WA Spycraft: The Great Game



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"Spycraft", the new-world Espionage thriller set at the end of the Cold War looks to redefine gaming standards set by Software Houses to date. With the best user interface I've seen in a long time and with the assistance of William Colby, former director of the CIA, and Oleg Kalugin, former major general of the KGB, "Spycraft" could well be the beginning of a roaring comeback by Activision.

Picture of William Colby Picture of Oleg Kalugin
William ColbyOleg Kalugin

Activision first opened their doors in 1979 and dominated the virginal games market for years to come. Hordes of children and teenagers alike used to sweat on every new title of which there are far too many to list. Classics such as "Pitfall", "River Raid", "Master of the Lamps" all graced consoles and 8-bit computers, then around 1988, not much seemed to be coming from this software giant.

Having purchased Infocom (A software legend in there own right) classic titles such as "Zork" and "Wishbringer" were re-released to a 16-bit audience but their steam just seemed to be running out. The year 1988 brought "Manhole" to the brand new CD-ROM market, but as a very iffy Children's Interactive story, it made little or no impact. By 1992 it was no surprise that many had not even heard of Activision, considered by the "old-hands" to be wandering the has-been wilderness a glimmer emerged in the eye of this sleeping behemoth. In 1992, the release of "Return to Zork" was well received by the gaming community, but many die-hard Zork fans criticized it. It wasn't then until 1995 Mech Warrior II was released.

Bogged in controversy as to network issues not being finished on-time, again Activision wore criticism from the gaming community. However, 1996 looks to be the year for Activision with the release of their superb new title "Spycraft".

In "Spycraft", you become Agent Thorn. Thrust into the world of international espionage you take on a New World Order consisting of Drug Traffickers, Nuclear Arsenals and deep set double-agents and traitors who will sell out there country for sex and money. Depicted at the end of the cold War, the lines between ally and enemy have been severely blurred setting the stage for the two world Superpowers to collaborate.

The installation for "Spycraft" is very easy. In a new trend that Activision seems quite set in, "Spycraft" is for Windows 95 and can be run from DOS. As simple as inserting the CD (letting Win 95 do its "autostart thing") it's only a matter of pressing the install button. Even from the humble install you can start to ascertain that "Spycraft" is a very serious game. Towards the end of the installation you are prompted with a window that informs you that there are scenes in the game that some could find distressing and offensive, of note was the option to turn off the "torture scenes". On the topic of disturbing scenes, although not abundant, there is at least one scene where the Russian President is assassinated with a shot to the head. The accompanying video graphically shows his execution, definitely not for children or the squeamish. I personally found the scene too graphic and was momentarily shocked by seeing his brains being blown out.

Playing "Spycraft" is indeed a pleasure. The introduction is fantastic with full motion video that will make anyone stand up and take note, (Maybe even the guys at Origin), it is all in 16-bit (i.e. 65,000 colors) and fills a good two thirds of the screen. The process of displaying the full motion video is basically identical to that seen in "Wing Commander IV". Although I don't know if the process has been named yet, it involves taking the video files and displaying it with a blank line in between each row. This effectively gives the appearance of a video much larger than it actually is. It is a kind of interlacing without the second pass, it is a welcome addition in games developers bag 'o' tricks. Unlike "Wing Commander IV" however, the full motion video in "Spycraft" is not displayed from edge to edge but is symmetrical to the current resolution. Although a matter of taste, I find the video in "Spycraft" more aesthetically pleasing. The quality is also the most vibrant and clear I have ever seen in a computer game.

Whilst speaking of the introduction, what a joy it was to see the Activision title appearing over the hustle and bustle of the Langley CIA headquarters in Washington. It actually brought a lump to my throat to see it redrawn in its original form over such a professional piece of film.

Acting is improving in computer games, and the actors in "Spycraft" are convincing, enjoyable to watch and do a remarkable job considering that all of the full motion video is presented to you in the first person. Although not unique to Activision ("Return to Zork" was also presented in the first person), it is a refreshing change considering all of the third person games out there. Whether you are a man or a woman throughout the game, you are simply referred to as Thorn. The experience was easy and comfortable to fit into, even to role play with. Sitting in meetings, when you are being addressed, the actor looks at you, whilst addressing other field agents, at them. This was so convincing that whilst being given my orders I found myself nodding my head.

The user interface in "Spycraft" is a giant leap in the right direction for computer games, easily one of the best in the market. Simple and easy to use, it is very graphical and revolves around a point click affair. Many games these days rely on pull-down menus, or moving the mouse to an area of the screen and selecting an icon. In "Spycraft", you have a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) that you use. This unique idea gives unparalleled flexibility. The PDA is full screen and in a brilliant stroke of game design is based around a common Web Browser. As per your normal browser, the PDA has a toolbar consisting of: Close (PDA), Home, Back, Forward and Help. Directly beneath is where all the information is displayed. Opening your PDA, you are presented with the "Home page" which consists of:

All information in the game is accessed via the PDA. Email regularly comes in with vital clues, or congratulations on an arrest. Video communications come in from superior officers, and your colleagues out in the field send digitally recorded messages you can play back. Often messages have 'hypertext links', for example, if a colleague mails you with a lead, their name will be printed in a different color. Clicking on the name will automatically bring up the relevant information from the Datalink section. It is actually possible to sit back and 'surf' all the information inside "Spycraft" as you would carousing the World Wide Web.

