Title  : WinBack
Platforms  : Nintendo 64, Sony PlayStation 2
Publisher  : Koei
ESRB Rating  : Teen
Game Rating  : 9.0
Review by  : Ken Gagne

For years, the Nintendo 64 game console dominated the spy genre, with Goldeneye topping the sales charts month after month. This year, Sony took back a piece of the pie with Syphon Filter, an excellent third-person perspective action game. 

Now, with the release of Koei's WinBack, the Nintendo 64 is in a position to reclaim the lead. (Also available for PlayStation 2) 

In WinBack, as in Seagal's "Under Siege 2," a terrorist group has taken control of a government satellite which can fire on any location on Earth with pinpoint accuracy. The Strategic Covert Actions Team (SCAT) is dispersed into enemy territory with orders to retake control of the satellite. Players assume the role of team member Jean-Luc Cougar (I wonder if he was born with that name?) in this third-person action game. 

Cougar's repertoire of moves is impressive yet manageable. His laser scope-equipped gun comes with infinite ammo and can be automatically or manually aimed. Cougar can run, crawl, and roll, but the key to catching the enemy by surprise is the "Swing Out-Swing Back" move. Cougar can press himself against a wall, inch to the corner, then pop out to fire rounds at unsuspecting guards, before resuming cover and reloading. 

These moves are performed with a marginal controller configuration. A handful of buttons have multiple assignments, which is initially confusing but makes for quick responses later. 

Most of Cougar's time will be spent ducking behind barrels and firing at the enemy. This can be as dull as sniping bad guys from a distance, or as extreme as engaging in a gunfight, reloading at the most inopportune times, then finding yourself surrounded. Cougar lacks the ability to run and fire simultaneously, despite having a "camera lock" function similar to Zelda 64's, which keeps Cougar facing a particular enemy as the characters move. 

The graphics are large and detailed. Imagine Syphon Filter close-up: instead of streets and parks, Cougar moves through corridors and rooms. The attention to detail in Cougar's movements is astounding, and gives an authentic movie-like feel to the game. There are a few camera issues, such as getting the camera pointed precisely, and keeping it there. First-time players should head straight to the Configuration menu and set Camera Control to Normal and Camera Pan to Auto. Cinema sequences occur in real-time, as opposed to full-motion video of most PlayStation games. 

Music is an integral part to WinBack's atmosphere. It's the type of tense soundtrack you'd find in a movie, and becomes more intense as Cougar nears death. Sound effects, from exploding drums to the occasional soldier shouting "Over here!", complement the setting. Some audio dialogue, a la Metal Gear Solid, would've been great, but probably unfeasible given the limitations of the Nintendo 64 cartridge format. 

The levels are long and difficult. Cougar can continue from checkpoints after dying, but progress can be saved to a memory card only between stages. Though performing the same tasks repeatedly in attempt after attempt to clear a stage may seem tedious, progress is sufficiently steady to alleviate any boredom. 

Koei went the extra step and included some great multiplayer features – an unexpected yet appreciated feature for a game in the spy genre! Up to four players can compete in eight stages and six modes. Whether the goal is firing accuracy, search-and-capture, or the classic death match (in teams, if you prefer), the action is always fast and fun. Players can choose to be any of the game's cast members, with several hidden characters await to be unlocked. 

WinBack has all the elements of an excellent game: good control, intense soundtrack, intriguing characters, satisfying challenge, and wild multiplayer modes. A bit more variety in the action and some tighter graphics would've made WinBack even better. Gamers looking for an N64 equivalent of Syphon Filter need look no farther than WinBack.


This article is copyright (c) 1999, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 08-Nov-99