Before I played it, I had Death to Spies described to me as Hitman in World War II. Truth be told this got me fairly excited; my love for the Hitman series (well, Blood Money anyway) runs deep so the prospect of more of the same or even similar was something I was happy with. What also happened before I played Death to Spies is that I decided not to compare it to Hitman in this review, but unfortunately that has become impossible – in fact I sort of did it in the first sentence. The comparison to Hitman is inevitable because of reasons we’ll delve into in just a second, but I think I need to make clear here that while I was expecting something like Hitman in World War II, I wasn’t going to let my expectations run that high.
Death to Spies – Moment of Truth sees you playing as a SMERSH (Soviet counter-intelligence) operative named Semion Strogov. Semion is somebody we don’t really know anything about and he’s a man of few words (Like agent 47 from Hitman). He has a trademark silver pistol and a red tie (Like 47). The cutscenes show Semion doing some mission to grab a Top Secret document then plunges us into flashback for each mission (like in Hitman). The loading bar for a mission is a red line at the bottom of the screen (like in Hitman). Just before you actually go into the mission proper a horribly acted (not like in Hitman) voice gives you a run down of the mission to come (like in Hitman), then you pick your equipment (like in Hitman). Equipment picked you complete your missions inside of an enemy base through means of disguising yourself in enemy uniforms and stealthy infiltration (like in Oblivion. No Wait. Hitman). See what I mean when I say comparison is inevitable.
Let me get one thing straight – I don’t really mind Death to Spies, err…liberating, all these Hitman elements for it’s own game. They work after all, and frankly it puts its own style on top of things enough that definitely makes it different from That Other Game. DTS is very serious; all humour and colour omitted in favour of grim tones and dank locations. It’s takes it’s history seriously, modelling weapons properly from the time and assigning certain weapons to certain troops who in turn are done properly. There are about a million different tiers of guard plus different task forces for different jobs: for example a perimeter guard will have camo to blend in with the trees, while the inner base guards will be wearing grey, and if you disguise as a perimeter guard and aren’t on the perimeter – people will wonder what you’re doing. On top of this are the SS troops who themselves have different ranks, and then delivery men, engineers, pilots etc etc.
Along with the history Death to Spies does a lot of things right and the design is actually rather wonderful in places. It gets two massive components of any game right anyway: the levels and the missions. The first level, for example, sees you creeping through long, wet grass before somehow getting into a fully functional enemy base. I say fully functional because it’s very busy; guards are patrolling, people are working – everything passes off really well to sell it as realistic, and it’s only encouraged by the sheer amount of guards. There are hundreds, and when you are playing a stealth game – this might as well be bazillions. They aren’t stupid either, they stay in groups, talk to each other, do roughly what you would expect them to do. Then, the missions you need to do aren’t the normal ‘kill person x’ and possibly ‘steal object y’; but rather ‘capture person x’, disable machine ‘y’, investigate object ‘z’, and while these still effectively boil down to ‘press use key on something without being seen’ it’s some welcome variety.
DTS goes beyond getting the core components right though, it has lots of nice little touches that bring it more to life. Guards, for example, salute you with a ‘Heil Hitler!’ if you are disguised as a higher rank than them, you can carry a spare disguise in a backpack in case you need to switch, you get warnings if you are doing something that could be seen as suspicious; there are loads of little things like this that make it really good, but unfortunately there are a few things wrong with it that utterly spoil the whole experience.
It seems that through Nazi Guard Training Camp the DTS guards learnt three things that I wouldn’t expect. The first is how to use doors in a very special way. The special way is to get confused, and walk into a wall next to or around the door. Or just walk into the door. Or do both. The important thing is that they should not, under any circumstances, use the door unless you directly intervene and open it for them, or close it so they can open it, or nudge them onto the right track. The second thing that they learnt is how to deal with people who are acting weird. Their solution is to gun suspicious people down not matter who they are. No conversation, just gunning. Doesn’t matter if you are disguised, or even disguised as someone higher ranked them them, gunning will ensue. Even just standing in a patch of field you aren’t meant to be in for a bit too long – you are going to get gunned.
The third thing is how to guard an area in a special way, and it ties in with their second part of training. If you go anywhere near an area you aren’t allowed in, the guards get on your case. In disguise as a higher ranking guard than said guard? Doesn’t matter. Even cooks get onto you for going near the food they have made, which other people are happily walking up to and eating. Constantly guards are shouting at you or finding you far too suspicious – even if you are just walking down a corridor that someone let you into – “getten out!” is cried (or something similar). Constantly you are being told to leave from seemingly random patches of land because they are remotely close to something important.
These three problems are omni present and combine into something horrible. It’s like a constant frustration – you can’t go anywhere or do anything without people getting on your case. I think the fact that you only need to be near an area that’s off limits before people are hunting you down – it doesn’t seem fair. And then if you don’t leave they start shooting. It’s all a little over-zealous in it’s anti-spy measures, and rather than making it feel more realistic it just makes it frustrating. Combine it with you having to handhold anyone you are following to get them through doors (sometimes they will just get unavoidably stuck) and you end up not really being able to enjoy the experience.
Hitman is full of dark comedy and to get it to a place where I loved it took 4 games and a hell of a lot of money. Death to Spies – Moment of Truth only has one game before it, it’s digital download only, and it’s a few quid cheaper than the normal ~£30 launch price. I wasn’t expecting anything perfect at all, but more of a straighter, more serious and possibly a little more rough around the edges version of Hitman. And, for the most part, that’s what you get. It is more serious and it is rougher around the edges, but maybe it’s too much of both. It reminds me a lot of Hitman 2; you can see the ideas are there and there is a lot of good game but not quite realised yet. While I really want to like Death to Spies I can’t quite. Unfortunately the Nazi Guard Training Camp’s 3 problems get in the way far too frequently and I’m not exaggerating when I say that they made me stop playing. Maybe in another 2 games there will be something brilliant happening with Death to Spies, but at the minute I don’t think it’s quite there yet but undoubtedly smacks of potential.