Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Death to Spies Review

Death to Spies, developed by Haggard Games and published by 1C Company and Atari.
The Good: A variety of stealthy activities, realistic presentation, decent AI, nice suite of weaponry, informative if outdated interface
The Not So Good: Very difficult with lots of grouped enemies to avoid, linear map design
What say you? An extremely challenging spy action title for hardcore fans of the genre: 5/8

Spies have quite a dangerous lifestyle. They must move undetected, execute their plan, get out alive, and be best friends with Ben Affleck. Luckily, you can experience the same stealthy thrill without putting your life on the line in the grand world of computer games. Coming to us from glorious Russia is Death to Spies, a reference to the precursor to the KGB that was abbreviated WTF. This title follows in the strong tradition of “move silent and carry a big container of chloroform.” Will this game provide the gritty realism so desired in the genre?

Death to Spies features somewhat outdated graphics with some good and bad features. The character models look OK and some of the terrain is varied and looks good, especially foliage and buildings. The mountain textures and other static ground objects do not impress, however. The animations are a bit stiff and repetitive, but they are lifelike enough. Death to Spies is a very quiet game, with pleasing nature sounds as your only companion during sneaky sequences. Some annoying music comes on when the fighting starts, although this is typcailly right before you die so you don’t have to listen to it long anyway. While Death to Spies won’t amaze anyone with graphical awesomeness, I suppose the game doesn’t look too bad and it’s certainly playable.

Death to Spies features a single-player campaign that includes a basic and uninteresting tutorial. The missions in the campaign are pretty typical for the genre: blowing things up, rescuing compatriots, and assassinating bad guys. Before each mission, you can choose from a wide array of weapons and tools to use. You can carry a lot of items, and an optional backpack can contain even more. You are given one large weapon (a machine gun, rifle, or sniper rifle), one pistol, and one knife (which you can throw). You can also include ammunition or additional knives, plus useful tools like choke cords, chloroform, traps, grenades, picks, and pliers. Death to Spies gives you a good range of choices when it comes to your arsenal, and it allows you to customize how you want to go about achieving the objectives. Using the items is pretty straightforward, although it takes some practice throwing the grenades and lining up sneak attacks. While Death to Spies lacks multiplayer, its absence isn’t missed too much since the campaign will challenge you for a while.

Death to Spies features an old, basic interface that isn’t as slick as the competition. While it does tend to minimize itself on the screen, opening the objectives locks the game and the map is an overlay that takes up the entire screen. The vector map does show some useful information, with enemy sight ranges and whether they will spot you as an enemy if you are disguised. I like binding stance to the mouse wheel, and the other controls are pretty standard for the genre. Most of your actions will be done through (surprise!) the action menu, accomplished by holding “E” and scrolling through your interaction choices. While it is a bit cumbersome at first, it’s better than having a large number of keys to remember. Some of the things you can do include: stunning and strangling enemies, changing clothes, gather weapons, pick a lock, set a trap (on a door or a body), carry a body, set a smoke bomb, and more! Changing clothes is one of the more basic things to do: while it lets you walk past enlisted men with no problems (unless you are doing something suspicious like carrying a sniper rifle), officers will spot you right away no matter what so you have to be a bit more inventive with them.

The AI in Death to Spies is decent and the user is given good feedback through the vector map as to their level of suspicion. Sight ranges are clearly shown once you are close enough, as well as how alert they are to your wrongdoings. This makes playing the game a bit easier, and Death to Spies would be completely impossible without it. AI enemies will become more concerned if they hear sounds like punches, breaking glass, and opening doors, so being covert is the better option. Once an enemy does sight you, they will yell to their friends and anyone within shouting distance will run over to help. This is kind of cool as the information spreads over time instead of instant death. If you do cause an alarm in a populated area, you better load a saved game because it’s pretty much over. The difficulty level of Death to Spies is quite high because it’s realistic; the game plays fair, although you will always be against a heavily armed and superior force in terms of numbers. This means you really have to be careful and Death to Spies does not allow you to shoot your way out of a tough situation. Exacerbating this difficulty is the fact that enemies are usually in groups of two to four, which eliminates the possibility of using most of your attacks. What’s the point of being able to use chloroform and choke cords if the level design doesn’t allow for it? This means that attacks against grouped enemies will most likely be done with a silenced pistol, and you better make three quick head shots in a row or you are done for. After each mission, you are rated on your combat effectiveness, aggression, noise, professionalism, and precision, although as I mentioned your methods are limited by the mission design. The issues I mentioned were on normal difficulty settings; you can imagine how “fun” expert difficulty is. Because of the extreme difficulty, Death to Spies will ultimately just appeal to veteran fans of the genre.

Death to Spies has nice core gameplay, but the game is way too tough for general audiences. This problem is pretty easy to fix: remove some of the grouped enemies. While this would reduce the level of realism that Death to Spies is trying to achieve, it would make the title much more playable. The generally linear level design makes you go down one set path, although you are given a bit of freedom regarding which way to approach the objectives once you are close. I like the ability to customize your loadout before each mission, and the vector map that displays the AI’s concern and sigh ranges is a welcome feature. Sadly, all of the spy-like things you could potentially do during gameplay are severely limited by the high enemy count. Sure, it’s realistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun. Still, I think people who are familiar with this genre and really like these kinds of games will have fun with Death to Spies, because they will be able to handle the severe difficulty.