Review: Spymaster15 Sep 2014 0
There was a time, I'm sure, early in Spymaster's development when it was a fun game to play. I can just see the fun down there, buried underneath all the strata of free-to-play crap that's been layered on top of it. Somewhere in the world there is probably a game reviewer or critic who has the patience to play Spymaster long enough to dust off that fun and excavate a shortcut to it.
That game reviewer is not me. I've spent probably three hours in Spymaster babysitting my fragile little punnet of easily-bruised peaches that this game calls WWII spies and I've had more than enough, thanks. Spymaster wheedles you for cash a couple of different ways, but its primary means of poking your wallet is to randomly injure your spies mid-mission. They can be healed, it won't surprise you to learn, with real cash money.
Spymaster is ostensibly a game about espionage in Nazi-occupied Europe like Where Eagles Dare, but in practice it's a lot closer to Goodfellas. Spymaster gives you a bunch of characters to get attached to, then holds them for ransom. Actual ransom. With real dollars. "Wow, level 3! This spy of yours is pretty great, huh?" Spymaster says in a Joe Pesci voice. "You should give us a donation, because it would be a shame if anything happened to her, am I right?" A lot of free-to-play games are crass, but Spymaster is a bully.
If this was a standard game with an up-front price tag, it would be a game with a lot of fundamental design flaws. Being that it's a free-to-play game, it looks like a game that was intentionally broken so that a bunch of cash-generating mechanics could get jammed into it. The result is that Spymaster is the opposite of fun. It's frustrating and it's stressful and I'd rather play William Tell with Stevie Wonder than spend any more time with it.
It's World War II, and continental Europe is in the hands of the Nazis. Operating from a base in London, you send your covert operatives on semi-randomly generated missions into Fortress Europe. There's four basic things your spies can do. You can move them from one city to another, have them set up "spy rings" or radio transmitters, or undertake missions like bombing a train depot or lifting an Enigma code machine from a Gestapo HQ. All of these activities cause your agents to grow stressed, and the more stressed they get, the more likely they are to get hurt.
Spontaneous injuries occur with such comical frequency that Spymaster appears to be going for slapstick comedy rather than high adventure. You can imagine your agents getting so on-edge that they accidentally ignite their fedoras while trying to light a cigarette. It would be funny, too, were it not for the fact that injuries are treated by either waiting around for 30 minutes or more, or spending "gold", a substance whose medicinal properties I hadn't encountered before.
Injuries happen in the game's missions, where they get described with some mildly entertaining dynamic play-by-play, but often your agents just get hurt moving from one city to the next. Tough guy Agent Mucho earns his keep by wringing Nazis' necks but he's apparently incapable of getting onto the Paris Metro without breaking an ankle. In Spymaster's accident-prone universe, it's a miracle that the Allied invasion force at Normandy don't accidentally drown themselves.
Injuries are so common that they feel like a tax on playing the game. Within my first hour with Spymaster I had a stable full of wounded spies, and the game was telling me to take a hike and come back later. I had already spent several dollars on spies at that point, but Spymaster wasn't impressed. Is this the only time you've got to play games? While the baby's asleep and your partner is doing something else? Spymaster just shrugs.
Maybe next week, developers Playraven will flip a switch at Spymaster HQ and lower the rate of injuries. It still won't be a very good game, I'm afraid.
Most of the randomly-generated missions involve building up a network of spy rings on the map and then performing a raid or other mission in a random city. The actions you take on the map generate intel points that you spend on shuttling your spies back to London to de-stress and on improving your mission plans to increase their chances of success. This is where all of Spymaster's interesting decisions live, like having to choose between burning one of your own spy rings or letting it generate more intel points and run the risk of the Gestapo tracing it back to your agents.
The tactical layer doesn't offer any interesting decisions because it offers no decisions at all. Send your spies on a mission to spring a captured agent from a Gestapo HQ and you get a non-interactive little slideshow that tells you how it went down (and who got injured, of course). It's a complete dice roll whether or not your team succeeds or not. Sometimes you do tons of dangerous prep work on the strategic layer and the game tells you that your plan is almost perfect. Then you fail and everyone comes home with a cracked rib. It's unfair.
Unfair isn't always bad. XCOM is a titanically unfair game where your elite anti-alien commandos routinely miss crucial shots that the game told you they had a 90% chance to make. But when you lose in XCOM, the game is telling you that you needed a better strategy -- in Spymaster, losing feels like the game has decided that it's time for you to feed the meter again. Any bets on which one we'll still be playing and talking about in five years?
The final and maybe most disappointing failure of Spymaster is that none of the events in the game have any gravity at all. Did you just steal an Enigma machine? Amazing! the game exclaims. You've just helped us win the war with that incredible feat.
Except you haven't. When you get back to the mission select screen, there will be another nigh-identical mission waiting for you. Maybe the Gestapo HQ will be in Marseilles instead of Caen this time. Maybe the OSS wants a radio in Milan instead of Amsterdam. But the rest will be pretty much the same, as you grind out another five missions to unlock the next (nigh-identical) campaign. Anyone who plays Spymaster for more than a day or two will have collected enough Enigma machines to build Deep Thought -- there's no drama, no excitement, and no reason to stick with it.
Spymaster is a wonderful app with some great visual design, a clever UI, and delightful music. I can imagine a version of it where there's a set campaign where the missions matter; where injuries and defeats feel like gameplay and not monetisation. But that's not what we got, because Spymaster apparently needed to be an infinitely replayable cash register. Spymaster is an orrery of design mistakes revolving around its monetisation strategy. Maybe it can be tweaked into something more palatable, but I'm already burning these spies for good.
Spymaster was played on an iPad Air for this review.