Due to the recent delays of games like Splinter Cell: Conviction and Alpha Protocol, “Death to Spies” has coincidentally enough been the phrase I’ve been murmuring to myself in bus queues recently, so it was fate that this game should come out right now.
“Death to Spies: Moment of Truth” is the sequel (aren’t they all these days?) to the original “Death to Spies” that met with a lukewarm reception back in 2007. The player reprises the role as a Soviet secret agent during World War II, where everyone is your enemy – the Germans (naturally), but also the Americans and even the trustworthy Brits. This gives a wide open platter of locations for you to sneak around, silently offing guards and stealing their clothes. Kind of like a 1940’s Hitman, only with more hair.
Sorry, but the comparison is glaringly obvious. The Hitman games really introduced the modern stealth genre to the concept of the ‘clean kill’, and completion of a level of ‘Death to Spies’ brings up a suspiciously similar summary screen* with ratings for noise, violence and so on. The emphasis is very much on getting in, doing your job and getting out with the minimum of fuss.
Disguises are not foolproof, and you could disguise yourself as the Fuhrer himself and there would still be a handful of overzealous guards on each level who’ll ventilate you for looking at them funny. The minimap is utterly crucial, as it shows the locations of each of the guards and where they’re looking, allowing you to creep between their fields of vision in a way that is eerily similar to the old classic ‘Commandos’.
From this, we can surmise a simple mathematical formula:
Hitman x Commandos = Might as well bind quick load to your right mouse button.
Because you will be setting off the alarm a lot. A LOT. Sometimes the only way to get a particularly annoying guard out of the way is through a convoluted sequence of whistling to draw his attention, waiting for him to come to your location and have a poke about, and then knife him in the back as he wanders away. If more than one guard is within range when you whistle, well then you’re in the soup.
So it’s tough. Stealth games usually are. If you’re into the genre, you’ll be used to that. Sometimes the alarm goes off seemingly for no reason, and it’s a bit annoying, sure, but FPS fans sometimes get sniped out of the blue, so it’s just part of the challenge.
No, the failings in ‘Death to Spies: Moment of Truth’ lie in different areas. Allow me, if you will, to elucidate on the things that keep it out of the Polished Halls of Greatness, and in the Cramped Outhouse of Mediocrity.
Firstly, nobody ever speaks. German guards might shout “Scheisse!” when they spot you, but you can stand in a room where two officers are reclining on couches, and neither of them will say a word to each other. Are speech samples really so system-heavy? Is a bit of inane German voice-acting really so hard to come across? I wouldn’t even be able to understand it, but it’d at least be a nod toward realism.
This is a problem that pervades the whole thing, really. There’s a distinct lack of the polish that made the Hitman games feel convincing. Furnishings are blocky and almost entirely un-interactive. Some indoor levels have no windows (because someone didn’t want to have to render outdoor scenery if it wasn’t absolutely necessary), guards will stand in hallways and completely block your progress, while they have a cigarette, even though you’re dressed as the base commander. You tromp around knee-deep in the scenery sometimes. Many of the traditional annoyances of stealth games are present but there’s an absence of innovation, aside from the ability to occasionally drive a truck.
Now, onto what I feel is an important thing to mention. Please allow me a bit of a rant here. One of the levels in this game takes place in a Nazi concentration camp. Forgive me my squeamishness, but I question if this is really a particularly appropriate subject for entertainment software. I know I might sound like a Daily Mail reading, GTA-opposing fossil, but to me some things should not be treated with the lightness of mere novelty value in a videogame, and I think this is one of those things. If I brought out a videogame about having to escape from the Twin Towers during 9/11, the indignation would, quite rightly, be deserved. Because it’s an emotional subject for many people, and making a videogame out of it would be insensitive. I feel the same about this. Perhaps I’m a hypocrite. I’m happy to rack up kill frenzy bonuses on GTA, and I’ve murdered more videogame Nazis than you’ve had hot dinners, but all of this – even the contract hits in Hitman – seem acceptable subject matter for a videogame. The holocaust does not.
If I swallow my distaste for a moment, though, Death to Spies: Moment of Truth is capitalising on the delays that plague other stealth games at the moment. It’s a passable crossover between the stealth / war genres, but not without its failings. Despite my graphics card and RAM barely scraping the system requirements, it ran smoothly – and after all, when all hell breaks loose you just reload anyway, right?
* - Awesome! Absolutely accidental alliteration!