Operation Shadow is a third-person run-and-gun shooter set shortly after the Cold War. The player controls the commando Jay Solano, part of a covert Special Forces team of the United Nations, deployed to defuse situations where escalation can lead to global military conflicts. The game starts in the fictitious Arawas region fighting Ixan forces and other regions are visited later on. Next to general Barton leading Team Shadow, other important characters are Maëlys Nyx, leader of the Midnight Wraiths mercenary outfit, General Neva, the political and military leader of the Rodan nation state, and CPN news network anchor woman Samantha Brown. There are four factions in total in the game: Ixan Desert Scorpions, Loxos Red Moon Army, Midnight Wraiths, and Rodan Snow Wolves. Next to moving on foot in the infantry mode, Solano can enter different types of crafts and vehicles during missions, such as a Humvee, a chopper, a hovercraft or a tank, each with very different controls and means. The Humvee can be used to take control over a mounted machine gun, the chopper uses a machine gun and missiles and the tank has both turrets and missiles.
The game is in 3D and the action is always shown from a third-person behind view. The linear levels have different objectives and a red marker on the compass near the top of the screen shows the general direction. Solano needs to move and strafe while shooting enemy forces while moving on foot. The assault rifle has an unlimited amount of ammo, while grenades and antitank missiles are used to take out larger targets. Vehicles and crafts need to be exited before the explode and there is a general health meter for Solano as well. Using the tank or the chopper it is possible to lock on and shoot missiles. Pick-ups include health, armour, grenades, double damage, invincibility and frenzy. There are also ammo pick-ups for the Gatling gun, bazooka, tank shells, multi-rocket launcher, chopper rockets and Hellfire missiles.
The singe-player mode is split up into different campaigns with multiple missions each, provided by general Barton. The game supports competitive multiplayer games on four maps through Bluetooth for up to four players.