Reviewed: March 23, 2003
Released: March 4, 2003
IGI-2: Covert Strike, is the sequel to the notorious original that was plagued with more than its fair share of problems and justifiable criticisms. Innerloop, the original designers, tried to appease the angered mobs with a much-touted patch that never saw the light of day. Suffice to say, that Codemasters had their work cut out for them when they decided to take over in the development of this sequel.
I’ve been following this game closely since I saw an early build at the 2002 E3 show. I played a preview build back in February, and while it was riddled with a few small quirks most of these have been addressed in the final shipping version that I will be reviewing today.
In IGI-2 you will assume the role of a British covert operative named David Jones (no – not Davy Jones – he was one of the Monkees and took Marcia to the prom). Davis is a former SAS soldier and now works for the United States in a top-secret military organization codenamed IGI (I’m Going In). The story picks up directly after the events of the first game but you aren’t required to have played that game to plop right into the events as they unfold in the opening cinematic.
Jones must undertake a massive operation full of action, intrigue, espionage, and plenty of surprises that I won’t be revealing here. Explore exotic and hostile locations throughout China, Libya, and Russia in a game that favors stealth over action, a fact that became perfectly clear when I had to make a 15-minute dash for the border on my belly.
To recap some issues that I covered in my preview, there were plenty of gameplay issues in the original game that have been fixed, or at least addressed in this sequel.
Saving: Everyone cried and complained (including me) that you couldn’t save mid-mission, and rightly so. Some of those IGI mission were 20-40 minutes long and if you died 39 minutes into a 40-minute mission guess how much you got to replay? IGI-2 tackles this issue with a brilliant concept that allows you to uplink your mission progress “anytime you want” at the expense of battery power on your PDA. Each save drains your battery giving you three saves per level. With only three saves per mission you will find yourself strategically hording these for just the right occasion.
Enemy AI: People were genuinely upset about the robotic AI in the original game. You could shoot one guy who was talking to another and get no reaction from the survivor. In IGI-2 the AI has been revamped to include reactionary soldiers who interact with other soldiers and work as an organized team. They use authentic combat tactics, and any electronic surveillance at their disposal. They also maintain regular patrol routes unless distracted. If an alarm sounds they will start to conduct a very methodic sweep of interior and exterior areas. Only after a lengthy and thorough search will the guards return to their barracks. Needless to stay, this takes a great deal of time and if you are going for the higher rankings you can’t afford to waste precious minutes hiding in a bush for things to settle down.
Infinite Spawning Soldiers: IGI had barracks that would spit out an infinite supply of soliders. You could walk into an empty building, leave; trip an alarm and 10 men would pour out of the empty shack you just left. IGI-2 simply doesn’t do this. Each level has a fixed amount of men and when you kill them they are dead. Using my thermal goggles I was able to see through walls and actually count the guards standing around inside barracks waiting for an alarm to sound. Three in one building, five in another, and if the alarm did sound that is all that would come out. If you have the ammo, skills, and patience you can conceivably clear out a level, although in some cases a helicopter or APC may arrive and deposit a fresh batch of troops.
Those were the big three complaints of the original, and all of them have been addressed in this sequel. Now, on to the new and improved stuff. IGI-2 improves on the original in just about every way conceivable and then improves upon that.
As with the first IGI, there are a lot of stealth aspects to the game. Part of your ranking is determined by how many times you are spotted in a mission. Light and visibility are now an integral part of the gameplay. You have a visibility meter next to your health that shows how visible you are to the enemy. Variable light sources, your position (crouched, prone, etc) and movement will determine how easily you can be spotted. There is nothing more chilling than lying prone in a dark corner or under a bush, as an enemy patrol is only a few feet away.
Of course you will often have to engage in some combat and when that time comes you have a delicious assortment of weapons at your disposal. Your knife and silenced pistol are great for silent takedowns and you even have a neck-snap move you can do now if you get behind an enemy. This action pops-up a timer bar much like picking a lock. It’s a guaranteed kill but not as quick as a few slashes with your knife.
When the alarm does sound you can either hide and wait it out or whip out one of several weapons and let the lead fly. Combat is realistic with location-sensitive damage - headshots kill and enemy body armor absorbs multiple hits - and limited ammo with weapons you need to reload. You can also only carry a limited amount of weapons based on their size, so if you want to pick up that shiny AK-47 the guard just dropped you will need to relinquish your MP5. This presents some interesting situations where you might find a sniper rifle with only seven shots. You would be wise to use those shots to clear out some guards or cameras then reclaim your machinegun before proceeding.
Each mission is prefaced with a cutscene that outlines your objectives. As you play the game you can often bring up a detailed satellite-recon map of the area that not only shows the level and the general location of the next objective, but a real-time update of cameras and guards. You can zoom this map close enough to read the proverbial license plate or back it out to survey a wide section of the map. You can analyze the guards’ patrol routes and see which direction they are facing. This loosely resembles the system used in games like Metal Gear Solid but there are no vision cones to show their range and there are no focal cones for the surveillance cameras either. So, while the map is helpful, you won’t be relying on it to compensate for lazy game skills.
The overall style of this game promotes stealth and caution but the mission rankings at the end contradict this by rewarding you for completing the mission in record time. I spent more than 90 minutes on the first mission doing careful recon, learning patterns, sniping guards where they wouldn’t be discovered, etc. only to find the mission had a 4:30 par time to earn the Secret Agent ranking. I finally managed to race my way through this mission in 8:20 for a Covert Operative ranking but replaying the missions and racing an unseen clock seems to break away from the theme of the game and the genre.
