I think everyone in the world knows where Spy Vs. Spy comes from, but one thing I wasn’t familiar with was the history of the cartoonist himself. According to the manual for Spy Vs Spy, artist Antonio Prohias fled his native Cuba once Fidel Castro seized power. Prohias was a well-known political cartoonist in his homeland, so where better to land in the United States than at the doorstep of MAD Magazine where he created the Spy Vs. Spy comic.
Satire is a tricky thing to get right, but it helps having such a broad canvas as the Cold War to paint your picture. The comic focuses on the escapades of two spies, one dressed in white and the other in black, who routinely destroy each other with a variety of elaborate traps and weaponry in an effort to please their respective shadowy masters. All the while the strip read as mockery of the extremes the super powers were willing to stoop to, usually for no better reason than they wanted to upstage “the other guy.”
I really wish the game version of Spy Vs. Spy at least kept the sense of destructive fun from the comic, but unfortunately we’re left with just a symphony of destruction. So, looking at the game for what it is, a collection of cartoon mayhem, how does it fare? I could show you, but a picture of me shrugging probably is not what the boss would prefer I upload to the site. Suffice to say, I think Spy Vs. Spy could have been a lot more than what it is, but the game itself isn’t bad either. Maybe I’m spoiled by Mercenaries which so creatively promotes wanton destruction that it’s downright hilarious, but Spy Vs. Spy seems like the comic itself – great for its time, but sadly outdated.
The more games I see that use cell-shading the more I’m beginning to consider it a cop-out. Yes, Spy Vs. Spy uses the cell shading technique that makes it really hard to actually judge the quality of a game’s graphics. Everything looks appropriately cartoony, with explosions and over-the-top effects all playing their part to make Spy Vs. Spy feel like a missing piece of the Looney Tunes catalog. Bombs, weapons, and explosions all have the “Bang!” “Bam!” feel of the comics.
The environments all have a slightly surreal quality to them that adds to the quirky visual charm. Each mission starts with the Spy in his lab and the way it’s laid out with weapons and top-secret plans on the desk and walls is perfect. Hallways usually have more than a few traps and dangers (or both) waiting for the Spy, and there is a good variety of henchmen and traps so the player does not grow bored from watching the game.
I also liked the effects for all the weapons, which range from simple like the slingshot to creative like the lightning gun. It’s also nifty watching enemies fall for your traps, but largely that happens during multiplayer events. During the course of the game, an enemy is unlikely to simply “stumble on to” one of your traps unless the script said it would happen. For instance, you eventually get the chance to buy door traps, which you can use to rig a door all day long, but unless there is a pre-scripted event where the enemy is going to use that particular door, then you just wasted your time and money.
The soundtrack for Spy Vs. Spy sounds like it would if Quentin Tarantino were to direct a live-action version starring Don Cheadle and Simon Pegg. Okay, so that’s who I would cast if I were financing the film, but regardless of that the music for Spy Vs. Spy is terrific and perfectly captures the feeling of a 1960’s spy film. I love the up-tempo riffs throughout the game and the way the music captures any excitement that happens on screen. It’s fun to sit and just listen to the tunes. A hearty thanks must go out to the band Combustible Engine, who provided several tracks for the game, and music composers Barry Fasman, Ed Martel, and John O’Kennedy. Outstanding work from all of you.
My only real knock against the music is the length of each track. It seems there is new music for every mission and map, but the track starts looping way too quickly. During the story missions, each map can take a long time to complete and the music will have looped several times by then. It’s nice to listen to great, catchy tunes all afternoon, but after a while you wish the development team thought to have multiple music tracks per board instead of just the one.
There are no voices for the spies, just high-pitched squeaky laughter which is strangely appropriate for the characters. I can imagine this getting on people’s nerves after a while, but it really fits for the spies themselves. I honestly can’t see either of them dropping into a monologue while torturing the other. But if it annoys you, then you can go into the Sound options and make what changes you need to.
