to games like Resident Evil 4 and the Rainbow Six series, Jean-Luc’s weapons are fitted with a laser sight, to aid you when aiming. However, you’ll mostly rely on the game’s auto-targeting feature to quickly kill your terrorist foes. Manually aiming, by contrast, is a pain in the bum. Aiming this way is very stiff and robotic, and compared to the smoother aiming of Resident Evil 4 it’s completely laughable. There are times where you’ll want to manually aim for an insta-kill headshot, in addition to the times when manual aiming is a necessity, but it’s often easier to just unload your clip on enemies using auto targeting.

That’s Good, Jean-Luc. You’re Doing Well!

So with all its flaws, is WinBack still worth playing today? Oh, absolutely. The emphasis on cover shooting and the feeling of never quite knowing what’s going to be around the next corner create a level of tension the genre has seldom seen in a while. The visuals of the PS2 version also hold up quite well, with a solid framerate to boot.

You’ll notice I’ve made reference to Resident Evil 4 a few times in this reflection. Well, that’s because WinBack is not only a superb game, it was also incredibly influential. Similar cover mechanics were adopted for use in Metal Gear Solid 2, and the game has since gone on to inspire the likes of Shinji Mikami’s magnum opus, as well as Epic’s Gears of War series. So, hats off to you, Omega Force; you get a lot of stick for making tons of Dynasty Warriors games, but when it comes down to it, you’re a great little studio capable of amazing things.

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