There are several ranks to strive for including Field Officer, Covert Operative and Secret Agent. When you reach one ranking the par stats for the next are displayed. I suppose this may offer some small incentive to replay the missions and strive for such records, but you really loose the “edginess” of the gameplay when you turn the game into a sprint for the finish line.
Time is only one thing that factors into your final ranking. Your ending health, your weapon accuracy, and the number of times you were spotted are also considered. Getting spotted can often prove frighteningly fatal. Guards will attack with amazing and often unrealistic accuracy. They can snipe you from 500 meters with a pistol or machine gun and lob grenades into the smallest window with the accuracy of a MLB pitcher. This superhuman opponent AI may seem unfair, but keep in mind that this game is about stealth and covert operations. In real-life you would be dead if you got spotted once – at least here they give you a fighting chance, albeit one tilted heavily in favor of the enemy.
The missions are scripted and slightly linear. You have several objectives (waypoints) in each mission but how you get to them is entirely up to you. In the first mission you can take out three guards and pick two locks to enter through the front gate, or you can disable a security camera, pick one lock, then fight your way through a warehouse full of soldiers. Both are equally as challenging but offer a unique experience for the gamer.
What isn’t scripted is the enemy AI. Most games like this have enemies that repeat patterns and you can learn and anticipate and with some creative saving and loading get past harder areas. Not in IGI-2. The guards are constantly changing their tactics so just when you expect that soldier to come out the door he has circled around and come in behind you. Thanks for playing. The AI has been significantly improved since the preview build. In the previous version I could make my stand in an office or bathroom and simply mow down the soldiers as they filed through the door. In the final release the guards are much more “suspicious” when they see the first two or three bodies lying in a doorway. They’ll hang back and wait for you to poke your head out then blow it off.
There were several bugs that cropped up during my tour of duty. The first major bug happens on level seven, “Border Crossing”. I’m not sure if it is due to the sheer size of this level or what but the game would frequently drop me back to Windows for no apparent reason. Considering this is one of the longest and most challenging levels up this point it was very frustrating to lose my progress – especially in my final dash to the rescue chopper with only seconds left in the mission.
Another problem that is also very annoying but at least avoidable occurs when you load a save game after triggering an alarm. When your loaded game resumes the guards are still in a state of heightened alert. The way around this is to only load your game after you have been killed.
Graphics are excellent and manage to surpass the original game in every way. The original IGI was designed around a flight simulator graphics engine that easily allowed for sprawling vistas and surprisingly detailed interior locations. IGI-2 sports a graphic engine that had me playing at 1600x1200x32 with max details and it was running at a flawlessly smooth framerate. This was playing on the same system that Unreal 2 limps along at 18-24fps at 1024x768 with medium details.
Considering the sheer size and architectural complexity of some of these levels, the IGI-2 graphics engine is a powerful piece of software. The base in the very first level is enormous, and it will easily take you 5-8 minutes to make a complete circle around the perimeter. Level 7 has you racing across an entire countryside toward the border while avoiding hostile patrols. You are literally traveling across several kilometers, often on your belly, sneaking through bushes, trees, and gullies while soldiers, tanks, and helicopters are all searching for you.
Levels are rich with detail and subtle touches that bring these environments to life. Trees and bushes sway in the breeze and you can drop to the ground and crawl through tall grass and bushes and peek past leaves as you ambush your targets. It’s a very spine-tingly experience. Later in the game when you arrive in Libya you will find a convincing city layout that is modeled with great detail and realistic textures, then populated with some deadly opponents.
Interior areas are simple, but populated with enough realistic objects to be convincing. You can only interact with items that are critical to the mission. I was disappointed that you could not turn off lights or even shoot them out, but I guess that would be too much like Splinter Cell.
Sound is covered really well in IGI-2 with your typical military themes and intense background tracks that cue to the action. There are plenty of subtle effects that you can really appreciate during those silent periods like creeping through the tall grass along the river and hearing frogs and crickets.
You need to be constantly aware of the amount of sound you are making. Running along a metal catwalk or racing through tall grass or bushes will alert any nearby guards. I did notice a few AI problems in this area, as guards seem to have an uncanny ability to hear even the smallest noises, even through brick walls.
If you get close enough to the guards you can hear plenty of idle chatter and even when you peer through walls with your thermal goggles you can hear the mumbling of the guards inside. There are plenty of environmental sounds like machinery or the electronic hum of a surveillance camera or even worse, when that camera stops, and you hear the sounds of it focusing and beeping as some unseen guard prepares to sound the alarm. Good stuff!
Finishing Covert Strike will take you anywhere from 20-30 hours depending on your skill and how determined you are to get the highest rankings. If you are going for Secret Agent on every level then expect to spend anywhere from 50-80 hours (or more) avoiding detection and racing the shrinking clock.
IGI-2 offers a robust multiplayer gaming experience for up to 16 soldiers online or 32 on a LAN. Setting up a server is as easy as picking from the available maps, setting a few rules and options, and then broadcasting your server out to the Internet so others can join in. You even get to choose from multiple spawn locations so you don’t accidentally drop into a firefight.
There is already a Jungle mission map available for download and hopefully we will see more expansion missions become available for this title in the near future. With the proper community support, IGI-2 could have a long life ahead of it.
IGI-2 offers some intense stealth and tactical gameplay that spans authentic real-world locales and believable situations that could be taken from today’s headlines. You are truly one man against an army, and this game does a fantastic job of creating an atmosphere where the tension can be cut with a combat knife.
Codemasters has redeemed this franchise in my eyes. IGI-2: Covert Strike is everything the first game could and should have been and more. Once the skeptical veterans of the original IGI see just how great this game is, Covert Strike should become the smash hit of 2003.