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Spy Party, even in the rudimentary form I experience at GameCity, looks set to redefine the interactions we expect from the games we play. A knife edge blend of mind games and double bluff, it's a very different spying experience.
Spy Party is currently in development by Chris Hecker (formerly part of the Spore development team). While many driving and shooting games use spy film-inspired plots to drive their narrative, Hecker believes that what we love about spy stories is the glamour: drinking, blending into parties and running rings around the enemy with cool-headed performance and deception. And he's turned that into a game.
In its current form, Spy Party is two-player game with one player taking the role of the spy and the other taking the role of the sniper. The spy may be one of any number of party guests, joined by an ambassador and a double agent. The spy has four tasks to complete: Bug the ambassador, steal a statue, transfer a microfilm and contact the double agent. The sniper has just one task: identify and assassinate the spy.
Playing as the spy offers some unusual playing choices. As I tried to blend in I was desperate for the sniper to write off my character as "just another guest". I found myself walking up to groups of AI controlled guests and joining in the conversation -- even interrupting the speaker -- to provide additional social noise. There was a real fizz of satisfaction each time the sniper's red beam drifted away to another group.
Playing as the sniper things look more familiar - like a traditional action game - but it feels completely different to play. Rather than trying to pick off your targets with limited time, in Spy Party you can't miss; it's simply a matter of identifying the right person.
I'd already noted that the only action unique to the spy is the Bug Ambassador motion - tapping the ambassador on the bum. I decided that my strategy for the my sniper round would be to follow the ambassador through the scope and wait for the other player to have to complete this tricky mission. He must have given me the slip, though, because at no point did I notice anybody make contact with the ambassador before the round ended.
You might think it would be easy to spot a human controlled player's movements in a crowd of AI bots, but because SpyParty translates the player's input through the AI it ensures their movements are largely indistinguishable from the computer-controlled guests. What's more, these guests offer excellent cover for the player as they are prone to examining statues, reading books and standing thoughtfully at the window.
The spy's main challenge is to complete their tasks within a tight time limit without giving themselves away through suspicious behaviour.
The spy's main challenge is to complete their tasks within a tight time limit without giving themselves away through suspicious behaviour. I can't honestly claim I won as either the spy or the sniper, but it's still a thrilling experience.
There's a sense of tension for both players. The spy can see the red line of the sniper's scope tracking around the room, so they have a reasonable idea of what the sniper is looking at. It makes trying to complete time-consuming tasks while the sniper's gaze is elsewhere a real challenge.
As the sniper, the amount of information to take in, even with this simple box-room version of the game, cannot be underestimated. All of the guests behave in an equally suspicious way. Looking out for the unique tells, which only the spy demonstrates, is a real exercise in concentration -- trying to work out if the other player is bluffing.
There's an old saying in Poker: Play the man and not the cards. Playing this, I really had to try and read my opponent and think about where they were focusing their attention in order to win.
There's an old saying in Poker: Play the man and not the cards.
This form of mental competition is something very few games use to challenge the player. With most games you know that to improve you have to master quicker controls or better aim. Out-concentrating the other player is a different learning curve entirely.
At this early stage, Spy Party is extremely playable. It was certainly in sufficient demand to make an unscheduled re-appearance onto a second day at GameCity and there was always a good crowd of players nearby to try their hand.
Future versions of the game look set to expand on the number of spy tasks and provide the sniper with more detailed detection abilities such as multiple video cameras which allow a review of footage, as well as a wide variety of varying levels and possibly differing social settings.
Now I've played it, I want it.
It almost seems a shame that Spy Party now has to go back into the private world of Chris Hecker. Now I've played it, I want it and I'm looking at all my other games and asking them why they've never thought of challenging me like this before. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this one and looking forward to its completion.
Spy Party is at an early development stage but is planned for multiple platforms.
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