Death To Spies

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action
Publisher: 1C Company

About Mark Buckingham

Mark Buckingham is many things: freelance writer and editor, gamer, tech-head, reader, significant other, movie watcher, pianist, and hockey player.


PC Review - 'Death to Spies'

by Mark Buckingham on April 12, 2008 @ 2:21 a.m. PDT

Smersh is the Russian for "Death to Spies" and was the name of a set of counterintelligence departments in the Soviet Army formed during World War II. Their mission was to secure the rear of the active Red Army by arresting traitors, deserters, spies and criminal elements. During the war these agents became the main force combating the German intelligence service. Game missions are based on real historical events and operations which were executed by the military intelligence and counterintelligence during the war.

Genre: Stealth-action
Publisher: 1C Company / Atari
Developer: Haggard Games
Release Date: October 16, 2007

Moving hastily past the obvious joke about developer Haggard Games merely living up to its namesake by making such a stinker as this, more damning is the fact that Death to Spies came out within a month of the much-lauded Assassin's Creed hitting consoles (and soon the PC), and is so utterly awful compared to that which recently set the new standard for stealth-action games. It's bad enough that Death to Spies adds nothing to the formula coined eight years ago with the introduction of the Hitman franchise, but it also fails so badly at even emulating the formula that it isn't fit to lick Agent 47's shoes.

The premise is the retelling of tales by an imprisoned Russian spy who did some primo sneaking against the Germans in World War II, largely consisting of killing some guy discretely or finding those pesky documents. These current-day story sequences are told via fuzzy CGI cut scenes between missions, using odd accents, but all clearly speaking plain English. Actual Russian with subtitles would have been more immersive, but it's clear the budget on this title was already pretty tight.

Initially, the frustration with the gameplay reminded me of the difficulty I had with Hitman, but once I understood more clearly 47's mechanics and methods, the game became pretty slick and clever. Spies never gets past being frustrating. Despite figuring out guard patrol patterns and going from the info available in the mission briefing, too many things made it a chore to accomplish simple tasks, and inconsistencies furthered the agony of playing it. No matter how much care I put into my actions, I never felt empowered, and I certainly didn't have any fun.

The training portion introduces the range of actions you can perform and exposes many of the game's flaws right away. Some guards, no matter how hard you try, simply cannot be snuck up on. They will see you, suspect you, or turn to face you while you wait for some clunky scripted animation to complete, and you're unable to move or retreat from the accusing stare until the protagonist decides to finish whatever maneuver he started. Everything from picking up and hiding bodies to using chloroform or the choke cord has some predetermined, inflexible animation through which it has to run before you can move on, and you can't exit out of them or pan the camera around to survey the area should you need to.

Opening the inventory or briefing sub-windows renders all your controls totally inoperable, yet doesn't pause the game, leaving you open to getting spotted or attacked. The sneaking speed is too slow to catch walking guards, and the posture itself will agitate any nearby viewers, but using a normal stride somehow alerts the prey to trouble, at which point he'll turn and start shooting you, no matter what disguise you may be wearing.

This brings up the long list of inconsistencies in Spies that further breaks the playability. You could have a top brass outfit as a disguise, but some guards still remain impassable without suspicion, alarm, and/or killing you. One mission even requires you to steal a prison warden's outfit, claiming that it'll make it easier to move about the area. I noted the "suspicious" guards on the map both before and after acquiring the uniform. Nothing changed. It was a complete waste of time, and I was fired upon for merely walking down a hallway. Moreover, you actually raise less attention if you crouch down or run full speed when passing right in front of suspicious guards. What?

Furthermore, setting a trap grenade on a corpse or door leads to automatic discovery when it goes off, no matter where you are, what disguise you're wearing, or what you're doing. There is no way to set up a diversion to make your task easier. As soon as the trap goes off, all eyes (and guns) are on you.

And unlike in Hitman, you can't shoot your way out of a sticky situation. It's impossible. Not only does every person in a 10-mile radius instantly turn and run toward your exact location, but the player's aiming is also so sloppy that it makes hitting enemies clumsy at best. Sometimes the opposition sports eagle-eye accuracy, and other times, he can't even seem to tell from which direction gunfire is coming when he's standing in an empty field and you and he are the only things around for miles.

The list of things you can't do goes on and on. The simple act of hopping over a six-inch high curb can be enough to make you scream. You can't adjust the camera zoom on the fly (you have to go to the Options menu), meaning it can frequently get obscured by trees and buildings. You can't jump off ladders or hurry up or down them in a pinch. You can't fire while peeking left or right, and you can't peek while crouched or prone. You can't traverse a clearly wide-open window. You can't change the reticle opacity enough that it doesn't get lost on almost any surface. You can't get around people in doorways or narrow halls, and you can't jump over crouched people (this forced a level restart in one place). What is this, 1995?

Moving on from the trying controls, the graphics and HUD aren't anything special, either. The occasional mirror or shiny floor effect looked decent, but everything else is strictly right angles, boring textures, and uninspired design throughout. Purely cosmetic doors that don't open or go anywhere definitely hearken back to last-century design. Having to manually turn on and zoom in your HUD map to a workable size at the beginning of every level gets annoying. The inability for Spies to recognize the middle mouse button for key remapping is lame. In an era where games like Crysis manage to put a quick-select menu for virtually everything on one button, the fact that inventory management and weapon selection is so incredibly dated and awkward does its best to get you killed or render situations unplayable here.

What's more, between the initial briefing and the actual mission is a screen where you choose your weapons loadout. I thought this was a nice touch and allowed for a little customization. Essentially, it's a bunch of submachine guns, pistols (all but one is noisy, and thus, useless), some grenades, and the silent tools like chloroform and the garrote. After spending a few minutes combing through the available items and equipping a loadout that didn't exceed the weight requirement, I'm dropped into a mission where the first thing I have to do (as in most missions) is get an appropriate disguise, and keeping my Russian weapons and backpack runs the risk of alerting the Germans to the presence of an outsider. In short, all that gear I spent time hand-selecting gets dumped on the ground two minutes into the mission and won't be seen again. What's the point?

Sound effects, voices and music are also straight out of the budget catalog, featuring one looping effect over and over for the screeching of truck tires, and voice acting that's just passable enough that you won't hate it, but not good enough to make you care. I got so tired of hearing the klaxons sound when I'd do so much as scratch my ass (your character's primary idle animation, no joke) that I wanted to mute it shortly after starting.

There's no multiplayer here, not that I'd wish that on anyone. I seriously doubt the game could muster anything resembling the ingenuity behind genre mainstay Splinter Cell, so why bother embarrassing yourself further by trying. The 11 missions become freely replayable after completion, and the game allows for saves at any time, but while that seems like a good thing, the step-step-save gameplay seems like a Band-Aid for the bad overall design more than anything.

I like the stealth-action genre. Every game mentioned in this review is on my shelf and has been played through and thoroughly enjoyed. I even had high hopes for Death to Spies for bringing a new approach to the well-worn WWII setting. Alas, it fails at everything it sets out to do, and it can't even manage to adequately imitate genre progenitors from nearly a decade before it, let alone do anything to surpass them. Stick to your Assassin's Creed, Hitman, Splinter Cell and Thief, and forget you ever heard of Death to Spies.

Score: 4.2/10

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