Game Description: In the role of Jean-Luc, players navigate through detailed 3D environments. The main character is diplayed from a thrid-person perspective that is perfect to show off Couger's 350 different actions. Next to the usual camera control, players can fire their weapons by pressing A or open doors, pick up items and press buttons. The B-button lets you reload your gun at any time, Z is for crouching, and C-Down locks you in your current position to let you roll or jump. The game covers four main stages, each of which is broken down into smaller areas that players may explore for additional weapons and items.
I think it was Masamune Shirow's manga masterpiece, Appleseed, that first got me interested in anti-terrorism operations and tactics. However, it was Sierra's 'point & click' adventure, SWAT (4th in the Police Quest series), that turned me into a junkie for this elite-forces type of thing. As a game, SWAT was paper-thin and universally panned by critics. Although it was lacking in the gameplay department, it was filled with deadly accurate recreations of the actual Los Angeles SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team training, methodology, and procedures. Through the full-motion video-laden simulation (that spanned 4 CD-ROMs), I learned about mirroring (using a handheld mirror to spy into rooms or around corners), slicing-the-pie (moving around corners incrementally to avoid surprise attacks), and other stealth actions. I became familiar with what weapons SWAT employed and what specific purpose each one served. I was fascinated with these concepts, but sadly, no game outside of Police Questever made these modern stealth techniques its main focus. That was, until I got my hands on Koei's long-in-development 3rd person action shooter, Winback.
I'm sure pundits will be quick to point out my last statement isn't entirely correct and I'd be inclined to agree that Winback isn't the first attempt to include true stealth elements. So let me quickly address the two other games have attempted to do so, but in my opinion have failed, Metal Gear Solid and Rainbow Six. Out of the two, Metal Gear Solid is a total farce. The game is billed as 'Tactical Espionage Action' but the game is far more make-believe than real-world simulation. The notion of someone sneaking around in a box, snapping necks and remote-controlling rockets is simply ridiculous and more akin to summer blockbuster movies than reality. Rainbow Six, on the other hand, is far more worthy of mention. With a solid foundation stemming from Tom Clancy's techno-babble novel, Rainbow Six gets all the planning and strategizing portions of an operation right, but ultimately fails to empower the player with the physical abilities necessary to move with true stealth precision during the actual execution. Instead, player's actions are limited to an archaic first-person shooter setup.
Winback may lack the team strategy elements of Rainbow Six, but what it does have is an innovative control scheme that maximizes the Nintendo 64 controller capabilities and allows for what I consider, for the first-time, the ability to manipulate a videogame character with real-world stealth techniques that are practically accurate. By using the A-button to back against walls, the Z-trigger to crouch, and the R-shoulder button to peak in and out of corners, Winback allows the user to 'slice-the-pie' under his or her own control. The left and right C-buttons are utilized to adjust camera angles for tactical advantages, which is like 'mirroring' corners. The remaining buttons deal with other necessary functions like weapons reloading, lock-on targeting, and item selection. It sounded a bit complicated at first, but by the time I was finished with the in-game tutorial, I was already very comfortable with the responsive controls and ready to jump into the one-player 'Story Mode' Winback offers.
The plot of Winback involves a terrorist organization taking over a facility and commandeering a satellite weapon in orbit. An independent agency called S.C.A.T. (Strategic Covert Actions Team) is sent in to stop them from causing any further damage. Unlike Rainbow Six, player control is resigned to controlling one member of the group and while the actual plot isn't anything to write home about, at least the developers aren't foolish enough to think that a lone soldier is able to stop an army (unlike some other obtuse, reptilian-sounding person). So players spend the majority of the game sneaking around and getting into fire fights with enemies that possessed AI (artificial intelligence) ranging from paralyzingly dumb to dangerously sharp. All the while, of course, there are a variety of mission objectives to complete. Along the way, cut-sequences of passable quality held my interest by interjecting story elements during and in-between stages that progressed seamlessly rather than feeling like they're worlds apart. Winback also possessed superior level design that correctly balanced out puzzle and action elements with a fair amount of difficulty that didn't overly frustrate me. Winback got my attention early and held it for long periods of time. I was never bored or dissatisfied with playing this game.
As far as presentation goes, Winback is a mixed bag. The polygon models and environments seem a bit simplistic and bland, but the detail of textured skins on characters is as impressive as the stunning animation, which boasts over 300 types of motions according to Koei. Character designs are quite good and breathe a bit of life to the game, but, conversely, Winback has a huge cast of characters, many of whom are severely underused. Sound is also fairly decent, but not a standout as far as I'm concerned. The music, while simplistic, does have a nice touch of becoming more dramatic and tense as player life decreases to dangerously fatal levels. Apparently, Winback has suffered a tad due to its numerous delays because the graphics and audio definitely feel dated.
