Reviewed: May 24, 2005
Reviewed by: Arend Hart
Released: April 7, 2005
I can’t claim to be a big fan of MAD Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy series of comics – but there is no denying that after a thirty-plus year run in one of the nation’s most popular comic rags, the black and white duo are veritable icons in the industry.
Originally published in MAD Magazine in 1961, the strip was the brainchild of artist and Cuban defector Antonio Prohias for whom the two dueling spies symbolized the opposing cold war political factions bent on destroying each other, yet ultimately doing more harm to themselves.
The spies’ simple brand of tomfoolery seems perfectly suited for the world of video gaming. So in 1984, First Star Software released a Spy vs. Spy game for home computers. In 1984, I was a 12-year-old hacker and an avid reader of MAD – needless to say, I remember that game well. Mostly because I remember being utterly confused with what I was looking at – which interestingly enough was the first-ever appearance of a split-screen multiplayer. What First Star dubbed Simulplay™ effectively eliminated turn-by-turn multiplayer gaming. As a lone player, I couldn’t figure out what I was even looking at.
There have been a number of other Spy vs. Spy games to come out since, but none for the current generation of consoles – until now, where we have received Spy vs. Spy for the Xbox. Sadly, full-featured multiplayer via Xbox Live and a bargain bin price point ($19.99) don’t quite make up for Spy vs. Spy’s thin gameplay and low production values.
By nature of the source material and the obvious Spy vs. Spy 1-on-1 dynamic, the gameplay of the single player campaign and the multiplayer deathmatch play must be considered to entirely separate entities – even more so than in most other games.
Whereas in most games, multiplayer modes are generally considered shallow add-ons to add longevity to the disc once the story mode has been completed – Spy vs. Spy, however, which began the deathmatch phenomenon way back in 1984, now tries to add a weak campaign mode to add some body to their thin and dated multiplayer. Sadly, neither mode seems to have any real lasting power, and as a result, while having a certain nostalgic charm, the fun in Spy vs. Spy dissolves quickly.
The single player campaign takes the form of a simplistic and repetitive fetch quests through a series of themed levels, all on the elusive search for the enemy spy. Each level generally consists of a central arena that is surrounded by a handful of looped pathways.
Your chosen spy is dropped off in his broom closet headquarters just off the main arena where he is allowed to purchase weapons, traps, and counters (i.e. shielding) and from there trots off to a series of looping treks to complete a variety of sub-missions; collecting gadgets, flipping switches, setting traps, etc.
Weapons break down into melee, hand thrown or projectile varieties, ranging from the primitive clubs, bombs and slingshots, to more advanced varieties of chain saws and freeze rays. There are even a few unique animal-based weapons – the suicide monkey and the 900lb gorilla – both of which having hilarious results. The variety of weapons is pretty surprising, but even with auto-aims, using the items effectively can be a chore in and of itself.
Traps break down into safe traps and door traps. The door traps are pretty self explanatory – buckets of acid or similar that are to be placed upon doorways to ensnare unsuspecting users. Safe traps are of the same ilk, but to be used in any of the numerous safes located throughout the level.
Counters tend to be either shields or gadgets which either lessen the damage of an enemy’s attacks and traps, or defuse the enemies traps altogether. While it may sound like the developers have literally given you every doodad to use in your quest to eliminate the enemy spy – they fall hard on the actual gameplay. Very hard.
Where the problem lies is that the difficulty level is so darn inconsistent, it makes the game virtually unplayable – the “easy” stuff is entirely too easy, and the “non-easy” stuff (notice, I never said “hard”) is seemingly impossible. But not impossible in a Ninja Gaiden boss-battle manner – more in a bewildering, incomprehensible “I have killed every single character on this level, bought every single weapon and gadget, and explored every single nook and cranny of this level and I still don’t know what in the heck I am supposed to do next” sort of way.
It is almost like the developers were looking at their finished product, realized that it was way too easy and decided at the last minute to delete certain key portions of the on-screen instructions to amp up the difficulty. What you get is a game that seems to spoon feed every minute detail of where to go, what to do, etc. except for one pivotal piece of information, leaving the gamer to flounder about through empty levels searching for that one piece of information he needs to progress.
The enemies pose little-to-no honest challenge once you learn their attack modes, vulnerabilities and weak spots. For instance, while the robotic shooting plants in the first level may seem insurmountable at first, once you realize that they only fire horizontally from about four inches off the floor and therefore you can easily avoid their fire by standing on any ledge or step – they suddenly become a piece of cake. The same goes for the rest of the simplistic enemy types – each has an obvious Achilles' heel to be exploited, and once you realize the weakness they challenge disappears.
In the same vein, while the prospect of using traps sounds fun, they are really only effective on predetermined doors and safes which are shown to you as part of the mission instructions, so you can’t really hope to have any real imaginative use against the enemy spies or thugs. Even worse, a level might require you to purchase and set half a dozen safe traps at 40 credits apiece or more, and make you trap an entire room’s worth of safes with the knowledge that only one trap will actually do the bidding – as a penny-pinching Dutchman, that goes against my innate stinginess, as money that could have better been spent on actual weaponry.
And as for the counters, it is sometimes difficult to realize the proper or most efficient use for use of the various counters. And, because the enemies tend to be so darned wimpy – with predictable patterns of attack, glitches that stick them to objects, and so on – the use of counters is really only necessary when absolutely mandated by the game to progress the story.
