The textbook definition of a generic third-person shooter.
For a franchise that started originally with purely action figures, it’s impressive how much G.I. Joe has become synonymous with the licensed Saturday morning cartoons of the mid-1980’s and how much staying power it’s had over the course of almost half a century. With TV shows, movies, comics, and even games, it’s outlasted even the most optimistic estimates, and those original action figures are some of the most valuable things in entertainment. Fittingly, G.I. Joe: Operation Blackout is a lot like an action figure. It’s immediately recognizable and fits the style of the cartoons, but beneath its façade, it’s generic, shallow, and easily duplicated. Its G.I. Joe skin is enough for a glimpse of nostalgic fun, but after a while, Operation Blackout becomes grating and forgettable.
As always with the franchise, Operation Blackout pits G.I. Joe against Cobra and looks for the soldiers to take Cobra down. The twist is that the story is told from both sides, allowing you to control characters from both G.I. Joe and Cobra. There are 12 total characters, six from each side, each of which has a slightly different build, ranging from Roadblock’s strength to Storm Shadow’s agility, and every mission can be played either solo or in local co-op. Each character has a unique starting weapon and ultimate ability, but because every character can wield every weapon, it becomes less about the playable character’s traits and more about your personal weapon preferences, rendering their unique traits generally moot.
At its core, Operation Blackout is a standard third-person shooter. As either a G.I. Joe or Cobra character, you’ll be shooting endless waves of grunts until the game allows you to progress to the next objective. Early on, you’ll find a rhythm of the types of weapons and strategies you find most appealing, and you will rarely have to stray from that strategy, as the game almost never forces you out of your comfort zone.
"Its G.I. Joe skin is enough for a glimpse of nostalgic fun, but after a while, Operation Blackout becomes grating and forgettable."
It can be fun while you’re aimlessly running and shooting anything that moves, but the novelty of doing so quickly wears off as the repetition sets in. Mission structures are almost directly copied and pasted throughout, making the game’s 17 main story missions quickly blend together. The trouble is that it never switches anything up. When you’re on foot, you’ll see everything the game has to offer within the first handful of missions, and it spends the rest of the time repeating what feels like the same mission time and time again. There aren’t any character upgrades, new enemy types, or gameplay twists.
A consequence of such a straightforward structure is that Operation Blackout’s core gameplay is put front and center at all times, which is both a blessing and a curse. The pure combat is relatively fun in itself because of its fast-paced running and gunning that doesn’t tend to let up. When it comes to the actual shooting, though, it becomes much more uneven. Aiming is as floaty as I’ve felt in a game in recent memory, to the point where it is drastically easier to shoot enemies by repeatedly using auto-aim than staying continuously aimed and moving the cursor. Some enemies that zig-zag their way to you are sometimes seemingly impossible to hit, and it can become a coin flip as to who wins the battle.
The fact that shooting is so central to the game at all times makes it very difficult to overlook the frustrating aiming, as most of my deaths came from enemies that evaded my shots by stepping a couple inches sideways instead of enemies who really challenged me or threw me a curveball. This isn’t helped by the AI, which is either reckless or intrusive. Enemies often rush you with no regard for themselves, and, if playing alone, your partner is only noticeable when they stand directly in the way of an enemy rushing you, which happens more often than it should.
"It can be fun while you’re aimlessly running and shooting anything that moves, but the novelty of doing so quickly wears off as the repetition sets in."
Everything comes together to make an experience that’s both unbalanced and unsatisfying. Some enemies can go down in a single shot burst, while others absorb bullets to almost no end. Grenades, too, are so powerful that they easily become a crutch, especially when compared with the idea of using a gun. At some points, encounters can be won with a single well-placed grenade or a couple of headshots, but at others, enemies seem to come from out of nowhere and make the difficulty spike dramatically. It’s ultimately unsatisfying to get through many of the levels, as I often felt I either had gamed the system or was already frustrated in the amount of time it took to beat a mission. Rarely does the game hit a sweet spot that makes it feel like less of a chore to get through.
Some bright spots come in the form of intermittent missions where you control a vehicle through a larger environment. These missions are largely on rails and incredibly linear, but I had more fun shooting from a tank than at any point shooting on foot, and it was always exciting to hop back in and blow something else up. Like the other missions, the vehicle sequences are almost identical to one another and have very few changes, but I generally looked forward to these encounters because they were the most fun and satisfying parts of the game. There are only a few total missions like this, but they’re highlights for a game that desperately needed them.
On a story level, Operation Blackout tells a very familiar and expected G.I. Joe story, contextualizing your missions to take down Cobra through a series of static screens with voiceovers to tell you where you’re going and why. Of course, fans of the series will recognize characters and locations, and it’s certainly made with the fan in mind, especially with the art style that impressively and nostalgically matches the style of the animated series. But this fan service can only go so far.
"Everything comes together to make an experience that’s both unbalanced and unsatisfying."
Environments are very frequently reused, and by the end, you’ll have visited the same Cobra base a handful of times and been returned to other locations more often than not. For environments that aren’t particularly distinct among themselves, they all begin to blur together. Alongside the main story is a local multiplayer mode that pits up to four players against each other in a handful of standard multiplayer modes, including Capture the Flag and Deathmatch, using characters from G.I. Joe and Cobra. Relying solely on shooting, this mode has very little staying power because it both doesn’t have an online component and isn’t introducing anything new to the formula, so it’s altogether very forgettable.
If you’re not already a fan of the G.I. Joe franchise, Operation Blackout does not have much going for it, and, if it weren’t for the G.I. Joe skin, you would never be able to tell it’s a G.I. Joe game. There’s nothing under the surface that differentiates it from any other generic third-person shooter, and its inconsistent and unbalanced gameplay makes it even less interesting. It’s painfully average at almost every turn, and, even with the relatively few bright spots and unique moments throughout, I never felt like I played anything in Operation Blackout that countless other games haven’t done better and more consistently. While those familiar with the franchise may find some nostalgia hidden around the edges, it’s hard to recommend to someone who isn’t already fully invested in the G.I. Joe universe.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Tank missions; Some enjoyable running and gunning; Nostalgia factor.
Floaty aiming; Repetitive mission structure; Unbalanced gameplay.
Outside of nostalgia, G.I. Joe: Operation Blackout does not stand apart from the generic third-person shooter, and its inconsistent gameplay and repetitive missions further mute its impact.