Say what you will about Adolph and his Nazi-fied cronies in real life, but there's no doubt the bunch of 'em have played starring roles in the computer gaming world ever since that world began way back in the 1980s. Such is the case once again in Death to Spies, an intriguing, intelligent, and ultimately worthwhile third-person action-adventure where stealth is the name of the game, patience is far more than a virtue, and saving your progress is more commonplace than shooting your gun.
In Death to Spies, you play the role of a World War II Soviet counterintelligence agent whose assignment is to infiltrate the Nazi machine and wreak as much havoc as possible from within. This isn't Nazi hunting a la Wolfenstein, where you shoot first and ask questions later. As the back-of-the-box PR says, this is subterfuge and sabotage all the way, and those who try to blast their way in and out of situations will find themselves surrounded and decimated faster than a wounded gazelle at a hyena convention.
Indeed, Death to Spies consistently delivers scenarios that demand so much planning and so much thought that some will undoubtedly check out long before they've finished, slamming their noggin into their desks over and over again in complete and total frustration. It's not that the instructions for each given mission are particularly complicated. They aren't, and this certainly isn't one of those games where you consistently need to refer to your briefing to remember what you have to do. Instead, it's what you find along the way—and figuring out how to deal with it—that poses the most serious problems.
Inevitably, whether you're asked to steal documents or assassinate a key enemy figure or blow up a bridge or simply meet a comrade behind enemy lines to exchange info, the true challenge is remaining undiscovered and staying alive. To do this, you must decide on which course(s) of action will cause the least ruckus and attract the least attention. Maybe you'll need to throw an object across the road to distract one guy while you surreptitiously choke his partner. Maybe you'll need to stun some dude and temporarily hide his body where it can't be found. Perhaps you can exchange clothing with the officer you just killed, steal a quieter weapon, plant a mine somewhere, release a smoke bomb to cover your tracks, then grab the uniform of a dead driver and take his truck. And maybe you'll need to do all of the above over the course of just a single mission.
Or maybe you won't. The really cool thing about Death to Spies is its openness. Sure, you're forced to linearly make your way through the missions, but the methodology you use in each given mission may be quite different from the methodology you use the next time you undertake that same mission. Painting yourself into a corner where you have no more weapons or opportunities is a very real possibility—particularly as first aid kits are an extreme rarity—but that's why the game sports so many save slots. And saving your game is something you'll do continuously.
Is there a sense of repetition? Yes, though it's not nearly as bad as some games of this ilk, where you feel more like a mindless drone working a conveyer belt of sameness. Moreover, even simple tasks are, dare we say, interesting. Picking a lock isn't merely a matter of strolling up to a safe and hitting the "pick lock" key. You're actually asked to work on it awhile, spinning the tumblers with your mouse's scroll wheel while you search for matching pins. Aiming a sniper rifle involves looking through the scope, then holding your breath for a few precious seconds to reduce the waver. Cutting through metal mesh involves breaking out your pliers from your backpack. Carrying a body adds a ton of weight and mass, therefore drastically reducing your speed and increasing your visibility.
Having said all that, some gamers will take issue with the needless complexity involved in selecting most actions. Frantically scrolling through mini-menu choices when you're on the verge of being shot or blown up is highly annoying. Surely there has to be a better way.
From a presentation standpoint, Death to Spies is nothing if not atmospheric. Nazi posters and banners litter the walls, trumpeting the virtues of a cleansed world and heralding the dawn of a new day. Lo-fidelity gramophones play scratchy recordings of old school Germanic waltzes and marching tunes. Enemy soldiers rarely utter anything apart from a few pat, canned phrases (you won't learn much through conversation), but at least those phrases sound as good and as realistic as their uniforms look.
And virtually every manmade object you see, whether an old typewriter or phone or the wallpaper or carpeting in a hallway, seems a bit dirty, a bit disheveled—as if it's been through a war. All in all, it's a downtrodden and gritty look that really helps sell the game. Curiously, the term "Nazi" is rarely, if ever, heard or seen, and the infamous swastika is clearly avoided throughout in favor of a simple cross.
Outdoors, the graphics are distinctly 21st century. The detail level is high, and the little touches—such as the swaying shadows of wind-whipped trees, the individual blades of grass, and the uniqueness of every road, vehicle, building, and even fencepost—are impressive. Snowstorms are downright awesome.
Yet Death to Spies is not free of foibles, several of which are graphically related. For instance, should you get too close to your intended victim, you may just shoot right through him. Indeed, the two of you might stand inches apart, shooting right through one another's bodies as if they were mere apparitions. And if you want to silently strangle or chloroform your target, you'd better approach directly from behind or the game won't even allow you to attempt your maneuver. In both cases, you inevitably become the proverbial sitting duck. Bang, bang, you're dead.
And the mechanics are uneven. Though you can, for example, jump over some mighty tall fences and barriers, you may or may not be able to do the same thing when attempting to hurdle far less imposing barriers. Though you can squeeze between certain objects when traveling in one direction, you may or may not be able to do the same thing when approaching from the other side.
That unevenness unfortunately extends beyond mere mechanics and into the artificially intelligent enemy. It's not that the AI is bad, because it definitely isn't. By using the transparent overlay map that displays each soldier as a calm green or wary red triangle, and by monitoring the overall level of alertness via a series of icons that appear at the top of the screen, you can generally see what they're up to even from a distance and come to understand what you can and cannot do. And we can't fault Russian developer Haggard Games for creating AI soldiers who most often mill about aimlessly—after all, instilling purpose into every soldier would be a gargantuan achievement.
However, we were disappointed to see that the discovery of a strangled officer at his desk prompted nothing more than a few minutes of high activity, after which existed a period of calming and a too-sudden return to normal. That certainly wouldn't happen in the real world. On the other hand, should you let loose with a single machine gun blast, or should a soldier shout as you attempt to off him, every icon on the overlaid map becomes instantly alert, and you're quickly outnumbered ten to one. And then you're dead again.
Even with its quirks, Death to Spies is an entertaining, varied, and highly addictive pastime for those who enjoy exercising their brain as much as their trigger finger. It's intelligently delivered, credibly presented, and anything but easy. We need more solid, thoughtful games from independent sources, and this Russian import capably proves why.