Many interesting things happened when the Soviet Union disbanded, but one of the most curious was the incredibly rapid end of hostilities and the secrets guarded by them. Maybe we were all sick of war. Maybe it was a process glasnost started, and officials on both sides were just waiting for the final all-clear to start offloading favorite war stories. Plus – let’s be honest – a lot of professionals were now out of a job.
The result was a strange sort of accelerated declassification process. Books were written, very qualified consultants for films popped up everywhere, even the CIA, which long wouldn’t even admit it was headquartered in Langley, owned up to that fact. Tom Cruise revitalized the Mission: Impossible franchise, United Artists brought Bond back after a ten year slump, and spies were back bigger than they were in the 60’s. If you know the period, then it’s no surprise at all that Activision took note of popular culture and made an FMV spy adventure.
You play as a CIA case agent named Thorn. You’re called in as part of a team to work a growing international incident that could threaten U.S.-Russian relations. One of Russia’s presidential candidates gets half his face blown off (literally; do mind the adult content warnings) during a speech in Red Square. The agent who was supposed to be in charge of this investigation gets shot while training you at Camp Peary. You’re left in command of the four remaining agents as you attempt to track down the assassin and his handlers before the situation spirals further out of control.
You’ll do this primarily through very simplified computer interfaces. This game is a perfect example of the “work is fun” genre – extremely complex and abstract processes, which would take entire divisions of analysts to complete, are instead handled by you alone with a few mouse clicks and some “specialized programs.” You can monitor the various leads that the other members of your team are tracking down, and receive some occasional helpful audio reports on those subjects, but your team is rarely going to solve anything for you. An excessive amount of work will be handled by you personally.
The good news is that there’s a great variety of potential fun to be had as you break coded messages, analyze satellite images, and use 3-D models to trace bullet trajectories. It’s also not all grunt work, and some real investigating and intuition will occasionally need to be used. One puzzle in particular requires you to pull information from multiple sources to track the travel route of a suspect, covering everything from airplane seat assignments to serial numbers on American bills. As you shuttle through the various programs, unlocking a scrap of info at a time, you can almost imagine being in a scene of a tense spy thriller.
You interface with your tools through the “Interlink” software that, in the world of the game, connects all of the major federal agencies into one data network. You can get your email or reports from your PDA, and thus anywhere in the game, but the investigative tools almost always require you to squat ass in front of your computer terminal.
Emails are the lifeblood of the game, in both text and video form. Most every update you get will be sent to you in this manner, which also means this is how the plot is moved along. A break in the case will frequently be made, reported in an email, and the requisite software programs for cracking the discovered puzzle will be attached. You solve the puzzle, and include your findings in your own email. These reports are typed out automatically, with key information filled in by you out of a lengthy multiple choice list. Once you’ve proven you have the answer, the next batch of in-game emails gets sent to you. If you’re wrong, you’ll simply get an email telling you some part doesn’t add up and you’ll need to try again.
The rest of the game is played through high-resolution stills of you “on the scene.” The game covers three discs, with Washington, D.C. on one, Moscow on the other, and the end game on the third. Each city will have a handful of locations to go to, but these are mostly relegated to providing ancillary information, or locations for video plot clips. The video is less impressive, shown in a quarter-screen with scanlines that lacks the detail of the location stills (expected, as the scanlines throw half the video information out). 90% of these videos are dialogue with other characters, sometimes with light choices for you to make about the direction of the conversation. You’ll do your work and make your discoveries in the computer puzzles, but the video will ultimately move the story.
When you’re not chatting, or hunched over your virtual computer, you’ll go on shooting missions using a simplistic FMV interface. Some arrows will move you to a new screen, and some bad guys will pop up from behind rocks and the like. You’ll move a cursor around, click to shoot, click an icon on the side to reload. It’s a pretty standard shooting gallery, but it’s also your only real chance for some life-and-death action.
The world of the game is entirely contained within the CDs, but does try to branch out and blur reality lines. One of the Interlink options is a news service where you can receive the daily intel brief or view CNN-style news clips on the game’s growing political situation. If you’re running the Windows 95 version of the game, you could also get real life news to stream along with these, and on a news ticker running at the bottom of that page. There are fake in-game web pages dealing with your investigation, but the Win95 version also links to the real homepages of the various agencies and provides links to some interesting Learning Channel kinds of backstory to tools or concepts, like the history of cryptography. It’s sort of like special features on a DVD, I suppose.
It’s a good thing all of this is just extra fluff, since it doesn’t work anymore. The DOS version doesn’t have the capability, and if the Win95 version ever did as advertised, then its links no longer function. The game is still completely playable since no important information was ever stored on the actual Internet, but that little link to reality was lost.
The game was never endorsed by either the CIA or the KGB, obviously. Still, William Colby, former Director of Central Intelligence, and Oleg Kalugin, former Major General of the KGB, were hired as the game’s poster children. Both make limited appearances in the game, with Colby getting the most star time. He joins as an advisor to help find a double agent in your ranks, and sends emails where he reads from a script and tells you not to trust anyone. Thanks, Chief. Will do.
Despite having two real-life Cold Warriors on the cover, the game feels awfully unrealistic. Part of it is its lack of feeling authentic – you can tell this is some scriptwriter’s assumption of what “The Great Game” was really like. Part of it is its idiot-proof software, like the superfast all-in-one code decrypter, or the totally science fiction sniper weapon. Part of it is that the plot never feels immediate, or that the danger is particularly imminent. People throw out terms like “danger to the President,” but you can take all the time in the world to solve the case while bad guys stay put and wait for you to catch them.
I suppose the biggest contributor is the game style itself. Your entire investigation is a collection of simplistic minigames, solved from behind a virtual computer. Some puzzles require some legitimate cleverness and thinking, but not enough. Too many of them are simple tasks that seem like they’d go to a CIA intern instead of an agent reporting directly to the DCI and the President, and most simply involve looking up information with your powerful spy programs and “reporting” it back. I feel like your desk computer should get the medal at the end intead of you.
Still, you get a large variety of things to do. They understood that if you’re going to be making a game of puzzles, you at least better not be doing the same thing twice. Some can actually be fun (tracking a break-in using call and access records), some can be overly frustrating (doctoring a photo), some can be downright sadistic (you have the option to torture a prisoner for information), but they’re all different. The graphics are sharp, the computer interfaces clean, and the controls are a cinch to use. The CD sound is used well in a number of sound analysis puzzles, the dialogue and the FMV scenes are clearly recorded and well-acted. It’s a competent effort and a unique title, but hard to call very serious, captivating, or much of challenge.
It would have been interesting to see how this game would have been if it came out after 24, or if the show made a game in this fashion. With a little grit and a more intense execution (time limits, anyone?), this game could have been a serious winner. Instead, you’re mostly jockeying a desk; lazily unraveling a plot that never seems all that dangerous (this is the only game you’ll play where capturing a nuclear bomb is a little pit stop from the actual plot). It’s a fine choice at a bargain price, but not much of a thriller.
Lots of different spy-related tasks to do. Real sense of being clever and solving something after some puzzles.
No hurry or danger. Majority of game is just playing with software tools and reporting your findings.