Winback does have other drawbacks. For instance, due to the inconsistent computer AI, it was not uncommon to find myself in ridiculously close shootouts like the ones out of Naked Gun. On the same note, however, I found that the complaints of many other critics were unfounded. Take, for example, the arsenal of weapons made available throughout the game. Some said it was severely lacking, but anyone who knows anything about real-world combat tactics knows that a handgun (almost universally, the Colt .45), submachine gun (MP5, regarded as the best indoor firearm), assault rifle (M-16 for long range shooting), and the shotgun (used for spread-fire in close-range and for busting doors open) are all standard-issue weapons. So rather than seeing the select choice of weapons as a nod to reality-based simulation, some people chose to see it as a lack of variety (the developers even threw in a rocket launcher for good measure and fun).
Complaints befell upon the multiplayer modes as well and mainly about the ineffectiveness of stealth tactics against human opponents and how the whole thing was reduced to another typical me-too deathmatcher. Again, I found these criticisms to be unwarranted. I thought the stealth elements and the temporary invincibility after taking a shot made all the difference; requiring that there be far more technique and strategy to be successful. It's common knowledge that Nintendo persuaded Koei to invest more time into the multiplayer side of Winback (hence, the long delay) and as far as I'm concerned, it was well worth it. I found the multiplayer experience in Winback to be one of the most satisfying ones around in recent times. Compared to the choppy and inconsistent results of Jet Force Gemini's or Duke Nukem: Zero Hour's multiplayer modes, Winback's outshine the competition with full blown 4-player deathmatches and capture the flag contests as well as two-player versus modes, which were given special attention. Usually, two-player matches get old quick, but Winback addresses that by including a variety of other contests beyond deathmatching, with interesting twists like 'lethal tag' (cat & mouse chase with whomever is 'it' having the scoring advantage) and 'cube hunt' (race to collect or shoot color-coded cubes).
I'm afraid mixed reviews will doom Winback to a cult-sleeper because rather than recognizing the level of authenticity the game brings to the table, many instead chose to focus on what they misperceived as weaknesses and not as strengths. I agree that Winback isn't perfect, but I don't think you need an in-depth knowledge of SWAT in order to enjoy it either (though it helps). To truly appreciate Winback for what it is, you shouldn't unjustly compare it to games like Metal Gear Solid, which are conceptually different altogether. Winback is unique and I found its accuracy toward real-world stealth tactics, rock-solid level designs, gratifying multiplayer modes, and control and gameplay innovations far outweighed any negatives. I confidently recommend Winback and it will remain on my playlist long after I've written this review.
Chi is dead-on with the control issue. Playing Winback can feel totally natural, considering the things that Jean Luc (the main character) is doing. Leaning against walls and jumping out is done almost perfectly thanks to smooth animation and well-placed button assignments. I never saw the 'limited' choice of weapons as a problem because when I needed them to, the weapons worked. And besides, this isn't GoldenEye 007. It's a military stealth game, not a movie-port about a romantic superspy. The thing that hurt Winback for me was the enemy AI. Sometimes, as Chi said, they were eerily smart but there were many other times when they were little more than shooting-gallery targets. Enemies would sometimes run up to me and stop dead once they lost sight of me. Or they would just stand off in the distance only to be picked off like clay pigeons. Their standing in the open for my shooting pleasure was good for me because it enabled me to more easily progress through the game, but it ruined the very authenticity Koei was shooting for (pun intended).
All in all, Winback surprised me, it's faults like the graphics and music (Chi and I agree here) and AI (I think it needs some work) take it down a bit but they certainly don't ruin it. Often, I was able to do things, like a duck and roll for a sweet shot of an unsuspecting guard that looked real and certainly felt rewarding once I did it. I don't know what Winback would have looked like had Nintendo not 'urged' them to work on it a little longer but it's obvious that Winback was solid from the beginning. Throughout, Winback feels complete and focused. It's good enough, dare I say to have come from one of Nintendo's own development studios. I can't wait for the sequel.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Violence, Mild Language
Metal Gear Solid junkies looking for a similar fix may be disappointed by the subtle differences in Winback. Metal Gear Solid is far slicker in terms of its presentation and production values because it's trying to look and feel like a high-budgeted Hollywood motion picture. Winback, on the other hand, offers something closer (though not entirely accurate either) to a tactical simulation with more control and maneuvering. The comparisons warrant Beatles vs. Stones-like furor and Nintendo 64 fans should definitely side with Winback and hail it as a wonderfully unique experience and a tribute to the superior Nintendo 64 controller rather than degrading it as a Metal Gear Solid clone.
