Any gamer who recalls the thin end of the 1980’s will be aware of Spy Hunter and in many cases much more than that - they may even feel a certain reverence surrounding the classic top-down car-driving, baddie-chasing spy-hunting arcade game. Especially if you were lucky enough to play the sit-down arcade cabinet version, as opposed to the standard stand-up one, or a home version. TT Fusion and Warner Bros. Interactive have excitingly seen fit to reboot this thirty-year old game and release it on the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita. Whilst this sounds like a fabulous idea, in practice it turns out to be one which sullies the fine but blurry memories of the original.
The game design is all very similar to that in the original. You play ‘Agent’, an unnamed and unseen central character around whom the plot such as it is pivots. You have been entrusted with you the Interceptor, a funky new spy vehicle which hides away a myriad of tricks and gadgets which enable you to hunt the bad guys. Your car goes fast(ish), turns into an off-road behemoth automatically when the terrain requires it and also becomes a speedboat when water mars your path. In any guise you have a weapon load-out, including some bright shiny light thing that stops most of the things around you, a flamethrower and a machine gun. The actual load-out will vary by level, and to some extent by your choice - throughout the game you can spend experience points on upgrading various weapon(s).
The game structure is simple. There are twenty-three missions, most of which follow-on from each other. Some of the levels are optional though via branching in case you feel the need to be a completionist or obtain more points to boost your powers and look towards collecting that elusive platinum trophy. There is some variety in the levels to spice things up but on the whole what we have is the same gameplay decorated with various objectives. In practice then you drive your car as fast as it will go from point A to point B, C and so on, stopping to avoid bombs and landmines and the big and small and fast baddies ahead of you, to the side of you and coming from the rear. Your aim will be something along the lines of getting to point F, or collecting a gadget and getting to point G or driving to point B before going back to point A. When you have a non-driving mission you get to do different things like set airstrikes and direct missiles but these different sections are typically short and few and far between. There are different routes through a level but the choice is never an important one - they all go to the same place or achieve the same goal and all routes look pretty much the same.
Driving your car then, and shooting bad guys is the focus of the game, which is a good thing in the context of the series’ history. The problem is neither is overly well done nor that entertaining. The handling of the car is rather like a two-dimensional box on rails. You accelerate and go forwards, turn left and it goes left, turn right and it goes right. It’s pretty much an on/off type steering action; there’s no real scope to leverage tiny, twisty and accurate steering as the handling is very heavy - you go left, you go right, you do not do a merry dance. It’s just not that much fun to drive compared to any other racer today where you have real precise control. It’s not very realistic and it’s not got the arcadey feel you get from the best twitch racers. If the handling could be likened to another game it would be the Grand Theft Auto series, but even then the handling gives you more control of the car and a fun experience compared to here. This unexciting driving experience is compounded by the lack of speed that is felt. The scenery doesn’t move by very fast - nor is there a great amount of detail anyway which had there been the impression of speed may have been easier to effect - and you do think to yourself that what you’re playing is a game in a thirty zone, rather than one with no-restrictions. The driving is the key part of the game and although it’s not broken in any way it’s just very basic and very leaden-footed meaning it gets tiresome long before the last mission. One nice touch is that as you start a level and start the car you’re asked to press a big blue button via the Vita’s touchscreen to start the Interceptor up. This never gets old. Aside from the ignition button press the touchscreen capabilities haven’t been used for any purpose during the main driving missions but they have been used in some of the other levels and menu navigation - which can also be done the tried and trusted way using physical buttons and directional controllers.
Considering the Vita is young and its associated library of games is thought of as small by most owners and onlookers, a Spy Hunter reboot should be seen as an ideal title to push given its brand recognition and the (lack of) competition. To make that happen though you’d need some kind of reason for folks to buy it. The gameplay is as mentioned very average but unfortunately so are the graphics and audio. The graphics in particular are surprisingly poor, as if very little time, effort and/or production value has been put into the development. The environments are sparse, the baddies do come in a number of guises but you still end up with multiple cars, multiple four by fours and so on throughout any level. The whole thing just feels very simplistic and doesn’t make use of the Vita’s power in the way some of the triple-A titles have, nor does it get anywhere near to full utilisation of its outstanding screen. There is also a two to four player local multiplayer option where you all fight to the finish but frankly this is no more interesting than the rest of the game and it’s unlikely you or anyone else would want to spend much time here, even if it’s the first mode you tackle.
Ultimately Spy Hunter is a missed opportunity. A classic game rebooted onto young and vibrant systems which allow for more ways of playing than ever before. But it just doesn’t happen. The driving is average, the environments are average, the combat is average and the upgrade paths, multiplayer options and everything else is, well, average. Nothing fails in its entirety here but nothing pokes its head above the parapet either. It’s like everything is flatlined. The choice to bring spy hunting into 2012 is a great idea poorly executed, providing a passable but dull experience which does nothing to excite fans of the original let alone those new to this particular series.