Publisher: Global Star Software
Developer: Vicious Cycle
Date: April 6, 2005
Mad magazine was a source for delinquency throughout my youth, and I imagine, for most of yours. Its pages were inked with satirical humor and dry wit, accompanied by a unique style of comic. My favorite spreads were always the Spy vs. Spy comics, which featured the sneaky hijinks of two weasel-like spies (and fueled many ill-advised attempts at booby trapping my own home). In these comics, the white spy and the black spy would battle it out for various objects, and their battles were always composed of elaborate – and sometimes less than elaborate – traps.
By the end of each comic, the spy with the most strategy behind his traps would win. In my mind, this black-and-white cartoon played out like a game of chess in some ways. Perhaps that is the analogy that the writers were attempting to draw with their strips, or perhaps I saw something that was not really there. Regardless of what was intended, the parallel must have struck others too, as a game has been born from the pages in question.
Nintendo released a Spy vs. Spy title in the late '80s, where players were able to take control of one of the two beloved spies. I can't imagine too many people played that game, but I had the opportunity and enjoyed it quite a bit. So here we are, almost two decades later, and I am still playing video games … the upside to that depressing fact is that I get to play the newest iteration of the Spy vs. Spy game.
Part of being a spy is related to being secretive and keeping what you do hidden from everyone else. That being said, it is generally considered truth that spies will steal, kill, sneak around and spy on things. The story in this game is just about as deep as that last sentence, and that might even be pushing it. One spy is out to steal the documents, and another spy also wants to steal those documents. Sometimes, one of the spies wants to just protect the documents, but that all depends. This is no Shakespeare or work of art; the story is really just a thin veil of an excuse to support the gameplay.
The most basic concept of the game has not changed much since 1988, as the primary objective is to gather hidden items. There are also similar traps available, which include spring-loaded boxing gloves in safes and buckets of acid above doorways. However, there are a few new additions, including a slightly heavier emphasis on hand-to-hand combat and, of course, that whole three-dimensional phenomenon.
The primary mode is a fairly revamped version of the original, where each spy has a set amount of cash at the outset, with which to purchase his various traps, defenses and weapons. Each weapon, trap and defense has a price, and each price is relative to the item's strength and usefulness. For instance, a machine gun costs far more than a baseball bat. With these tools, the spies wage war across some new and interesting locations (e.g., mansion, haunted house, Area 51), each of which is filled with a number of deadly traps. In each stage, there are roughly five separate sections filled with a number of traps that lead into a secured room. The goal is to brave the traps, besting them with either your own countermeasures or sheer acrobatic ability, and to access the room, steal the documents and escape mostly undetected.
If you are playing single player, you will be confronted with all manner of enemies, from flying fairy monkeys to oversized robotic secret service agents. Also at the end of each stage, there will be a fairly typical boss fight with everything from killer clowns to crazy mechanics. Unfortunately, all of these encounters felt a bit tedious because it mostly boiled down to the same stuff. Bonk the normal enemies with a bat until they stopped moving, and shoot the bosses from a distance until they stopped moving. The combat in the game generally fell short of entertaining, especially when things wouldn't work quite right (apparently, you can't swing a bat or attack in any way at all when in a doorway). Mix the occasional malfunction with the general sluggish feeling and the lack of anything amazing in the innovation department, and all in all, the combat portions almost felt like a punishment.
The puzzles and spy stuff were a bit more entertaining yet still plagued with the unresponsive controls. The areas leading up to the top secret stash rooms are filled with awkward platforming moments and occasionally frustrating traps. Unlike the combat portions, these areas were tolerable and even entertaining, despite the control-related issues. I think the platforming events were enjoyable, partially thanks to the quirky and comical way they portrayed the spies, as well as the childhood memories that were brought tumbling back.
It is obvious to me that the primary draw of this game sits within the multiplayer and Xbox Live aspects. Here is where you battle it out against up to three other spies in an attempt to prove that you're the sneakiest and cleverest of them all. Unfortunately, I felt that this mode, which had the most room to shine, lacked a lot of forethought. Beyond some fundamental problems, such as the ability to hide away in your base for an indefinite amount of time, there were issues with the way the game played out. Instead of it being fun to navigate the traps and deal with the possible problems, it was mostly frustrating. There was very little you could do to defend against them, outside of buying the countermeasures or just not going down particular corridors.
Add to the already frustrating controls and uninventive multiplayer by throwing in a few uninteresting game types: Last Man Standing, Death Match, Get Mad, and Armed and Loaded. The first two are exactly what they sound like and nothing new. Get Mad has the spies grabbing an icon and attempting to hold onto it for the longest amount of time. Finally, Armed and Loaded is focused on killing the other spies, and the cash rewards for doing such make it evident that this is a bit more of a fragfest than a strategic trap session.
Of course, you could also play in classic mode, where you're back in that office building of yore while finding traps and countermeasures instead of buying them. No matter what choice I made, I quickly found myself longing to swap the game out with just about anything else. Even the competitive fire of having Xbox Live at my fingertips, I was unable to find the motivation to really care about this title.
All things considered, Spy vs. Spy supplies graphics that far outshine my memories of the old Nintendo powered version, although I guess that is a bit of a no-brainer. More importantly, the stylized and cartoon-like depiction is as accurate as I could hope for, from the slinky spy creeping movement to the peculiar and lethal traps. Despite the authenticity, everything from the stages to the characters seemed a bit bland. They were interesting in some ways, but more often than not, they ended up tiresome and old by the time you put down your controller.
The audio could have been ripped straight from some old cartoon featuring a random cat and mouse. The characters make very cartoony squeaks while getting clobbered by bats that make a "boing" sound. The sounds are appropriate for the game and sit well with the graphics. Musically, the score is comprised of completely forgettable "spy music," filled with trumpets. I found the score to be inconsequential, although my girlfriend did express some sort of appreciation for it (her dissension was followed by locking her away in the closet).
This title seemed to miss its demographic, as the overall look and feel appeared aimed at a slightly younger crowd than would be familiar with the comics and previous game title. This isn't exactly a bad thing, and Spy vs. Spy is, in fact, one of the few entertaining yet children-appropriate Xbox titles that I have played. Priced around $20, this title is worth the money and will keep you entertained while you wait for other games to hit the shelves.