The controls for Spy Vs. Spy seem to be intentionally at odds with the way other games handle inventory management. Whenever you hit Select, you’ll see the list of mission objectives and what you have completed and what you have left, but no list of the items you carry. For that you need to hit the B button repeatedly as you scroll through the list of weapons. Since you can carry several weapons at a time, it is impossible to quickly scroll through them. You’re not under constant fire unless you play in multiplayer, so this does not pose as much of a problem in story mode as it does during multiplayer. The right trigger is your weapon-fire button and I found that I received better combat results if I pulled the right trigger repeatedly instead of just holding it down.
The Y button switches between your traps and the various mines you can use. When you need to interact with something you hit the X button. If you come up to a safe, you would hit the X button to open it, then hit the Y button to select your trap, then hit the right trigger to plant said trap. This winds up feeling more convoluted than it reads, and if you are in the middle of planting a trap during a multiplayer match and someone comes up and starts attacking you, it is very likely they will get in far too many hits before you are able to swap weapons and fight back. For timed weapons like bombs, you can hold the right trigger to strengthen your throw, but a timer over the bomb will still count down from five.
I thought it was cool how the Spy leaves footprints whenever he runs, but leaves no footprints whenever he sneaks. That being said, this feature does not play as big a part as I would have hoped. Far too frequently I would be able to run into a room guns blazing, clear it, then move on to the next. I thought the life of a spy hinged on stealth, but apparently strategic placement of a bear trap coupled with a hair trigger finger compensate just fine. The A button lets the Spy jump, and when you need to go into precision aiming you press down on the right thumbstick which brings up a target.
The gameplay in Spy Vs. Spy is surprisingly generic, boring, and repetitive. The Spy starts each mission from his hideout and must collect several keys to advance to the next stage. Of course, the game refers to the “keys” as pieces of evidence, and sprinkles a ton of mini-games throughout each map, but overall the game is a brainless way to kill time. That may sound more like the way to end a review instead of explaining the game play, but I swear that Spy Vs. Spy lacks the fun element inherent to the comics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not such a slave to the comics that I felt the game should adhere absolutely to them. I just think the comics struck a much better balance between destruction and funny than the game does. You can also unlock a ton of outfits, cheat codes, game artwork, and so forth as you continue playing.
The story of Spy Vs. Spy does open well, and revolves around one spy trying to accomplish a series of missions while outwitting the other spy. This isn’t all that tough to do, and the end result is a breezy game that flies by leaving you wanting to try out the other modes. The Modern Mode is a four-player nod to Capture the Flag because you wind up with four spies all trying to grab four secret items and then escape the map, all while throwing traps and explosives at one another. The idea is a sound one, but it’s far too easy to be ripped apart after collecting even just one secret item. I played this mode the longest and never once did either the computer or myself win. The only thing happening was a series of spies killing one another and explosions going off.
The final mode is called Classic Mode and is the same thing as Modern Mode only it’s limited to the Embassy map. This mode I found particularly frustrating because the enemy AI seems to know exactly where all the secret items are, despite them being “randomized” among several safes in a room. By the time I’ve search three of the four or five safes in a room, I’ve seen that other secret items have already been found. That’s about the time the enemies come into my room and kill me. By the time I respawn, they’ve already exited the map and the game is over.
Spy Vs. Spy is very limited on game play and fun, overall, which was surprising to me because I would think this kind of lineage would automatically lend itself to pure action/stealth gaming fun. Imagine a Spy Vs. Spy done by the guys who made Splinter Cell and you’ll understand the quality this title deserves. As it stands, the game itself has plenty of things to unlock, but not that many fun ways to unlock them.
There are a lot of different things to unlock in Spy Vs. Spy but the game itself is not really worth the time and effort to do so. The various versus modes quickly grow tiresome, especially since there only the three aforementioned methods of playing. If all you have is a weak story mode, and two multiplayer modes where the bots know exactly where to find “randomized” items, then the game itself suffers. But if unlocking additional costumes, maps, and concept art is your drug of choice, then Spy Vs. Spy is right up your alley.