Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Maximum Games
Review code supplied free of charge by the publisher for review.
The Cold War was a tense time for the world, one full of political intrigue, secrecy, backdoor politics, the ever-present danger of complete annihilation and spies. It’s surprising, then, that it appears in videogames so little. Cue Alekhine’s Gun, a third-person game where you take on the role of a KGB agent who must infiltrate a total of eleven open levels, eliminating targets and stealing valuable information. It sounds good on paper, but Alekhine’s Gun has some serious problems.
The basic setup is easy to understand; you get dumped into a small area like a hotel, German castle or even a biker bar with a few simple tasks that revolve around killing the target/s or doing things like destroying tapes. Stealth is the name of the game, so sneaking and using disguises are paramount to your success, as is finding a good way of killing the target. You can, of course, just kill them using straightforward methods; A bullet to the head, a garrote round the neck, a hammer in the chest. Unless you want to get yourself caught quickly, though, these mean having to get the target alone, done by observing their routine. A room they sit in alone might be helpful, but if it’s heavily guarded then you need a way in. Perhaps the right disguise looted from a corpse will let you meander through the door, or maybe you could climb along the outside to go onto the balcony. If such barbaric methods don’t interest then levels typically feature other ways of dealing with the target. In the first mission, for example, I killed a German officer, stole his uniform and used the disguise to poison the target’s wine. Simples. Or for something more flamboyant, who doesn’t like a guitar amplifier that fries the musician? The answer is no one.
It’s easy to look at the game and classify it as little more than a cheap Hitman knock-off, and you’d be kind of right. Alekhine’s Gun is actually a spiritual successor the Death to Spies series, first released back in 2007 with a follow-up sequel in 2009, and clearly takes hefty inspiration from Agent 47’s various exploits, even chucking in an Instincts vision mode that can highlight handy objects. If you’ve ever taken control of the bald-headed Agent 47 then you’re going to feel completely at home here. But that’s not a problem, as the Hitman games don’t have much competition so for fans it’s good to have some other choices on the market that can quench their bloodlust. No, the problem is that Alekhine’s Gun simply isn’t a very good copy. If you’re going to mimic such a storied series as the Hitman games then you have to at least manage to get close to its brilliance, perhaps not in spirit but at least in mechanics. That’s not something Alekhine’s Gun manages, however. It’s miles away, and has made a fatal mistake by launching in the same week as the new episodic Hitman game.
The problem’s begin with its story, for lack of a better word. You play as Semyon Strogov, a Russian KGB agent who winds up being recruited by the CIA, as he embarks on numerous missions throughout both the Cold War, a fascinating era that seems surprisingly destitute within the world of videogames, and World War II. From this initially intriguing setup, though, stems a hugely dull plot that suffers from a lack of decent characters, stiff dialogue and lifeless voice acting. It’s told through completely static, ugly sketches that you’re forced to stare at for 30-seconds or more at time. The audio is far worse as it sounds as though it was recorded in an office environment or something instead of a properly foley room. In the very first mission, for example, one of those sketched scenes is shown with a prisoner sitting within his cell, but the voice actor’s audio keeps getting louder and then quieter, and you can hear footsteps. Presumably it’s meant to convey that the prisoner is pacing back and forth as he talks to you, but in reality it sounds like a crappy recording where the actor kept ambling away from the microphone. Another scene in New York shows our lead protagonist and a lady comrade walking through central park, but in the background there is what sounds like footsteps on wood. This particular scene also reveals further problems such as the audio moving from right to left and back again for no apparent reason, and what is either horrible noise from compression or just a poor recording. These problems are constant, with distortions and audio that fades in and out being the most prominent, alongside odd echoes and background noises that don’t suit the scene.
Really, it’s the presentation in general that fails to impress. Occasionally the game manages to look sort of reasonable if you squint at it or maybe drink a bottle of vodka before playing it. The rest of the time, however, is riddled with muddy textures, horrible anti-aliasing and a fog over distant objects that looks more like smeared Vaseline, which isn’t even to mention the dodgy skyboxes or the naff lighting. If that wasn’t bad enough the animation makes character’s seem utterly devoid of life, closer to robots marching through the environment and occasionally bouncing off the walls or looking lost. Alekhine himself moves with the grace of a pensioner rather than a practiced spy at the top of his game. The real icing on the cake is the lack of a proper death animation; should you get shot Alekhine will magically disappear and then re-appear on the ground, raising one hand in supplication. The audio doesn’t fare much better, either, especially in regards to the guns which pack all of the oomph of a brown paper bag inflated and then popped.
Indeed gunplay is something that should be avoided at all costs as it suffers heavily from pitiful feedback, the weapons carrying little weight and enemies barely reacting to being shot. You can’t see bullets very well, so when you combine that with the lack of enemy reaction it can feel like your weapons are doing nothing. Most battles involve me firing madly at the enemy and being unsure if I was hitting or actually somehow missing until the foe keeled over. Meanwhile Alekhine is slow to respond and take cover, making every fight feel like a chore. It’s best to stick to stealth.
