Splinter Cell and the Metal Gear series have turned the shadows into battlegrounds for players around the world itching for a little black bag action. While not wearing a classy tuxedo to the next supervillain ball and cracking witty one-liners to brush off the pressure of being split in half by a laser, they have helped to make their particular genre step out from the shadows casting players into the roles that have come to help define it. Access Games’ Spy Fiction was Sammy’s attempt at breaking into this secured area and while it can be fun, it can also be as much fun as being held in a rusty cage over a piranha pool.
Spy Fiction was written only for the PS2.
Spy Fiction‘s story revolves around an underground, SPECTRE-like, organization called “Enigma” who have managed to attain a biological weapon that, naturally, threatens world security. PHANTOM, an independent covert specialist group dedicated to protecting that security, is called in to help handle the situation. Two of its best agents are Billy Bishop and Sheila Crawford, led by Niklaus, who leads them to an old castle where Enigma has made itself cozy. The player gets to choose who they want to take the job on with: either as Billy, or Sheila, both of whom will have their own parts to play in the mission.
While Sheila can disguise herself as anyone, she can’t take as much punishment should lead start to fly. Billy can hold his own in combat, although his range of disguises are far more limited. Depending on who the player decides to go in as, the story and several events change and shift slightly to reflect their choice adding to the replayability factor for the title. Even when the game is finished with one character, it encourages you to finish it with the other to get the “real” ending as their part in the story reveals even more of what was behind the twisting storyline. The real question is whether you want to go through it again
The world of Spy Fiction is filled with the kind of state-of-the-art gadgetry that would make Q blush. Equipped with a variety of tools ranging from a silenced pistol for sneaky kills to biological scanners that can detect living people through solid rock, all of these pale in comparison to the specialized suit that Billy and Sheila have been given. The suit not only allows them to cloak themselves when they press against a wall, but to assume the identity of anyone they take a picture of.
Depending on the quality of the picture, the suit can generate the clothing, the face, or even mimic the voice of their subject to fool henchmen into giving them access to certain locations without arousing suspicion. One downside is that you can only change while hiding in barrels, lockers, or certain other locations where it can be done safely. The disguise also limits what you can do in order to maintain the illusion of who you are supposed to be, keeping you from jumping over tables or slipping into air ducts as that scientist you had just stolen the face of, for example. Disguising yourself as literally anyone in this game was a lot of fun and much of the game is spent stealing the identity of others while trying to keep out of trouble.
But as much fun as that was, the game also has a low tolerance for mistakes. First off, no matter who you may become whether it is a grunt in the jungle or a top level leader, if you bump into anyone or make too much noise by simply walking, they’ll immediately get suspicious and treat you just like anyone else. You can use a “cheat” action to try and throw them off, but sometimes they’ll insist on searching you for anything suspicious if you fail to convince them quickly enough. Each disguise can only stand up to so many “searches” before they become useless. So, if you expect to see your character try and intimidate others around them because of their disguise, that just won’t happen which kind of makes the variety of disguises that you can use feel a lot like fancy, but generic keycards that you wear. There are occasionally moments where the disguise can get you into certain meetings or close encounters with the enemy which can make you feel like a James Bond wannabe, but not enough of them to really feel as if it could be something that would open up more of the game.
For fans of other covert-ops titles, Spy Fiction can come off feeling either like a ripoff of most everything else that had come out…not only on the silver screen, but within the genre itself. Other than the disguise feature, many of the mechanics are eerily similar to that found in its rivals such as Metal Gear Solid, although they’re not as polished.
Enemies will react to certain things in a variety of ways, either coming over to investigate, or will actively raise an alarm and call in reinforcements to gun you down. You can hide/cloak yourself until the action dies down at which point everyone will return to their regularly scheduled patrol patterns. Fans of MGS will immediately recognize the alert levels that the game uses, only with different names. There are also other events in the game that have been inspired not only by other games but by film, such as the CIA Vault from the first Mission: Impossible film where an agent has to descend from the ceiling to avoid the countermeasures in the room, this time allowing the player to use a “cooling spray” to trick the temperature alarm. Fans of spy games and film will find something in Spy Fiction that was inspired in some way by everything else around it. Whether some people will like it or hate it is up to them, but the elements all fit in with the general flow of the gameplay.
