There's some games that, looking at the name, you don't really know what to expect. Beautiful Katamari sounds more like a new-age Zen alternative therapy than a next-gen game; and even Halo 3 could be literally anything, from a fantasy RPG to a science fiction turn-based strategy if you hadn't already been converted by Microsoft's marketing machine. Death to Spies though, from Haggard Games and Russian publishers 1C, is pretty self-explanatory. There are some spies that need to be dealt with – and you're going to be the man to do it.
Death to Spies is, literally, a translation of the comedy-named and yet internationally-feared Russian counter-intelligence unit SMERSH. You're one of the organisation's finest sneaky spy-silencers. It's a third-person stealth title in the mould of Splinter Cell and the classic series Metal Gear Solid, but with enough differences throughout the extended missions to place them apart from the familiar console titles it (sometimes) emulates.
The game play is varied and has plenty of depth thanks to the variety of tasks you're asked to complete and the multiple ways you're complete them. The missions are long, absorbing and varied in their structure and plot. Each one is preceded by a well-animated cut scene detailing the back-story and explaining what you have to do, and then an in-depth objectives screen.
It's obvious that Haggard have developed Death to Spies as a simulation in contrast to the common run-and-gun gameplay of other World War II shooters and the realism is one of the superb selling points of the title. You're only able to carry two weapons at once, a pistol and a shoulder-mounted armament like a rifle or machine gun, while all of your options are realistically-modelled versions of wartime guns. The weights of these are added to an overall gauge; too, that reflects what you're carrying as protection and the contents of your backpack and belt-pockets. If you tried to take everything with you, you'd be seriously hampered, leading to a tactical balancing act trying to fit everything you think will be vital to the mission into your various pockets.
It's not helped – and I mean this in a good way, because I'm impressed they've gone to such lengths – that there's so much to choose from. Several types of grenade and knife, bottles of chloroform, silencers and choking wires are all available and all need to be sensibly considered before you set off.
There's also a chance to examine detailed maps and notes regarding your mission before being left in the field to fend for yourself. Buildings you have to infiltrate are mapped and objectives marked, potential targets given pictures so you can put faces to names, and your commanding officer is on hand with helpful tips and suggestions. It's a good thing that you're given plenty of help beforehand – you'll need it. Because, when you start the mission, you really are alone. There's a facility to infiltrate or an office to find, and you'll usually find them crawling with guards. Your previously-mentioned weapons, though, are extremely realistic – recoil on sub-machine guns and rifles meaning that you'd better kill with your first shot, otherwise you'll be easily spotted – and so your main advantage isn't fire-power. Rather, it's your versatility.
Choking cords, knives, guns, grenades, chloroform and a wide range of vehicles are just some of the options available to help you neutralise enemies in Death to Spies, and the open-ended structure of the lengthy missions is a hugely helpful nod to the creative solutions real spies would have had to come up with when they found themselves in a tight spot.
Case in point: a German sentry is standing guard outside a church that you need to infiltrate and explore. What do you do? Easy. Sneak up behind him in one of the multitude of postures you can adopt - from running to crawling with several normal and sneaking variations in between - and choke him to death. It's a no-blood kill, which means you can steal his uniform to avoid fuss form guards later on, and plant a grenade on his body for when an unfortunate colleague finds him. Another enemy eliminated, just like that.
Alternatively, you could chloroform away his consciousness, steal his uniform, and dump his limp form in a box or a river. But what if you're a spy with a sudden penchant for violence? Run him over, or kneecap him from afar with a sniper rifle – the right mouse button held down to stop your breathing momentarily and give you a steadier aim – or just sneak up and shoot him in the face. Every situation you're presented with gives you this kind of freedom, and it's a joy. There may be relatively few scenarios compared to Death to Spies' more regimented rivals but the length and open-ended nature of these scenarios – all crafted from real-life missions – means that you need never solve the same one twice, adding longevity to a game where, already, taking your time is an advisable tactic.
The impressive, patience-demanding game play is backed up with relatively attractive graphics throughout. Haggard have achieved a rudimentary level of realism and the environments are pretty and evocative although perhaps a little bland and sterile. This, however, may be a wider fault than can be found in Death to Spies. It's difficult to conjure up new World War II buildings and environments when they've been seen in so many games over the years, and Haggard can hardly be blamed for an excess in familiarity – there's not exactly been many WWII games that see you taking the role of a Russian counter-intelligence spy like this one.
The woodland environments are particularly well done, obviously advocating a realistic look and intelligently avoiding the hellish destroyed landscapes of the more traditional World War II games, and quite rightly – there's been no fighting where you are, yet, and there doesn't have to be if you're quiet enough.
Death to Spies is a game resplendent with detailed, entertaining touches that improve the game play experience but, unfortunately, don't really add up to a whole product of the level that can challenge the established big guns of the genre. The game play, as nice as chloroform, changing uniforms and looking through keyholes is in a spy game, requires extreme patience bordering on saintly levels to complete the stages, and there's not enough of them despite the time they take to complete.
Graphically it's impressive if slightly bland, but this shouldn't put you off if you're a fan of the genre. It's realistic and well-researched, providing a relatively authentic experience and the open-ended nature of your tasks means that there's always something new to try. It might not hold your attention, instantly, like the flashy explosions of Medal of Honour or the polished stealth of Splinter Cell would do – but it's a slow burner, this one. Just remember to hide the bodies.