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Spy vs. Spy

Best let them fight amongst themselves.

It's been more than forty years since Black Spy and White Spy first started trying to do each other in on the pages of MAD magazine, and what a lot of stuff has happened since then - the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the end of the cold war, the emergence of the Internet, the invention of McCain's Chinese Chicken flavour Micro Wings, to name but a few key events.

And what a long way games have come, too. When the likes of Pong and Space Invaders appeared all those years ago, who could have imagined that one day the shops would be filled with the varied array of third-person action-adventures set in gritty urban environments we see today.

Anyway, if you were to sit down and draw some kind of timeline depicting the evolution of games - who knows why, perhaps in a bid to make small children understand what we had to put up with before proper 3D graphics and analogue controllers came along or something - the original Spy vs. Spy would have to be on there somewhere.

See, when the game first appeared on the aforementioned ZX Spectrum (and C64 let's not forget) some two decades back, it was one of the first titles that let you go head-to-head on a split-screen with another player, setting traps for them and watching with glee as they enjoyed faceful after faceful of pixellated pain. Revolutionary, back in the day.

Problem was, the game wasn't actually much cop even then [Trust me, it was hateful - Bitter, ageing Speccy/C64-owning Ed]. And problem is, adding a platform element, making it 3D and sticking it on Xbox hasn't helped much.

Spy vs. Spy offers three options for the single player, the main one being Story Mode. As either Black Spy or White Spy (it makes no difference which you choose), your mission is to make your way through a series of environments - including a mysterious mansion, a deserted fairground and a space station - defeating enemies, solving puzzles and ultimately defeating your oppositely-coloured nemesis.

Things start to get awkward right from the very first level, when it becomes clear that a lot of backtracking is on the menu. And they don't get any better as the game progresses - all the environments have the same basic layout with a series of puzzles built around a central hub, which, annoyingly, you'll find yourself returning to again and again.

Levels also tend to be sparsely populated and feel rather empty. Even when you do come across an enemy, they're generally far too thick/slow/both to present much of a challenge.

Which, as you might imagine, makes for a pretty boring game, as does the fact that it often just isn't clear enough where you're supposed to head next or what you're supposed to do when you get there.

Cue a lot of aimless meandering and general tedium, which isn't relieved by the puzzles - they're either stupidly easy or impossibly illogical, making this a game that won't entertain anyone of any age for very long.

It all points to the fact that, fundamentally, the game smacks of a lack of imagination. And not just when it comes to the puzzles and level layouts but even the weapons, which should have been one of the game's key attractions.

The difficulty is that since the Spy vs. Spy comic strip first appeared, comedy weapons have come a long way. We've played Worms. We've played Ratchet and Clank. We've watched Itchy feed Scratchy through a blender, throw acid in his face, nail him to a moving escalator and fire him into the heart of the sun.

Nowadays, a boxing glove on a spring just isn't going to cut it any more, frankly. And nor is a banana skin, a giant mallet or a huge anvil descending from the sky. The suicide monkey, which explodes on contact with your enemy, is along the right lines, but there aren't enough inventive or just plain funny ideas to make obtaining new weapons an objective you really want to achieve, and the controls are too fiddly to make using them enjoyable.

In short, the Story Mode game quickly becomes a chore to play and there's no real incentive to keep going. As for the other single-player modes, Modern and Classic - well, they're really just slight variations on Story, with the platforming element taken out and the dull weapons and shonky controls left in.

We had high hopes that the multiplayer game might elevate Spy vs. Spy from the ranks of A Bit Rubbish to Fun With Friends, but sadly we were disappointed as the same old problems just keep cropping up.

In all the multiplayer modes the objective is basically to be the last man standing. At first, you might try to be clever by achieving this through the cunning positioning of a series of traps in strategic locations.

However, you'll soon realise it's a lot easier to simply march straight up to your enemy of choice and blap them round the head. Providing you can find them - poor level design is a problem here too, and means that all multiplayer matches tend to end up like this:

  1. Everyone goes off in different directions.
  2. Everyone goes "Where is everyone?" for about five minutes.
  3. Everyone finds each other. Blapping ensues.
  4. Everyone except one person, seemingly chosen by the game at random, dies.
  5. Everyone goes "This is rubbish, what time's Big Brother on?"
  6. Someone goes, "Oh, do we have to watch that, honestly, isn't Newsnight on or something?" before secretly texting LESLEY to 64404. But anyway.

All in all, despite the £20 price tag, we can't say Spy vs. Spy is really worth a purchase, even if you're a big fan of the original - in fact, especially if you're a big fan of the original, since the two games don't bear a great deal of resemblance to each other and it'll only ruin your memories. [Or just reinforce the fact that Spy Vs. Spy games are destined to be a bit poo. - Ed]

It looks nice enough, with polished, cartoon-style graphics, and a special mention has to go to the nice tinkly sixties soundtrack - though if you're more into new-fangled bands like Twopacks or The Blazing Squad, it'll probably drive you mental after about 45 seconds.

But no amount of colourful 3D graphics and soothing jazz can make up for tiresome puzzles, empty levels, unoriginal weapons and endless backtracking. Or make a game worth paying 20 quid for. There are plenty of games with the same price tag out there which do platforming, deathmatches and comedy weapons much, much better, so this one's best avoided.

4 / 10