Voice acting is served up with a lot of ham with a dizzying plot spun together from nearly every cliche in the book without apology. The graphics don’t look half bad, though, and the character models look good. Sound effects are also done well, especially the ambient environmental sounds that work to drown out the steps of the enemy that might be around the corner. But the third person camera that is used is one of the worst that you’ll have to wrestle with in any game. Awkward angles are common and constant adjustment is needed to keep an eye on whatever is around your agent. Fortunately, there’s a first person POV that you can use, although you can’t walk around the game with it on all the time.
As exciting as the game can be with its variety of areas and challenges, decent graphics, and spy fiction inspired world, it doesn’t mean a whole lot when you’ve got the Swiss Army Knife of Control Schemes in your hands by giving you a lot more than what you really need providing the largest hurdle that players will face while trying to save the world. Spy Fiction‘s controls can feel like a collision between Tomb Raider and MGS with ugly results. While it works reasonably well when you do spy-like things such as sneak about, take on disguises, or explore your environment by climbing over obstacles or hanging from ledges, it completely falls apart in other respects…like combat. As sneaky as you might be, there are forced moments in the game when you’ll simply have to throw down with the enemy and when you do, you’ll feel every painful second.
For example, to fire your gun, Spy Fiction requires that you gently press on the fire button to get a lock on an enemy and then quickly release the button to fire. You can also slowly release the button to release the lock. It works well against one or two foes, but when faced with a small army or by some of the bosses that confront you, it can get irritating to do both steps with one button. As if this wasn’t enough, you also have to work the camera to help with your aim. Sometimes you may end up breaking a lock because you had released the button in such a way that it simply didn’t pick up on it, forcing you to scramble to get that lock back. MGS‘ control scheme, by comparison, felt far more fluid and tightly designed that it never felt as if it got in the way.
Hand to hand fighting is even worse. By hitting the attack button with no weapons armed, you’ll start punching and kicking your foes. The bad part is that it’s far too easy to get into a generic combo that can throw you past your enemy, leaving you with a sense of little control and open to a cheap attack that may have a chance of knocking you out, adding more to your annoyance level. Hitting someone on the ground is even more aggravating. You can’t, or at least, I couldn’t unless I wanted to simply shoot them dead with my silenced pistol. You can also drag unconscious bodies out of the way to avoid discovery, but there’s no real point to it since the patrols aren’t that thorough.
As far as the story is concerned, its not exactly the stuff that will set this game apart from its rivals. It offers a ton of background material in the form of “garbology” that you can find when you jump into barrels or lockers to change disguises or hide from patrols. These little tidbits of info shed some more light on the world of Spy Fiction and really do a lot to add to the background of the covert world that you will be playing in. This makes up for the rest of the story that doesn’t do a whole lot other than provide the basics necessary to keep the characters moving ahead.
The story also also suffers from large holes…such as leaving you with your most powerful asset (cloak and disguise suit) in one instance when you are captured, to the shallow characterizations for nearly all of the characters that feel as if they are simply there to act as placeholders for evil. They’re just there to move the story along and perform that role with just enough zeal, if not enough reasons why, to keep it going.
Enemies will also conveniently forget all about you, even if you’ve managed to sneak behind them and knock them out, treating it as an aggressive bout of narcolepsy when they come back around. There’s some kind of story behind the main characters and their motivations that apparently becomes more clear the next time you play through it as someone else, but it depends on whether or not you want to experience the game again with controls that want to impale your patience.
Spy Fiction can feel a lot like a ripoff of the most popular titles that it tries to compete with while trying to pass itself off as a homage to the spy genre. It introduces a few new mechanics, but the combination of a weak story and characters along with a control scheme coupled with a tortuous third person camera can be more than a little frustrating. If players can get past the awful controls and the first mission in the game, they might be compelled to keep going. They’ll still be treated to a game that isn’t as stylishly polished as MGS or has a storyline filled with the kind of geopolitical twists and turns as that found in Splinter Cell, but it does provide some challenges for gamers looking to explore another story of the spy business as they masquerade as someone else. If you can’t wait for the next spy story to unfold in your favorite franchise, you might want to give Spy Fiction a try if you’re willing to put up with its faults.
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