The game play in "Spycraft" is varied and very enjoyable, though in what is becoming more common in modern computers games, somewhat easy. To progress in the game, most elements are puzzle based, and revolve around using a field tool. There are many tools at your disposal all of them modeled off a tool in reality. Just some of these tools include:

The BADMAN:In training you use it to navigate through a field to avoid detection by hostile. Developed by Israeli special ops teams, it allows an agent to direct a strike through a building.
KAT:Kennedy Assassination Tools, developed in 1963 KAT plots the trajectory of bullets in a simulated environment.
MIX-AND-MATCH:This tool measures facial dimensions to find a match in the agency's extensive mug shot database.
MAP TOOL:An agent can use this tool to locate a person by mapping the sounds heard in the background of a phone call.

The tools themselves aren't necessarily the puzzle but the combination of their use, information picked up by other field agents, and information you yourself pick out from browsing the data on your PDA is how the game is progressed. For example, when in Russia, an informant "Birdsong" flees. The only information you have to go on is from a phone call he made to the Head of the CIA in Moscow. Using the MAP-TOOL and a tool that discerns sound from the recording of the conversation you pin point his location. By selecting small sound bytes from the initial recording, a type of aircraft is identified, a tram, church bell, and even a territorial sparrow. Taking this newly acquired information into the MAP-TOOL allows you to locate his whereabouts.

Besides puzzles, situations do arise where you have to 'shoot your way through'. Using the mouse to move, if you enter an area populated by a hostile, the movement cursor turns into a cross hair where you aim and eliminate the threat.

Finally, in a surprising move that is bound to set a new gaming standard, Activision has enlisted the use of the 'Information Super-hype way'. "Spycraft" has a very interesting function that allows you to go online.

Providing you have an Internet connection, selecting the 'Add online' function from the "Spycraft" startup menu initially brings up a help window explaining how to download a file from the Activision Home Page. Once downloaded, the program makes a change to your Netscape browser. Whilst in the game, selecting Weblink will bring up your browser and take you to a special web site dedicated to the online gaming aspect of "Spycraft".

Those who have surfed may be cynical at this point, "how will the server be able to handle the traffic generated by such a large user base, well, Activision ingeniously pull all the graphics for the page off the CD. Except for interaction and messages from other players, the browser doesn't have to transfer data anywhere near the amount of other net sites.

Those that go online will be able to link to authentic intelligence Web sites such as the CIA, FBI and Secret Services. It will be possible to chat live with other players at any time of the day, post and view messages, or even participate in live online conferences with intelligence veterans - William Colby (former CIA Director) and Oleg Kalugin (former KGB Major General).

Using the Online functions, creates a number of dynamic features. The scrolling text in the PDA browser changes often informing you of new "Spycraft" updates, the times of the online conferences, etc.

The government pages that you see in the Datalink section will also change. You may find that the top ten list has changed or that there is new information on the K.A.T. (Kennedy Assassination Tools). The news information in the Newslink section will change from time to time to incorporate real world events. There is also a communication platform with other players to exchange hints, tips and impressions/opinions on the moral issues raised in the game through live chats. Negotiations are underway for Colby and Kalugin to take part in live chats on the US site. Players with Real Audio will be able to actually hear these two spy masters's spoken works transmitted over the Internet. There will be weekly news updates of important events around the world, adapted by the "Spycraft" writer for the "Spycraft" universe, and this will occur for about 3 to 6 months.

Using the online component through Datalink in the game, you will access to real government agencies web sites. On the first screen of each of these agencies, at the bottom of the page, you can access the "real" online document (e.g., at the bottom of the first page of the FBI screen, you can click on 'Real Top 10 Most Wanted' to launch your Web Browser and directly access the Top 10 Most Wanted off the real FBI site).

NOTE: The online component is not necessary to finish the game.


"Spycraft: The great game" has all the feel of a Tom Clancy novel, with superb full motion video, professionally produced sound and varied entertaining game play, you really can't go wrong. "Spycraft" plays flawlessly, with no crashes, bugs or nasties to report, the only mild hiccup is that you have to set your Win 95 taskbar to not be 'always on top', having to turn this function on and off, I would have preferred the software to do it for me. Entrenched in espionage first hand, you can be involved in some "Patriot games" and enjoy the thrill of being in "Clear and Present danger". Mix this with a brilliant online function that brings other players to your desktop and you are definitely on a winner.

Written by Jere Lawrence



Click here for screen shots.

System Requirements:

486 DX-33 MHz or higher,
Min 8MB memory,
Hard disk,
Double speed CD-ROM drive or faster,
256-color SVGA video graphic card (VESA Local Bus or PCI recommended),
Microsoft mouse or 100% compatibles.

Most popular sound cards supported.


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1-800-828-7927 (Canada)

Web site: Activision
Email address: Activision


In North America:

See Developers.

In Europe:

In UK:

Activision Europe Ltd.,
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London W3 0RQ.

Technical Support: +44-(0)990-111-557

In France:

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Web site: Ubi Soft

In Australia and Pacific Rim:

Activision Australia,
P.O. Box 873,
Epping, NSW 2121.

Tel: +61-2-869-0955


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