It's not that I wasn't warned. It says it right on the box: “You are all alone and death comes easily to spies.” The 'box' in question is the packaging for Atari/Haggard Games/1C Company's Death to Spies. Death to Spies is a third-person non-shooter. Yes, it's a non-shooter. Well, you might get away with using a silenced gun now and then to surgically remove an isolated guard, but just about anything else is useless. You see, you're literally surrounded by an alert and attentive enemy and any untoward actions or noises will garner unwelcome (and quite likely fatal) attention. So, keep your Rambo at home in the closet and bring your wolf-in-sheep's-clothing mode instead. Death does, in fact, come quite easily in Death to Spies. During the course of the few missions I was able to play, I must have died more times than poor young Kenny “You bastards! You killed Kenny!” McCormick. In fact, I was killed so many times that I have to disagree with one other statement on the box: “Your choke cord and chloroform will be your best friends.” No, not quite. In my experience, my best and only friend was 'Quick Save.'
Because stealth and unobtrusiveness play such key roles in Death to Spies, to the degree that playing it is sometimes as slow as a deep sea chess match, I learned to save early and often. I also eventually learned to be patient, or failing that, to swear quite creatively. The slinking and crawling around across large distances can be extraordinarily frustrating to re-do over and over, so I learned to make small steps and save after each few yards of progress. There's a risk to this, of course: you can paint yourself into the proverbial corner and quick save yourself into it. I had a horrible case of that on the first level. After hours of infiltrating an enemy compound, sneaking around trying to corner an elusive German officer that I needed to incapacitate and remove from the camp hidden in the back of a truck, and successfully separating him from his body guard and knocking him senseless, I found that I couldn't list him over the tailgate of the truck. I was so thrilled to have finally captured him that I immediately quick-saved, so there was no backing up and doing what I was apparently supposed to do in the first place, which was to have enough forethought to incapacitate him in a building that had a loading dock. The aforementioned creative swearing ensued, but to no avail. I was flat stuck.
Not willing to run through the entire mission again, and equally unwilling to review an entire game based only on the experiences gained in the first level, I did what every desperate game reviewer has done at least once in the past: Googled up the cheat codes and opened the remaining levels. So sue me; I'm a spy, so your lawyer probably isn't going to be able to find me!
As I worked through the levels (and yes, at some point 'worked' became the appropriate verb), I found that the most useful skills to learn were 1) how to get a guard separated from a group, 2) how to get behind him to stun, chloroform, or choke him in order to swap clothes with him, and 3) how to avoid officers. I actually already knew the utility of the latter skill, what with having been enlisted in the military myself for more than a decade, but in Death to Spies it is critically important. You see, in Death to Spies you can fool many of the guards most of the time, but you can't fool any of the officers at any time. They have a preternatural ability to sniff out an impostor, and are of such ill temper that they don't hesitate to ask questions – they shoot to kill immediately. It's best to avoid them whenever possible, and if you can't do that, well... you still have that silenced pistol. Just make sure you take the time to hide the body – even the biggest slacker in the ranks is going to mention it to someone higher up in the chain of command if they stumble across the inert form of an officer. These guys are skittish enough already – you really don't want to make them even more alert to your attempts to sneak around them.
You get some help in the sneaking around department, though. You're provided with one of those neat all-knowing Marauder's Maps like Harry Potter has, and it tells you where all of the guards are, what they can see at any given moment, the direction they are traveling, and whether they are officers or enlisted/conscripts. The map can be kept open on the screen, so it really becomes more a game of navigating your blue triangle around the green and red triangles, while simultaneously attempting to get to the objectives marked on the map. In fact, you need to be careful not to focus so intently on the map that you miss out on absorbing the scenery. The buildings and military compounds are richly detailed, and the outdoor spaces, while not quite as nice as the interiors, are nice to look at. With all of the sneaking around you're doing, you don't make much noise yourself so you can hear the background sounds of the environments. In the military compound of the first mission, I paused for awhile underneath a PA speaker listening to the inspirational German patriotic military music. I then went on and killed a few more Germans, truth be told, it was still a nice respite.
It feels almost like cheating to use the map, but I think the game would be nearly impossible without it. You can toggle it on and off, though, so whether you use it or not is completely dependent on your personal gaming ethics. Me? Well, considering the trail of dead bodies I was leaving behind me, it seemed like cheating a little with a map was a pretty small thing, relatively speaking. Even with the map available to help, many of the missions took attempt after attempt after frustrating attempt to solve. Many were the times when I coveted the amazing climbing skills of Sam Fisher! Death to Spies is not an easy game, and I might even go so far as saying that in some places, it was actually too hard. And, as in the experience I had with not being able to load a body into the back of a truck, there are corners in the mission designs that you can paint yourself into. Those can be enormously frustrating.
All in all, Death to Spies is well done, but it will require the right type of player to truly enjoy it. It has a few quirks (particularly in the user interface) that can drive you nuts, but as I said at the beginning: you were warned. Death comes very easily to spies!
More On:Death to Spies
Death to Spies is a realistic (one could argue that it is almost too realistic!) spy-stealth title, almost in the form of Splinter Cell but without the gadgets and the climbing. If you have the patience and problem-solving skills for it, you will want to give it a try.
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