Stealth action games, such as Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid, typically involve a lot of high-tech sneaking around, the occasional shoot-out, and a fair amount of trial and error. During the past few years, this style of gaming has become a popular alternative to typical run-and-gun action, though a lot of the novelty has worn off. Therefore, new games of this variety have to accomplish a lot to truly distinguish themselves. Unfortunately, Spy Fiction doesn't succeed at this. It adheres to the stealth formula pretty strictly but doesn't execute it as well as other games have. It offers a couple of neat mechanics to spice things up and should be enjoyable to the hardcore stealth fan, but others will probably find that they've seen most of this stuff before.
Spy Fiction casts you as a member of the elite covert operations team Phantom, a group that specializes in working undercover, infiltrating evil organizations, conducting secret missions for the government, and other fun spy stuff. The game actually begins close to the end of the story, when the sinister and politically minded terrorist group Enigma (headed by its token Aryan poster boy Dietrich Troy) is threatening the safety of the free world. After a brief prologue mission detailing these late-game events, Spy Fiction flashes back a couple of months so that you can spend the bulk of the game's 10 missions playing through the events that lead up to Enigma's ultimatum. The game provides three different levels of hint detail, the easiest of which holds your hand by revealing the answer to most puzzles as soon as you encounter it. Regardless of your choice, the game will likely clock in around the 10 hour mark. The story has its fair share of shady corporations, killer viruses, and presumably badass spies, and though it's a little cheesy and not nearly as thrilling as what you'd find in Metal Gear Solid (a series Spy Fiction tries to emulate in some ways), it does present a few points of interest as you move along.
Mechanically, Spy Fiction is largely a stealth-by-numbers affair in the vein of Metal Gear. You've got the typical battery of stealth-game moves, which include leaning up against a wall so you can peer around corners and sneaking up behind enemies to silently disable them. There's even a fairly cool optic-camouflage effect that kicks in and renders you more or less invisible when you hug the wall and remain motionless. However, Spy Fiction is a more action-oriented experience than, for instance, MGS or Splinter Cell. If you're discovered by enemies, your most viable strategy is to simply shoot them all and run for cover until the alert expires. The shooting in Spy Fiction isn't very exciting, either, mostly due to some simple snap-to-target-style auto-aim.
In fact, the game gives so much quarter to sloppy spies that Spy Fiction often feels like "stealth lite." When you kill a guard, you don't have to hide the body in the shadows, because it conveniently flickers and disappears. When you're spotted, you can withstand an awful lot of bullets before you finally go down. Enemies act extremely confused--and not in a realistic way--when you engage your camo juts a few feet away. Several times we saw guards searching for us and stopping right where we were sitting (masked by the optic camo); they then fired several shots directly over our head and into the wall while continuing to spout dialogue indicating that they didn't know where we were. Instances like this, unfortunately, detract from the believability of the experience, and worse, they just makes things feel a little too awkward.
You'll have a lot of gadgets at your disposal, as any good spy would. Many of these come in the form of support tools, such as a spider grip that lets you cling to the ceiling, a device that lets you essentially see enemies through walls (in the first-person view) or detect their cones of vision (in third-person view), and a 3D camera that lets you create disguises (more on that in a moment). Others are of the James Bond ilk, such as the flash pencil, which is, in fact, a sort of flashbang-style weapon disguised as a pencil. There aren't nearly as many guns as you might expect. You'll pick up a couple here and there (along with various types of grenades), but for the most part, you can get by with just your default silenced pistol.
Spy Fiction does toss a couple of nifty features into the otherwise ordinary stealth mix. The coolest one is a disguise system that essentially lets you become almost any other character in the game. You'll do this with a camera that requires you to get a direct photo of the person's face and clothing. Once you do this, duck into the nearest closet or dumpster, and you'll emerge looking like a perfect reproduction of that character, which will then let you walk around unhindered (until you do something to blow your cover, that is). This disguise system is where the chief difference between the two playable characters comes into play. Billy, the male character, can only disguise himself as other male characters, while blonde pixie Sheila can emulate both males and females. This changes things up in a few places, but otherwise the two characters play pretty much the same way.
The disguise mechanic opens up another minor feature that's pretty cool: eavesdropping. While you're disguised, you can stand near most characters and act nonchalantly so that you can listen in on what they're saying to their companions (or to themselves). Often the dialogue you pick up is useless, but sometimes you'll have to listen to a particular person to gain a needed clue so that you can progress. Anyway, the game's disguise system is fairly unique and does add a bit of depth to the experience. It's just too bad the typical stealth stuff isn't executed more smoothly.
Visually, Spy Fiction gets the job done--but not necessarily with much flair. The characters and backgrounds have pretty clean looks. Though they're not extremely detailed, they do look quite good. The character design seems typically anime-influenced, what with Billy's spiky hair and Sheila's enormous eyes, and the characters' faces have a strangely docile and sometimes mannequin-like appearance in the cutscenes. A sizable portion of the game takes place in metallic corridors, offices, and research labs that noticeably call to mind the backgrounds of Metal Gear Solid 2, although a few of the levels are set in more-interesting locales, like the jungle or on a speeding train. The frame rate is generally very smooth, although sometimes it gets inexplicably chunky depending on the area you're in.
There's not a whole lot of music to speak of in the game. After all, stealth games are all about setting a mood, and silence is often a useful tool for doing that. Unfortunately, the music that is here isn't particularly memorable and can get repetitive. The voice acting and dialogue run the gamut, so sometimes they're quite passable, while other times they get downright cheesy (generally depending on the character). Annoyingly, the guards will often spout the exact same phrase 10 times in a row when they're looking for you or when they think they've seen something suspicious. So you'll hear "Must be getting tired..." ad nauseam. Guaranteed. The sound effects are pretty good, though, with your gadgets and weapons making all the kinds of noises you'd expect.
Overall, Spy Fiction is an average stealth action game that has just enough new stuff to make it reasonably interesting to devotees of the genre. However, if you're on the fence about stealth games (or especially if you're sick of them), this isn't going to do much for you. There's a small amount of unlockable content, and the two playable characters add a bit of replay value, but Spy Fiction is a game that will play most favorably to players who are willing to accept its adherence to stealth conventions.