The back of the Spy Fiction package states: “Stealth Action inspired by genre-defining espionage classics.” While it’s not unusual for publishers to engage in a bit of hyperbole about their game’s features, this statement immediately set off a red flag in my mind. Sammy Studios does do a fair amount of the standard marketing bit, boasting about Spy Fiction’s “amazing arsenal of unique, hi-tech gadgets” and two playable characters. However, when one of the biggest selling points you can think of seems to be “we couldn’t come up with our own game so we decided to copy parts from existing games that have sold well” then it’s possible you should rethink your marketing strategy, if not your whole development plan.
Still, we are taught never to judge a book by its cover, so I set out to determine if Spy Fiction rose to be more than the sum of its admittedly borrowed parts. Here is what I found.
The PS2 has been around for almost four years. At this time in the life cycle of prior consoles, the SNES was finding ways to squeeze visual treasures like Donkey Kong Country out of available processor space. Some developers have been able to perform similar feats with the PS2, but Sammy and developer Access Games apparently decided on a different approach. In order to effectively capture the feel of the games they were inspired by, they developed their game to look as though it were released at roughly the same time.
Put simply, Spy Fiction resembles a first generation PS2 game. Every aspect, ranging from interaction in levels to the in-engine cutscenes is plagued with aliasing problems. I have not seen this many jaggies and strange clipping issues in a game since Tekken Tag Tournament – a launch title. It’s a shame, because the overall visual style of the game is pretty ambitious. The levels take you from wintery cathedrals through lush jungles and a few obligatory science facilities, all of which are designed well enough from a conceptual standpoint. Unfortunately, the impact of what would be exciting levels is lessened by sloppy, poor programming.
On the subject of visual style, it’s worth mentioning that the character models all have a distinctly anime-style to them. For fans of anything Japanese this may be a plus, but this style feels more at home in light-hearted RPGs about teenagers saving the world than it does in what is supposed to be the gritty story of a black-ops team taking on a terrorist mastermind. It looks as though the game wants to be serious with excessive violence and blood earning an M rating, but the character models are so cartoony looking and the situations so absurd that the whole thing feels pretty thematically inconsistent. If you have strong leanings in one direction on the subject of big-eyed heroes with implausible hair, consider yourself informed…or warned.
As disappointing as Spy Fiction can be for your eyes, your ears will have it worse. Sound effects manage to lack any level of visceral satisfaction. Grenades and gunshots are muted, and the noises from your various gadgets feel like dull placeholders. Every action the characters take comes across as very artificial given the lack of appropriate accompanying noises.
The credibility of the videogame voice actors guild has been dealt a strong blow thanks to the utter lack of talent, direction and execution found in Spy Fiction. The dialogue is stilted and amateurish, and though a good amount of blame for this may be shunted to the inept writers, the blame for the worst aspect of Spy Fiction’s voicework falls squarely on the shoulders of the actors. The accents. Sweet mother of mercy, the accents are terrible. Each cringe inducing attempt to portray foreign characters calls to mind the days when programmers would rely on roommates and janitors to bring their creations to life. Since the game provides subtitles for all spoken lines, the temptation to simply mute the volume on your television becomes nearly irresistible at times.
As for the music, despite its confessed reliance on existing stealth games for inspiration, Spy Fiction avoids the dramatic orchestral score that other stealth games seem to prefer and instead provides some generic early 90’s videogame synthesizer tracks. It kind of fits with the themes of technology and gadgetry, but it conspires with the underwhelming visuals to make the game feel somehow dated, even though it’s new. Overall, it’s hard to shake the feeling while playing Spy Fiction that you’ve already played this game some time ago, and that you liked it more the last time you did.
In an interesting design decision, Spy Fiction doesn’t begin with a tutorial mission like many modern games use as an opening level. Instead, there is a series of pretty lengthy tutorial movies available at any time from the menu screen. It’s nice to have constant access to a guide, but these tutorials aren’t well arranged and tend to be less convenient than just flipping through the manual.
