I started reviewing James Bond games for the awesome first-person shooters, but I was interested in all the older games that came before them as well. From the start I was wary, however, of Operation Stealth. I have never had the greatest opinion of point & click puzzle games and, going by the stories I heard, this one would feature every design choice in these games that I resent. With some hesitation, I tried it out anyway and quickly found that hearsay isn’t always unreliable.
Though it was developed by French studio Delphine Software, the game only adopted the James Bond license in America. Other regions got to play Operation Stealth as master spy John Glames, an American operative dispatched to a fictional South American country to look for a stealth bomber stolen from an American airbase.
As Glames pursues his leads in Santa Paragua he soon winds up discovering a greater conspiracy starring the KGB, a secret organization of criminals, and the country’s el Presidente who has seemingly changed into a different person entirely overnight.
While it has the puzzle pieces for a spy thriller, the game’s wacky point & click adventure game approach to storytelling and dialogue are a poor fit for the James Bond license. Glames (and his properly-licensed counterpart) come off as too comically-inept and the story is more concerned with trying to be funny. Plot elements just come and go, with especially villains getting routinely replaced without ever developing any of them.
Sexy ladies may be a core part of the James Bond experience, but Julia in this story is really just there for the sake of being the sexy lady to be romanced off-screen. Her role in the story is so negligible even the villain has a change of mind while kidnapping her and just tosses her to the side. Even as a comedic point & click game I wouldn’t rate Operation Stealth anywhere near the level of other greats. The dialogue and jokes are too stiff and obvious, and the adventure itself is just too mundane and uninteresting.
Story score: 3/10
A death 2 hours in the making
Operation Stealth is the kind of point & click adventure game that genre aficionados must absolutely resent. These kinds of games already get criticized a lot and many of the standard arguments people use are perfectly represented here.
From the moment you land on the airport of Santa Paragua you’ll be running up against asinine gameplay mechanics and stupid puzzle design. The game gives you close to no directions, but if you have the gall of just trying to play it and figure out what to do, it will immediately kill you and mock you on the death screen. Already the first few puzzles require you to interact and examine tiny details in the environment, sometimes going so far as to be literally invisible.
You can examine, take, operate, or speak with objects and people in the environment, as with many other games like this. The inventory is messy and difficult to operate, especially late game when there are too many items in there and many of them have long since lost their purpose. The controls are generally fine, even if Glames has a bad habit of getting stuck on scenery and losing his way.
However, I absolutely can not fathom how anybody would derive joy from the puzzles the game presents. Many of them are entirely unexplained or I didn’t even realize I was faced with a puzzle. Many of them you have to be preemptively aware of and gather items for that will be lost forever if you don’t take them on the one opportunity where they are available. And, again, these items can be unassuming or not even visibly present. One mandatory item is found in a plant on a screen so cluttered I didn’t even see the plant itself. If you don’t take that item, you just can’t finish the game and won’t realize until several hours later.
Several puzzles feature similar dead ends or have you solve them with the narrowest of time limits. Even after figuring out how to do them (frequently after a maddening pixel hunt) I’d still only barely make it each time. Death has you reload one of your manual save points, yet unless you meticulously track multiple save files you might have to reload a save that is already doomed because you missed a vital item.
As a final deathblow to any entertainment value the game might have had, it features a number of mini-games that you must play. All of them have wonky controls and none of them are entertaining. You have to swim through an underground cavern while replenishing air at a sparse few air pockets, complete more than half a dozen mazes, and even complete a jetski race. I appreciate the attempt at variety, but especially the mazes will drive the average player crazy.
Gameplay score: 1/10
How did they ever get the license
Operation Stealth is not a bad-looking game, so long as none of it has to move. Backgrounds are frequently quite nice and impressive, even for screens that only appear once or which are just for a brief cutscene. Santa Paragua has some atmosphere to it, which makes it a shame that it falls apart when actual people inhabit it.
The character designs are terrible. Glames is so boring and generic I often lost track of him in busier moments, the evil henchmen are all comically oversized, and love interest Julia has an hourglass shape so preposterous that it’s actually unsettling to see, not helped at all by the drunken stumble they try to pass off as her walking animation.
The game frequently slows down when anything complex happens and chapters are cut up with these weird loading screens where characters walk around an empty screen for a while. The dialogue boxes are also messy and oversized, with spacing between words and sentences often going all over the place and random lines being in all-caps. It’s also frequently unclear to me who was actually talking or if something was meant to be a thought or internal monologue.
Presentation score: 4/10
I contemplated skipping Operation Stealth and using its licensing situation as an excuse. I haven’t had a good reason to get angry at a game for a while though and this one brought up a lot of anger and annoyance in me. It’s so ineptly designed and hostile to the player that it almost feels deliberately sabotaged. Still, it’s awfulness is better observed through a Let’s Play than experienced firsthand.