During World War II, SMERSH was the counter-intelligence agency of Soviet Russia, and with a name that translates to "Death to Spies," who's going to argue with that? In the likely-titled PC release, you take control of a counter-intelligence agent as he infiltrates enemy territory, roots out traitors, and protects Mother Russia from the Nazi threat.
In each mission, you are inserted in a location often surrounded by enemies that will kill you on sight. You're given a set of objectives and a map to follow in order to complete them. There are a number of tactics you can use to succeed, but what stays constant throughout the entire game is the absolute need to either make yourself invisible, or hide in plain sight. You are but one lightly-armed man versus dozens of soldiers, and no amount of Rambo behaviour is going to get your mission accomplished; it's more likely you'll quickly meet with your death.
One of the most important ways to hide in the sight of others is to dress in the clothing of your enemy. By taking out enemies quietly, you'll be able to take their clothes and look like one of them. Depending on whose clothing you change into, you'll gain access to more restricted areas and be able to fool more guards. However, it's important that you eliminate your clothing-owner without actually damaging the clothing. Try as you might, blood and bullet holes tend to stand out. But no matter how effective your disguise, there will always be those who can spot your cover and blow it for you, and staying out of their sight is a priority in many missions.
Taking out opponents is done in the usual fashion: shoot them, garrotte them, drug them, or just walk up and crack them across the head to knock them out (loudly). Hiding the body is important as well, since any discovery will immediately lead to heavier patrols that may see right through your disguise. Things like holding a Soviet weapon, carrying a body, and changing clothes will also arouse suspicion ("Nein, this bloodied man I'm carrying is merely tired, I'm…carrying him home?").
At the beginning of every level you get the chance to customize your inventory, giving yourself different weapons and tools for the job. Everything else is find-on-site. An actual inventory is an odd addition to a game like this, where a man's best friend is the wire in his palm and not the grenades in his pack. A slew of weaponry won't get you anywhere, and as useful as a machine gun may be, you'll likely be disposing of it when you change clothing. In fact, a bottle of chloroform would be better used, and so it's a wonder why you'd need to choose your type and number of grenades at all.
Normally, this sounds like a pretty decent formula. The problem is that the game uses this formula and repeats it constantly. Many missions become a step-by-step procedure of finding someone you can take out without anyone noticing, stealing their clothing, finding someone else you can take out that's more important, stealing their clothing, and so forth and so forth. This routine is made even worse because of the map. But not because the map is bad, things get irritating because the map is just too good.
The dynamic map, which can be fixed in the lower corner of the screen, is there for your help. It shows enemy locations, buildings, points of interest, objective points…pretty much anything you need to know about the level, you can find on the map. It even shows which enemies believe you to be an ally (and so won't shoot unless you do something idiot-like, such as taking out your choke wire and showing it to them), and which enemies will see through your disguise faster than a moose in a duck costume. The map even shows the views of these enemies, cones of sight that you'd do well to avoid. So far, everything seems pretty handy, right? That's just the problem.
Most of the time, it's the map that shows you all your data. Which leaves the main screen for…not much. The graphics are nice to look at, and there are some nice effects in lighting and shadow, certainly attractive aspects that are important to this genre. However, most of the time is spent looking at the small mini-map in the corner of your screen, which detracts from the experience as a whole. Sure, you could turn it off and forget about it, but the map is critical to determining which enemies will shoot you on sight and which will merely turn their heads. Without it, it's a frustrating game of guessing and reloading every time some random enemy happens to have that innate trait that lets them realize that you're not who you appear to be.
The core gameplay of the title itself, the stealthing and garrotting and not getting shot, is all done pretty well. The AI is not exactly on par with a genius, but will investigate suspicious noises and patrol hallways, and with a game like this one it's hard to ask for much more. The issue that comes into play is the difference between what this game tries to be and what it tends to become. The objective of the game is stealth: stay hidden, stay professional, and try not to kill everything in sight. But sometimes this just can't be done. Guards have to be killed on occasion… sometimes they just get in the way and the silenced pistol leaves its holster. In a stealth game such as this, it happens just a little too often. The gameplay is still pretty solid, and giving the player the actual option to do this is wise, lest they get frustrated and bemoan the difficulty of completing missions with nothing but wire and a bottle.
The problem is that there's no incentive to actually be stealthy. The only result you get is a rating at the end of the mission that tells you how competent you were, and because it doesn't actually save the rating, nor does it reward you, it is pretty pointless. There is nothing stopping you from taking out every Nazi in the field and piling their bodies, unfound, in some old room except for the feeling that perhaps you aren't the most effective counter-intelligence operative in SMERSH.
The levels of Death to Spies are perfect for the setting: old castles, classic hotels, and enemy camps make for excellent locations to sneak and hide in, and they look good in the process, with small touches of detail like hearing German music playing in an officer's quarters. They're large enough to warrant the addition of vehicles in some of them, allowing you to drive around to complete your tasks quicker, or even as part of the objective. Now, they might just be a little too large. It's not a question of the levels themselves; it's the lack of interactivity to many of them. Having a great big castle to run around in is great, but many of the rooms look the same and except for the prison on the bottom floor, the interrogation chamber, and a commander's room, you don't actually use any of it, and the extra floor space really seems superfluous. It's merely space to fill with more enemies that you'll probably never see.
In all, Death to Spies would be a pretty good title if it just had a little more to it beyond the standard sneak, eliminate and impersonate formula that's repeated too often. The mechanics of the game make it decent, but with a few irritating aspects like some non-interactive levels and a map you can't live with or without, show that it could've done a lot better. The poor voice-overs and general blandness of the storyline doesn't help it either. People who've enjoyed titles like Hitman are likely to enjoy this title, but the problem is that Death to Spies could've been a lot better, and this fact is just a little too obvious. Nonetheless, the game still manages to play well and provide an average, though not great, experience.