Reviewed: February 1, 2008
Released: October 16, 2007
Fans of stealth shooters have long been stuck playing the latest James Bond or Tom Clancy spin-offs. Sure, playing a British secret agent or American Delta Force operative is cool. But I bet I'm not alone in wishing I could play a ruthless KGB agent working for Mother Russia instead.
Fortunately, Russian developer Haggard Games has designed the first stealth game where you carry out missions for the dreaded Soviet counter-intelligence unit, SMERSH. Roughly translated, SMERSH means "Death To Spies," which as you can guess is where this addicting little shooter got its name. World War II is raging and Stalin has to deal with hordes of Nazis befouling Soviet Russia, not to mention traitors waiting for the chance to stab him in the back. It's your job as a promising young spy is to eliminate threats behind enemy lines, both German and Russian.
As a word of warning, I'll say this game is as merciless as Stalin himself. Sometimes success or failure is separated by seconds as you duck into the shadows or hide a body just as a patrol walks by. Adding to the difficulty is a user interface that seems a bit clunky for a stealth shooter. But overall this is shooter delivers fun gameplay with cold precision.
Death To Spies plays out as a strange mix of the Call Of Duty, Splinter Cell, and Hitman series. Obviously, you won't have access to such futuristic gadgets as night-vision goggles or remote control bombs. Your most trusted tools will be your lock pick, your knife, and your string of razor wire for garroting unsuspecting Nazis. The game is also realistic in that you can't spray-and-pray your way to the next health pack. A few hits will always kill you, and it's near impossible to win a shoot-out involving more than three opponents.
The game offers the third-person view common to many stealth shooters. The basic commands are easy enough to master – use the keyboard to move and the mouse to aim and fire weapons. You can also use the mouse wheel to drop to the ground or go into a sneaky crouch. The number keys allow you quickly cycle through various weapons, from your knife to your rifle.
What takes a little practice to master is the drop-down menu that appears whenever you can perform a special action. If you press the E button and open the action menu next to a door, your character will open it. You can also pick a lock, spy through a keyhole, or stun a guard if you get behind him. The problem with this system is it's awkward to use when you have to do something quickly. More than once I found myself in perfect position to knock a sentry cold, only to fumble as I tried to use the "stun" command in time.
The campaign unfolds through flashbacks several years after World War II ended. The KGB suspect you of being a double agent for the West, and as part of your interrogation you are asked about your war service with SMERSH. The cut scene then segues into a mission where you must rescue a comrade behind enemy lines, steal secret plans from a Nazi castle, or eliminate a traitor before he meets a British diplomat at a posh hotel. While the mission objectives are fixed, you have a bit of freedom in exploring the map and trying different tactics. For example, in the first mission the base commander is performing an inspection and wanders from building to building. You get to choose where you intercept him.
One of the interesting gameplay mechanics is the AI detection system. NPC’s have a range of vision and sound detection, and they are remarkably good at picking up movement or sound. Yu really don't want a guard to raise the alarm, because not only will more Nazis arrive, but you will also be more easily detected. The mini-map fortunately gives you some idea whether nearby guards can detect you.
You also generate threat depending on what you are wearing and what actions you take. Obviously, enemy guards will instantly try to kill you if you're dressed in a Soviet uniform. If you steal a German uniform off a dead guard, then you can walk around far more comfortably. But you can still be detected if you do something suspicious, such as trying to walk into the field marshal's office while dressed as a lowly diesel mechanic. Many missions require that you work your way up the food chain until you can steal a high ranking officer's uniform, which in turn will often allow you to be undetectable except by other officers.
What I enjoyed most about Death To Spies were the nail-biting situations lurking around darkened castle hallways or bombed ruins. What I didn't like was how the game started to become predictable. NPC’s tend to repeat the same circuit over and over, so once you observe their patrol path you can plan accordingly. It would be nice if enemy soldiers had some unpredictability in their routines, such as going to grab dinner or a nap.
The missions themselves also tend to be repetitive. You'll spend 20 minutes trying to steal the uniform and documents off one officer, only to discover that you need to do the same thing all over again on the other side of the base. And this time around you'll need to figure out how to silently kill twice as many guards. Stealth is fun, but I wanted to see more missions where I could set off explosives at a fuel depot, or escape from a Nazi camp gun blazing.
The graphics in Death To Spies are well done but fall short of say, Crysis. On the plus side, lighting and shadow effects are top notch. It's easy to tell if you're well hidden or not. The weapons, uniforms, and vehicles all appear authentic, a plus in any historical game. The game's physics engine is certainly good – bullets behave the way they should and so do falling Nazi corpses.
Character models look good most of the time, but tend to be a little stiff when running or shooting weapons. Tile sets tend to be recycled – you'll see the same posters, furniture, and suits of armor over and over again. That being said, most mission levels possess a certain gritty realism that brings the Eastern Front alive.
My biggest graphical complaint is how the cut-scenes tend to be slow and boring. I wanted to see my character sneaking behind enemy lines rather than reporting to his superiors. But considering most gamers skip movie scenes, this is not a deal breaker.
You won't really hear the game's music throughout most of the game. In fact, if you hear the action music kick in it usually means the alarm has been sounded and you're about to die. So while I liked the musical score, I hated reloading my last saved game when I heard it. Weaponry, vehicles, and explosions also sound realistic, and background sounds add a sense of realism.
The voice acting is workable but NPC’s say the same stock phrases over and over. I wanted to overhear actual conversations between guards instead of the standard curse of "Schiesse!" when they realize you actually aren't really the scoutmaster for the local Nazi Youth troop.
Death To Spies delivers a lot of espionage fun for its $30 price tag. While it may lack the bells and whistles of the A-list shooter titles, the game still delivers a nice change of pace. The mission rating system provides some replay value, as you are rewarded with a higher score for how well you meet your objectives. Missions tend to be a bit formulaic, but you still have some leeway to try different strategies the second-time around.
I'd highly recommend Death To Spies to stealth shooter fans, as well as WW II buffs looking for cloak-and-dagger action.
While it's not a revolutionary game, Death To Spies delivers a compelling stealth experience and is well worth a try for genre fans. It's great fun to play a WW II shooter on the Eastern Front instead of Normandy. This game invites you to slip behind the Iron Curtain and see if you can survive in the brutal Motherland.