At least the stealth feels like it works, even if it is rather standard stuff. The disguise system lies at the very core of the game, which is why the decision to disable it entirely on the hardest setting seems insane, especially as level layouts almost make it look like an impossible challenge, but trust me it indeed doable for those foolish enough to attempt it. Once you’re disguised and have dropped the body in a handy cupboard or something you’re largely free to roam the level as you wish, although restrictions are in place so that a waiter can travel around a food serving area just fine he can’t trespass in secure locations. It works well enough for the most part, but there are a lot of frustrating moments when enemies will become suspicious of you for no apparent reason. As a guard, for example, you may wander the corridors freely until for some reason a single guard begins to notice you. Typically, though, you have plenty of time to turn around or even walk straight past, but some times the suddenly filled so fast that I was shot on sight, leaving me wondering what the hell happened as it didn’t seem to be a restricted area or anything of that ilk. Another example was when I loaded up a save and suddenly all the guards had become incredibly suspicious of me, and the only way to finish the mission was to draw a gun. My own theory is that they found a previous dead body, but since I wasn’t seen and had changed disguises several times since then it made very little sense.
Indeed, the AI in general is problematic as it bounces from being utterly gormless to incredibly aware of their surroundings. Numerous times I was spotted from a great distance away choking a victim, while other times I wasn’t noticed while punching a guard in the face mere feet away from his pals. Once aware of your existence the entire level will become alerted, and scurrying off to find a new disguise doesn’t seem to fool them. But hey, at least they are all too willing to form a conga line of death outside a door, eagerly running through the portal to their stabby death before the next one does the exact same thing. And of course the suffer from that old problem of finding dead bodies, grumble for a bit and then going back to whatever they were doing. The absolute stupidest example is when I threw a knife at somebody eating a table surrounding by numerous people, whose only reaction was to check and see if the man was dead (he was) and then go back to eating. Smart people. I encountered this sort of problem a number of times, enemies simply reacting to violence with a shrug. To put it simply the AI is crap.
When it comes to eliminating your targets the game promises multiple methods of executions, and that’s certainly true, although it’s still a limited selection compared to the Hitman games. Here you’ll typically find about two methods of killing a target. In the first mission, for example, you could poison a drink, or by killing the other target you could acquire a doctors uniform and use that to attend to the other victim as he goes for a small checkup, either just stabbing him or loading up a syringe with the poison. To the game’s credit objectives can be completed in any order you see fit, which is a nice touch, especially since like that first example doing one thing can help you out with other targets and goals. It’s a bit of a shame that there’s barely any weapons or objects to pick up in the environments, though, which curbs exploration somewhat so that only a few specific points of each map are actually important. It would have been nice to see more things in the environment that the player could use, especially since the unlockable weapons and gadgets you can select before a mission don’t offer much variety.
And do you know what? It’s fun. Although the controls feel heavy and awkward and it looks crap and there are lots of little daft moments thanks to the AI, the game can still be a lot of fun when it comes together properly. There’s real pleasure to be had from getting in and neatly executing the mission without being spotted, with minimal collateral damage and nobody ever the wiser. It can’t compete with the Hitman series and needs a lot more variety in how you can tackle each mission, but it genuinely is fun and there’s a couple of fairly well designed levels, too. I also greatly appreciate the fact that it doesn’t hold your hand or point out all the different options, and instead just lets you get on with it.
However, other bugs and problems threaten to spoil even that. I had numerous crashes during my time with the game, something which does not mix well with the lack of an autosave. Other things included missing elevator doors, guards seeing through objects or just shooting at a wall, or refusing to open a door to actually chase me if I closed it. Still, the PC version seems to be much more stable than the console ports, which also suffer from terrible framerate drop, something that the PC version has no problem with, at least not in my experience.
Most of the game’s flaws, and there’s quite a lot, are at least explainable; the original publisher pulled the plug on this game some five years ago, back when the game was still known as Death to Spies 3, leaving the project’s ultimate fate up in the air. However, Maximum Games eventually picked it up, renamed it and produced what we see before us, which explains a lot in regards to the rough visuals.
Alright, so it’s an assassination game with small levels, very few methods of actually eliminating the target, clumsy controls and basically nothing that sets it apart from the competition. But strangely there’s actually fun to be had here. The slow, methodical pace makes executing a clean kill of the target feel satisfying. There’s a genuinely good game lurking within Alekhine’s Gun somewhere, waiting to get out and slap Agent 47’s bald scalp. In its current state, however, it’s just not worth playing, at least not unless you can snag it at a low price and go in with the right expectations. I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but in the end I walked away with one overriding though; Alekhine’s Gun needs a sequel with good funding, because the potential is there.