From the ads of yesteryear, games from the past – Spycraft: The Great Game

This ad is pretty minimalist stuff, much like the profile of both the CIA and the KGB celebrities on this page when they were running things during the Cold War.

Developed and released in 1996 by Activision for good old Windows 95, Spycraft: The Great Game was a CD-ROM, FMV title putting the player in the classified shoes of Thorne as the CIA’s point man in uncovering the truth behind the assassination of a Russian presidential candidate (not to be confused with the pen and paper Spycraft game from Alderac Entertainment). Things get a lot more complicated when the culprit is discovered to be a former Company man, the same man who is also suspected of killing your instructor during a training exercise early in the game.

This was also a game where having all of this FMV didn’t suck despite having the scalines marking many other titles like this back in the day using low-res footage. Yet most players were used to seeing those and from the outset, you can tell that Activision went all out to make this one of those moments in gaming where having live actors and lavish sets could actually be as good as painstakingly painted pixels.

The locales looked great, the actors did decent jobs in their roles, and it even featured cameos from William Colby (a former CIA director) and Oleg Kalugin (a former KGB major general), two Cold War veterans, to spice up the cred factor along with acting as advisors to the project. It seamlessly blended everything in with a “first person” camera view with an interface masquerading as a PDA for investigations, traveling, and even directing a team via an overhead view in a breach and capture operation.

“The Great Game” refers to the art of spycraft, but the game itself was also a solid adventure game mixing together many different types of challenges thanks to its “virtual” interface linking everything together. It was also as far from being James Bond as anything else. This was more the gritty, info-gathering, shining-my-seat-with-my-ass back at the office side of spy work though you still got to head out around the world and question interesting people while piecing together a conspiracy by gathering clues like any good adventurer would.

The player wears a lot of black hats from being a sketch artist using high-tech tools to building a 3D model of an assassination scene to determine where the killing shot came from. Clues gathered from conversations and from poking around with your cursor will be used to decode messages, NSA-style, via SIGINT and there’s also a little action in shooting the bad guys as they pop out from behind props like targets in a gallery.

Clicking on things that you see, such as a pile of documents on a desk or any other item that might be of interest, launches a close-up view of the thing in question to use your eyes in teasing out any clues that might be hidden there. Fortunately, the PDA-like interface can also keep track of whatever you find along with messages of importance for review, and back at your office at the CIA, you’ve got access to other tools including visiting the interrogation room to grill suspects. Despite all of this realness, it’s still very much an adventure game where careful notes and a sense of curiosity refuse to take a backseat to all of the fancy tech.

The game also has two endings, the “good” ending being ethically questionable but ultimately the right move for the ‘bigger picture’ in play which Jack Bauer might opt for. But if you decide to let local justice take its course, you end up dooming Russia and the world to another Cold War. And it’s that kind of murky world that the story excels in with as many twists and turns that it involves the player with — nothing is too clear cut and it doesn’t go all James Bond in resolving its many scenarios. It’s almost like a spy simulation, working human assets and doing the grunt work on collecting info that you can use. Just like in any adventure game.

Unfortunately, Spycraft began and ended with this one title. Activision never followed it up with a sequel despite being a decent adventure game with shockingly good FMV and a much more grounded take on actual spy work. The good news is that it didn’t disappear into obscurity — players can test their mettle in a race to save the world by hitting up Good Old Games for a copy.

It’s release in ’96 put it on adventure games’ slippery slope downwards which is really too bad as there were a lot of neat things that Spycraft did well in immersing the player. Today, it might have turned out into something a bit more action packed thanks to 24 and Jack Bauer, but at the time, it was a clever mix of Cold War themes and a slice of the turmoil going on in Russia during the 90s when nothing was really certain after the Iron Curtain fell only a few years earlier. Much like the CIA at the time, Spycraft did its best to find a place in the new world order — and to some extent, it succeeded in doing just that.

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