It's also worthy to note that the multiplayer modes in Winback are well developed and far more satisfying than any other one in recent memory. Those who waited on this one for the longest time will not be disappointed. It was well worth the time.
Long awaited by N64 fans, WINBACK has been one of the season's surprise sleeper hits. Since little is known about the action shooter, we couldn't be more thrilled to present this exclusive interview with WINBACK's Producer, Tomoike Takazumi, who previously served as the Director of Dynasty Warriors and the Producer of Destrega. It took plenty of patience on our part, but it was well worth the wait because Tomoike-san was enthusiastic and candid with his following comments:
What served as the main inspiration for WINBACK?
One of our staff used to make "shooting games" for arcade video games. He came to us with the idea of making an action game from the third person viewpoint that utilized the N64's rather special controller (3D stick, Z-trigger, etc.). That was what started our project. I guess you could say that it wasn't any game that inspired us, it was the controller.
WINBACK is quite possibly the most innovative use of the N64 controller since Super Mario 64. Please tell us more about the control interface and how it was designed?
We have not received a lot of praise for our use of the controller, so I am particularly happy with the fact that you noticed. Though the controls may give the impression of being complicated, I believe that our system provides a way to do a variety of actions through a few simple controls. It is common to use the Z-trigger as the trigger of the gun in most shooting games. However, WINBACK is a game from the third person point of view. We wanted to emphasize the actions of the player character; for example, "standing and squatting", "pressing up against the wall and then jumping out." This led to our uncommon use of the controller. If the 3D stick is used for movement, then it seems natural to assign the squatting function to the Z-trigger. Movement is controlled by the thumb (3D stick) and the first finger (Z-trigger) of the left hand, while action is controlled by the first finger (R-trigger) and thumb (A-button) of the right hand. The point being that with just these four fingers, the player can elicit a variety of actions.
In my review for WINBACK, I quickly noted that WINBACK was fairly authentic towards real-world tactics and operations from elite combat units like SWAT. Was any extensive research done in those regards or was any tactical 'expert' consulted during development?
We are truly thankful for the praise. However, we must admit that a lot of what we did was to make a better game, not specifically to conform to reality. Although we referred to a number of different books and movies, we did not consult an "expert." Still, one of our staff is fond of guns, so we did put a lot of effort into making the motions as realistic as possible.
Many people have called WINBACK a N64 clone of Metal Gear Solid (MGS). How do you feel about those comparisons and do you think they are fair?
Totally unfair and unwarranted. The basic idea is totally different. WINBACK was designed to bring out the fun of shooting a gun. The "setting" sort of came after that. On the other hand, it seems to me that the goal of MGS seems to be to immerse you in the setting, the world, with the action itself being secondary. I would hope that more people would try to look past the surface similarities and see the differences.
At the time WINBACK was being developed, were you aware of Metal Gear Solid and did that affect any design decisions?
When the WINBACK project started three years ago, there was no information concerning a PlayStation version of MGS. Even after it came out, we never referred to it for our game. Excellent games are frequently used as references. However, with regards to WINBACK, I can say with total certainty that MGS did not influence our game in the slightest.
There are some wonderfully distinct character designs in the game that added personality to the game. Who was responsible for the character designs?
Character designs were done by a member of our Koei staff, Mr. Yuichiro Endo.
While both Dale (the other critic on the site) and I were extremely positive with the final results, we also both felt that there was still plenty of untapped potential in the game. We also noted obvious areas that could be improved like the enemy AI and other features that could be added like multiple character selections or more diverse weaponry and equipment. Is a sequel in the works and what new features can we expect?
It all depends on how well WINBACK does in the States. If it does well then there is a better chance that we will do a sequel. As you pointed out, there are a number of features that need to be improved. Even while we were putting the finishing touches on this version of WINBACK, our staff was coming up with a number of ideas on how it could be improved. Though we could not put them into this version, we will definitely put them into the next.
Lastly, is there something personal that you would like our readers to know about WINBACK?
Omega-Force's (one of Koei's development teams) top priority is to present games that satisfy the customer. We believe that WINBACK has succeeded in maintaining our high standards. We hope you enjoy the fun of control.
Special thanks to Tomoike Takazumi, Omega-Force and Amos Ip over at Koei U.S. for assisting us with the screens and art.