Spycraft: The Great Game

Developer/Publisher:  Activision
Year Released:  1996

Review by Gordon Aplin (August, 1996)
spycr.jpgThe 'great game' of this title is, of course, espionage and, specifically, the Cold War variety with its double dealing and twisted morality. However, times have changed, the Cold War is over, old enemies are now allies and the game is not the same -- or is it? Only one thing is certain, only one rule remains unchanged; trust no one.

Spycraft, from Activision, has been developed with input from William Colby, a former Director of the CIA, and Oleg Kalugin, a former Major General of the KGB, who both make cameo appearances in the game playing themselves.

Prove your worth
The story opens with you, Thorn, undergoing a series of tests and challenges to prove you have what it takes to be assigned to what may turn out to be your very own mission impossible. Information received suggests that there might be a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate in the forthcoming Russian elections and, further, to assassinate the US president when he visits Moscow to sign a treaty. This information was considered little better than unreliable until the Russian presidential candidate was killed. A video of the assassination may just provide your first lead as you set out to unmask the assassin and foil any attempt to kill the US president.

As you might expect in a game about spying the plot is full of twists and turns and involves political corruption in Russia, the theft and attempted sale of a nuclear device, a shadowy group of mercenary ex-intelligence operatives, sundry double agents, a mole in the C.I.A. and much, much more.

First person perspective
The game is played from a first person perspective so your character, Case Officer Thorn, never appears on-screen. In spite of this, and in spite of apparent attempts to hide or disguise your gender, there is little doubt that you are male. This is made clear when, as one of the consequences of failure, you are incarcerated in a male prison.

Now I could be quite wrong in presuming that Case Officer Thorn was intended to be genderless but, just in case, if designers really do want their first person perspective games to be playable as either sex then such lapses are unforgivable -- better to call the character 'Bob' or 'Roger' or use male pronouns and have done with it. However, this is not to say that budding Dana Scullys won't enjoy this game, far from it. Spycraft is a well-crafted and intelligent game that may challenge you on many levels -- not least the sheer volume of information you need to sift through as you begin your task of intelligence gathering.

High tech gadgetry
Be warned, this is not a simple spy romp. You will need to read, listen, observe and deduce. Fortunately, you have access to some high tech toys that make the process a little easier. Your Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) allows you to engage in multimedia communications with your colleagues, access databases and newsgroups and even to connect to the Web if you so desire. The specially developed Kennedy Assassination Tool allows you to trace the trajectory of an assassin's bullet and you can use the mix and match electronic identikit to create a picture of your suspect then search databases for likely matches. Other gadgets will become available as you need them, including tools for decoding ciphers, analysing sounds, touching up pictures and more.

The game proceeds rather sequentially, particularly in the early stages, and you won't be able to move on until you have solved the most immediate problem. Later, though, several problems will be competing for your attention and your decisions will be crucial. Much of the time you will be deskbound as you conduct your research and unravel the threads that may lead you to a vital clue, or yet another dead end.

It is at your desk where the real work of the game is carried out, where puzzles are solved by a process of elimination or by manipulating a device. Good old-fashioned 'leg work' is now done sitting in front of a computer. The puzzles themselves vary in complexity but remain in context throughout the game. In fact, many aspects of play are similar to using the World Wide Web to ferret out that elusive piece of information by clicking on a highlighted word or phrase and tracking from link to link, and discovering interesting snippets along the way.

Shifting pace
As you move on and learn more your colleagues will build on your discoveries and provide you with more information or feedback. You will also get to travel to various locations to continue your investigations. This, for me, is perhaps the weakest part of the game where often you simply swap your desk at Langley for one in Moscow. More could have been made of searching other locations for tell-tale clues. Another weakness occurs during the climactic scenes when you must interact with live actors in video sequences. Your choices in these scenes are far too limited for it to be satisfying from an adventuring perspective. Still, the nature of the story dictates that the pace should pick up towards the end and, overall, this is quite cleverly handled with some tension-building scenes and time limits on the puzzles. Normally, I hate time limits but these few, in context, are quite justifiable.

Similarly, the game has a couple of small but unavoidable combat sequences, one at the beginning and one near the end, but these are fairly easy to negotiate and adventurers shouldn't be put off by them. (Another combat sequence crops up in the middle of the game but here you get a choice of taking this path or choosing the intelligence path. Both are easily negotiated.) Once again, since I am in a forgiving mood, these arcade-like combat sequences can possibly be justified in the context of this game -- I just wish they wouldn't do it. And if you don't like the idea of shooting other people, be aware that sometimes spies have to do such things in the line of duty.

Time limits! Combat! Why am I in such a forgiving mood? Simply because I found the game to be entertaining and challenging and I enjoyed it overall for its puzzles, intrigue and mystery.

Spycraft installs to both DOS and Windows 95 (not Win 3.1) and the Win 95 option allows you to set up the game for internet access through the Weblink in your PDA, though it is not necessary to do this to play and complete the game, it simply adds a further dimension to the game's realism.

The interface (in Win 95 mode) is basic point and click. The action takes place in a three quarter size window in the middle of the screen and you can access your inventory and PDA beneath. At certain times the story will be fleshed out with quality video sequences where the actors on-screen talk to you directly, though you rarely feel you are interacting with them. There is no option for on-screen text during these sequences so players with hearing difficulties may miss out. Speaking of text, I should point out one minor glitch in that sometimes the text in files and databases spilled off the page making it difficult to read all the information and I kept wishing I could re-size the window. Though this may have been a vagary caused by my computer's configuration and didn't really detract from my enjoyment.

As a bonus, the game also includes Shanghai II, a popular tile matching game from Activision, which appears as a floppy disk in your inventory. If you are in need of a break from full-on spying, and are near a terminal in the game, you can 'load' the floppy and play at any time -- just don't forget that the 'great game' still awaits. rating:  

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1996. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
486DX2/66, 8MB RAM, 30 MB hard drive space, 2xCD-ROM, Win 95, DOS, 16bit high colour SVGA, VESA local bus or PCI video card, Sound blaster 16 or compatibles, mouse.