When it comes to spy thrillers, many of the best novels and films can be traced back to the Cold War. To cut a long history lesson short, it was a precarious conflict between the United States and Soviet Union which has had a lasting impact on relations between the two global superpowers. Unable to draw a frontline and put boots on the ground, much of the fighting was carried out away from sight among a highly professional ring of operatives working for both sides.
It’s surprising, given the potential for truly gripping stories, that the Cold War hasn’t been used more widely as a backdrop for video games. Sure, we’ve had the occasional cameo in games like Metal Gear Solid 3 and the original Call of Duty: Black Ops, yet neither of these have portrayed the time period in a particularly grounded manner.
For Maximum Games to step in and attempt to fill this incredibly niche gap in the market is certainly ambitious. Up until now, the Californian studio has mainly worked on titles focused at families and kids. However, having recently undergone a rebrand, it has been looking to expand its portfolio, Alekhine’s Gun being one its biggest in-house projects to date.
What the game succeeds in is locking down that gritty Cold War aesthetic. Where spy thrillers have a tendency to appear kitsch and cluttered with motifs from them 60s, Alekhine’s Gun is a bit more down to earth. Although there’s a degree of authenticity about its costumes, settings, and characters, there’s nothing particularly ostentatious, something which that works both ways. In pursuing a more realistic depiction of the time period, the game has been slapped with a low saturation filter, draining many of its urban and nighttime exteriors of any colour.
Sadly, for many players, this is where the compliments come to an abrupt end. Although it’s easy to appreciate what Maximum Games is trying to achieve, the execution simply isn’t there, not to mention originality.
To describe Alekhine’s Gun in the most cruel and basic manner, one could label it is a cheap Hitman knock-off. It’s a comparison the game makes no qualms in distancing itself from, presenting players with an incredibly familiar web of systems and mechanics. Then there are smaller, slightly less overt giveaways such as Alekhine’s penchant for carrying a garotte on his person by default.
Piping a thin layer of Cold War fiction in between, each level is kind of like its own murderous little sandbox. These are often comprised of several small areas and will task players with a handful of objectives to complete. Naturally, most of these are centred around killing specific marks but there are others too such as stealing intelligence, kidnapping targets, and even framing people for murder.
No matter what shopping list of challenges it throws your way, the game flow feels largely the same. At first, there’s that initial sense of being overwhelmed as you attempt to scan your environment, locating objectives and tracing patrol routes. After a little experimentation, you’ll pick up a disguise or two before rubbing shoulders with the same guards you’re trying desperately to avoid.
When it comes to assassinating your designated target, there are usually several options available. Although they can be quietly dispatched with a well-placed round from your pistol, there’s little reward in carry out such an execution lacks a certain sense of reward. Instead, depending on how patient you are, there are ways to make deaths appear accidental.
Working out how to trigger these will seem more like a puzzle though, forcing you to scour your surroundings for specific items and costumes to use. It would be a pretty fun approach to gameplay if not for the amount of guards that patrol each level. There’s nothing more annoying than plotting the perfect execution only for an NPC to constantly monitor you, triggering the alarm as soon as they detect anything suspicious.
Needless to saying, playing Alekhine’s Gun gave me flashbacks of Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it didn’t feel just as outdated. Compared to more recent entries in the stealth action genre, Alekhine’s Gun feels clumsy while also looking unpolished. NPCs will often snag on doorways and other pieces of terrain whereas densely populated areas will bring suddenly bring the frame rate to its knees.
There are one or two other outdated features that will undoubtedly niggle away at some. The lack of a checkpoint system may prove particularly troublesome among novice gamers, forcing players to keep a log of manual saves.
It’s not impossible to overlook Alekhine’s shopping list of shortcomings. There were a few occasions when everything would neatly come together and create something genuinely fun and entertaining. However, the consistency simply isn’t there.
No one can fault Maximum Games for going against the grain here. In breaking the status quo, they’ve really put their necks on the line and it’s a shame Alekhine’s Gun hasn’t quite panned out the way the studio no doubt envisioned.
Still, there’s no getting away from the overall lack of originality on show, as well as poor execution in several key areas. The stealth genre and video game medium as a whole have moved on. In other words, Alekhine’s Gun feels unmistakably outdated, reappropriating old tropes and systems that should have been left on the shelf or at least iterated upon in some way.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4