Thunderbolt logo

Spy vs. Spy

Spy vs. Spy was a staple of my youth for a few different reasons. Firstly, my older brother subscribed to MAD Magazine – a publication that featured all sorts of articles, comics and other bits of wacky content that were just compelling enough to drive me to sneak into his bedroom and pilfer stacks of it at a time. I’d sit in a dark corner of my room (or sometimes in the closet), huddled greedily over my newly acquired items, reading my fill under the dim glow of a flashlight. Naturally, the first place I’d check in every issue was the Spy vs. Spy comic, as their slapstick, accident-prone exploits were oddly intriguing at the time, much in the way the antics of Tom and Jerry and Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner were (who am I kidding – still are). I also owned the NES adaptation of the comic (aptly titled, Spy vs. Spy) – a fairly simple game that packed massive multiplayer punch when compared to other 8-bit offerings at the time.

Even robotic James Bond has no chance against an angry spy with a club

So, the question begging to be answered is: does Global Software’s next-gen version of the franchise capture the sadistic and violent hi-jinks of the comic, while staying true to the gameplay mechanics of the 8-bit original? The answer is yes. But, as those of you who snuck a peak at the score already know, I gave this game a fairly mediocre six out of ten overall. So what gives? The fact of the matter is: yes, Spy vs. Spy does offer exciting multiplayer modes that mirror those of the NES original and, yes, it does mimic the off-the-wall antics of the comic, but a horribly broken single player mode, sleep-inducting elevator music and a complete lack of presence on Xbox Live relegate this one squarely into the “Coulda Been a Contenda” category.

Really though, fans of First Star’s NES original will likely be happy to skip the single player experience entirely, and spend the majority of their time with the Classic mode. Basically a 3D update of the NES version, Classic mode pits you against up to three other spies in a race to gather items scattered across the level. Once the items are collected and placed in the briefcase, it’s off to the exit and to the coveted getaway helicopter. This seems easy enough, but when you factor in three other players competing for the same items and the ability to booby trap safes, doors and entire rooms, things get complicated very quickly. The beauty of the Classic mode (and thus, the premise of the NES original) is, despite the simplicity of the gameplay, formulating a clever strategy is the only way to win. Do you gather all the items and hide them in a booby-trapped safe? Do you carry around an umbrella to counter door traps or a wrench to disarm safe traps? Do you focus on checking safes for the items or do you steal them from other players via combat? Similar to games like Chess, Stratego and Risk, Spy vs. Spy is a very deep game shrouded behind a fairly simple exterior.

Does this screenshot really need a comment? I didn’t think so.

The high point of the Spy vs. Spy experience, though, is the all-new Modern mode. Building off the main ideas offered in the Classic mode (gather the items, get to the exit point, etc), the Modern mode features significantly larger levels with unique themes, interactive environmental traps and “Challenges” that must be accomplished. For example, in the Mansion level, in order to get the items needed to win, you’ll have to negotiate hallways laden with moving lasers and axe-swinging suits of armor, a creepy wine cellar and a front yard complete with collapsing platforms. Each level has four challenges (one for each item needed), with each one fitting nicely into the theme of the environment. Because of the size of the stages in Modern mode, matches can last upwards of two hours when playing with four people, but the brilliant combination of action and strategy needed to succeed is remarkably addictive and those two hours can feel more like thirty minutes.

Someone here fell in a bucket of blue paint. Can you guess who?

Unfortunately, only four of the Modern mode levels are available at the beginning. Obviously, the developers wanted to give the game some longevity by forcing the player through a single-player “story” mode to unlock extra levels, costumes and other secrets, but they totally dropped the ball. You see, the story mode is broken in more ways then I’d really care to list here. Just a few of the issues include: boring gameplay that consists of killing dumb-as-a-rock baddies over and over again, cryptic objectives that leave you wandering levels aimlessly for hours trying to trigger some random “event,” way too much backtracking and some of the most uninspired “boss” fights ever conceived. Thankfully, any gamer worth their salt can dig up codes that unlock all the levels and secrets and spare themselves the emotional trauma of trudging through the single player campaign.

The game does offer Xbox Live support, which you would think would add to the game’s longevity, but this is just not the case. For whatever reason, hordes of prepubescent kids rushed out to the stores the day this game was released and, whilst tugging on their Mommy’s shirtsleeves, pointed at the box and screamed, “Me want! Me want!” Apparently they all got their way too, because the Spy vs. Spy online community consists entirely of foul-mouthed, short attention-spanned brats who only play the game in “Deathmatch” mode (and thus taking away 90% of the game’s appeal: the strategy). Unless you have friends who are willing to meet up at a certain time to share a rousing Classic or Modern mode match with you, the Xbox Live support might as well not even be there.

“I’ve got a bone to pick with you”

Visually, Spy vs. Spy is no masterpiece. Characters and environments are all made up of a limited number of polygons and textures are simplistic and lacking in detail. Really though, the plain graphics don’t take too much away from the game’s multiplayer appeal; in fact, the lack of complexity insures that the game runs at a blistering framerate no matter what is going down on-screen. The folks at Global Star did a bang-up job at designing fantastic levels for the Modern mode, though, as each one is completely unique and enjoyable to explore (extra props to them for creating the fun house section of the Carnival level).

One of the absolute worst aspects of Spy vs. Spy is its music. My dear lord, who the hell thought it would be even remotely acceptable to use three elevator music tracks (which loop way too frequently) as the game’s soundtrack? Seriously, someone at Global Star needs to be taken out to the woodshed for this one. Naturally, if custom soundtracks were supported this would be much more forgivable, but, of course, they’re not. So basically your options are: A) play the game with no music or B) play the game with music and experience cerebral hemorrhaging after about fifteen minutes. The choice is obvious. The voices of the spies, and their trademark snicker, are spot on though, and the various sound effects in the game do their jobs admirably.

“Say ‘ello to my lil’ fra!”

In the end, whether you’ll like Spy vs. Spy comes down to whether or not you are willing to purchase a game completely based on its multiplayer appeal. At $19.99, it’s certainly affordable enough for this to be an option for most gamers. It’s a shame Global Star didn’t spend more energy on the single-player experience, or perhaps even drop the Story mode completely in favor for still more multiplayer modes and/or maps. Either way, if you and your friends are looking for yet another way to go at it via your Xbox console, certainly give this one a try. Who knows, it may even replace Worms 3D as your budget multiplayer game of choice.

6 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in May 2003. Get in touch on Twitter @Joshua_Luke.

Gentle persuasion

Like chit chat? Join the forum.