I can’t lie – I only made it about 50% through the single player mode before I threw in the towel in frustration. I hate being a quitter, but I spent so much time running around empty levels for a half an hour or more (I never before thought I’d be wishing for respawing enemies…but I was) knowing that sans a mid-level save feature, I couldn’t take a break without losing my progress and have to do the whole level over again. And since the online multiplayer offering dished out at least a small dose of actual honest-to-goodness gameplay challenge (with much less confusion), I had to make the break.
The multiplayer aspect of Spy vs. Spy was surprisingly fun – even if only for a short while. Playable either locally or through Xbox Live, the ability to have actual humans controlling the enemy AI amps-up the level of challenge markedly, and in some small way redeems the Spy vs. Spy name.
Multiplayer comes in four flavors, three of which are variants of deathmatch (Deathmatch, Last Man Standing and Armed and Loaded), with the fourth a variant on the “Hold the Ball” theme called Get MAD.
The multiplayer modes utilize the very same environments used in the single player campaign. Given the general layout of the central arena surrounded by a half-dozen or so looping pathways, and the fact that players have already spent countless hours wandering aimlessly through the single player campaign, recycling these environments works out pretty well for the developers and gamers alike.
The multiplayer weapons are all taken straight from the single player campaign, but with less effective results thanks to the unpredictable movement of the human controlled enemies as opposed to the cookie-cutter AI routines found in the single player campaign.
Weapons and items are found scattered throughout the levels, and passing over them will automatically add them to your inventory. While there is a maximum number of items you may hold in your inventory at any one time, the limit is nowhere near as restrictive as what you find in most of the recent multiplayer games.
The multiplayer matches of Spy vs. Spy play out much like you would expect from a game of this ilk – frenzied dash-‘n-whack and frenetic run-‘n-gun are the modus operandi for enemy spies. As we saw in the similarly styled Xbox titles Whacked and Kung-Fu Chaos, there isn’t much time to employ genuine tactical logic in a toon-styled romper room of destruction. And given the fact that the online competition is quite sparse, and the players that are there are in the pimples, peach fuzz and learner’s permits age bracket, don’t expect to make too many friends or find much enlightening conversation.
Still, in a world where few individuals stand even a smidgeon of a chance in even placing in the top five in a Halo 2 online match, there is quite a cathartic feeling to be had in racking up a hefty score against a potty-mouthed, trash-talking teenager. I was surprised to find myself actually placing in the top ranks time after time, and that really drove me to keep playing on.
While decent overall, the graphics in Spy vs. Spy certainly will not win any awards. The two dimensional characters and objects of the comic strip are admirably represented in full 3D for the video game without significantly altering the cartoon-like feel one would expect from a Spy vs. Spy title. Still, it sure would have been nice if the developers had added more variety within each level, because after only a few minutes everything begins to look the same.
To begin, the character models are recycled generously – too generously in fact – with each level featuring a total of only two or three unique enemy types. And since each enemy has a distinct weakness to be exploited, that means that each two- or three-enemy level gets repetitive quite quickly.
The environmental features are heavily recycled as well, rendering each the half-dozen or so looping pathways that surround each arena as being nearly indistinguishable from the others. If it weren’t for the flashing arrows that generally point to the corridor containing the next objective (unless they are wrong), it would be easy to get turned around. Thankfully, all pathways loop back to the center, so you can always make it home.
Then there are the graphical glitches – most noticeably the clipping, which often causes enemies to stick to corners or for appendages to appear through walls and doorways. I found more than one instance where a direct line of fire (through a first-person targeting reticule, mind you) would clip into corners or walls that were nowhere near the projectile’s path.
Talk about a mixed bag here – the sound design of Spy vs. Spy is both engaging and irritating all at the same time. While the lack of voice acting certainly is fitting of the “silent” comic (which itself featured no verbalization other than the random snickering of a triumphant Spy), even a minuscule amount of narration would have been a nice addition to break the monotony of reading the mission instructions and objectives and hearing the irritating chipmunk-like Spy cackle.
The sound effects are weak and overly recycled, and sound like they could have easily been lifted from the public domain of video game sound effects circa 1989. Weapons go “pop!”, bombs go “boom!” and lasers go “zap!” – and everything is followed by that irritating Spy cackle.
The background music is the real high point, with a jazzy sixties flavor reminiscent of what we found in Voodoo Vince or even those old Pink Panther cartoons. Each level has its own unique score that aptly reflects the level’s theme, and although each music loop may not be all that long, you will probably be humming along too loud to notice.
Even at an asking price of $20, the Xbox Live support still isn’t reason enough to recommend an outright purchase of Spy vs. Spy. Current and former MAD readers may dig Spy vs. Spy on a nostalgic level, but the game just doesn’t have the depth to sustain the long-term play one would get from just about any other game of its type.
It’s not really a bad game per se, and if a copy were included with every MAD subscription I’m sure there would me more than a few happy readers who would be ecstatic with the bonus offer – but most paying gamers would feel a bit slighted.
For a party of friends – either local or online – Spy vs. Spy would make a great weekend rental, but gamers looking for substance in their action platformers would most likely be disappointed with Spy vs. Spy. While it is an admirable try at reviving the namesake, I don’t think it will be winning any awards.