Although there is a choice between two playable characters, there isn’t much difference to how either of them control. Both Billy and Sheila can perform the same general sneaking and combat maneuvers, both of which seem to have been heavily “inspired” by the Metal Gear series. In fact, the Metal Gear controls have been emulated to the point of inclusion of the awkwardness caused by using the same button to apply a chokehold that is used to punch. This is also the same button used for locking onto targets and shooting. Grenades also rely on this button. It appears that someone at Access lost track of how many buttons are on a dual shock controller and decided to play it safe by making the square button the center of just about everything there is to do in the game.
Combat controls are also lacking. When unarmed, tapping (guess what?) the square button performs a stock punch-kick combination. When armed, holding square automatically targets an enemy, with a bullet fired on release. The problem arises with manual aiming, which forces you to equip a scope item, find your target with the analog stick, and then employ the square button. It’s a very clunky system, so firefights tend to be a choice between boring and often dangerous close combat with the overpowered auto-aim and fiddling with the overly complicated manual aiming for ranged assault. Unappealing combat appears to be the incentive used to make players choose a stealthy approach to the spy game.
The above does not mean to suggest that stealth is any more appealing in the game. Usually you are granted free control over the camera, however some of the indoor levels instead rely on a pseudo-fixed camera. You can still move the camera around, but only through 90 degrees of rotation or so. Needless to say, it is often very, very easy to lose track of your position. In an enemy-filled level, this moves beyond being a nuisance and into the realm of being a serious obstacle to progress.
The game opens (after the first of many lengthy loading screens) with an interesting minigame involving parachuting into an enemy compound, darting through a night sky and threading your way through…mines? Mines in the air? It’s apparent early on that realism wasn’t a high priority for Spy Fiction. This is more evident when you kill your first guard and discover that rather than have to worry about his friends discovering the body, it will conveniently flicker and disappear.
Still, a game doesn’t have to be realistic to be fun. Let’s refocus on that parachuting minigame. It’s a good opening to the game, but unfortunately it’s the last original thing you’ll see for a while. After that, it’s first person perspective crawling through air ducts to sneak by guards with various punctuation marks over their heads to denote their current state while using items that let you perceive a sentry’s field of vision. Sound familiar?
To be fair, it’s not all so derivative. There are a few more minigames available through the course of the story that break the monotony well. You are also able to eavesdrop on NPC conversations, which would be a nice touch except that the things people talk about are usually sort of dull. This feature could have been a lot more fun, but the writing and voice acting didn’t carry it as much as they needed to. The game also offers a wide assortment of spy tools, but the sad fact is that most of these tools are never needed in order to progress. The most consistently useful is the 3DA camera, a device that allows you to take pictures of characters and subsequently disguise yourself as anyone you have a picture of in your inventory. You’ll often have to position yourself stealthily for a good picture, and then you’ll have to behave carefully in order to not blow your disguise. The photography aspect is the most original part of Spy Fiction and one of the most fun parts of the game.
If your disguise fails or you are discovered, it’s not immediately mission over. You have the chance to shoot your way out of a scrap, and once you get clear you’ll have to find a hiding place and wait. Wait for the enemies to do a search of the area. Then wait for them to return to normal patrol status. In all, you’ll be waiting for about 3 minutes each time you’re caught. This, if you needed clarification, is boring. It’s almost as though the game were encouraging you to run and gun, but some segments won’t let you proceed if enemies are alerted. Considering how long you have to wait to get through the clearing sections after being spotted, coupled with the generally faulty combat system, it’s hard to really understand exactly what style of play is being endorsed.
There are two characters to choose from, but aside from the male character being able to take more hits and the female character being able to wear female disguises, there isn’t really any difference in the experience provided by playing as one or the other. Cutscenes even remain the same regardless of who you choose. Somehow, even though you’ll have entered a room alone, when a major cutscene starts both characters will be present. Minor cutscenes, while character specific, didn’t provide anything more than a different character model performing the same action. Suffice to say: replay value is low.
There are a few unlockables, mostly centered on alternate costumes for the two main characters. Considering that each character feels like an alternate skin for the same generic spy in the first place, these aren’t really worth it. I was able to beat Spy Fiction on its normal setting in about 11 hours. After that, I don’t know what would make someone pick it up again.