With a title sounding at first blush like an '80s film starring Dolph Lundgren or Arnold Schwarzenegger, one expects Death to Spies to be a cheesy first-person shooter set in the Cold War era. Surprisingly, it is a solid WWII stealth game in the murderous mold of the Hitman series. Spies is not quite as polished as Agent 47's head, but for those who have been patiently skulking in the shadows waiting to practice their chloroform gagging or cord choking skills, it's reason enough to come in from the cold.
The storyline follows a Soviet officer of SMERSH during the early 1940s. SMERSH, an abbreviation of the Russian phrase "death to spies," was a real organization created specifically to thwart operations from foreign secret services. Throughout the game's ten missions, you are sent alone in Nazi-occupied territory to spy, infiltrate, sabotage, kidnap, and of course, kill specific targets, as displayed in your briefing dossier at the beginning of each level.
The developers were obviously a fan of Hitman and his wicked ways, as the core mechanics, for better or worse, are almost identical. The game is played entirely from a third-person perspective behind your soldier, and like any stealth title worth its smelling salt, how you go about your objectives is largely up to you. The large outdoor and indoor maps let you take multiple routes toward your goals, and the available weapons and tools are diverse.
The interface, however, is as clunky as a sack full of hammers and sickles. Seemingly simple actions involve the keyboard equivalent of jumping through hoops. Your character has to be "told" what to do with an object or enemy by pressing the action button (default E) and then scrolling through the available options with either the arrow keys or a scroll wheel. Press the action button near a fallen enemy, for example, and you can steal his clothes, take his weapon, or pick up his body. See a weapon on a table? You have to press "E" and then click the "take weapon" option. Fluid it's not.
While this control scheme isn't unique to Death to Spies, scrolling through menu choices can be a real obstacle when you have mere seconds to act before being spotted. Why should you have to press an extra button to stun an enemy, for example? The most successful controls are, unsurprisingly, the most intuitive, like nudging the mouse wheel to change from standing to crouching to crawling in one fluid motion. Switching weapons is also a snap, since they are mapped to the number keys. It's a shame that accessing the action menu doesn't briefly pause the game. It would alleviate some of the frustration, since there's often little room for error.
While ten missions isn't a huge number for a single-player game, all are extremely challenging even on the easiest difficulty setting. Maps are densely packed with patrols, so it becomes necessary to acquire different uniforms to pass by groups of three or more undetected. Even with a disguise, you have to constantly be on guard. Uniforms don't fool higher-ranked officers, for example, and there are several "rules" to follow based on an enemy's sight range and alertness (each enemy's vision radius is displayed as a color-coded "cone" on a vector map).
Some of these rules are obvious. Carrying a body in front of an enemy is probably not a good idea. Another "dead" giveaway is running over people in a truck. Yelling "dasvedanya" as you toss a grenade is also a big no-no. Other actions are not as clear-cut, like why holding a weapon would make guards suspicious when you're disguised as a soldier. It's also a bit comical that some soldiers aren't curious as to why you are crouching up behind someone, or that a discarded uniform isn't cause for alarm.
Yet these types of inconsistencies come with the territory, and overall, the AI in Death to Spies is fair since players are warned when they are in danger, at least on most of the difficulty settings. An "eye" icon displays whenever your character is in view of at least one soldier; potentially cover-blowing actions will display an exclamation point; and a horizontal danger meter lets you know the enemy's suspicion level and how long you have before the troops sound the alarms. The only thing missing is a visible sound meter, which is disappointing since sound plays an important role, from movement to opening doors to breaking objects.
Of course, being developed by a relatively small, independent company means Death to Spies lacks refinement in some key areas. The cut-scenes, voiceovers, and character models are rough, and the physics is at times curious. Another strange "feature" is that none of the Nazis wear swastikas, a questionable editorial choice for a game designed to be historically accurate. Death to Spies may not bring many new ideas to the genre, but it's nonetheless a tension-filled temptation that would make even Sam Fisher, Solid Snake, and Agent 47 weak in the knees.
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