When I reviewed 3LV's WWII Normandy, I was e-mailed by the developers that Third Law was not devoting time to building a value title to hone their skills in LithTech for a future game. Nor, as I conjectured, were they building a title like ‘What Lies Beneath’, so they can go on to build a better product like ‘Cast Away’ (which director Robert Zemeckis did). Simply put, value titles seem to be the only way to make money. With classy artistic titles sometimes taking millions of dollars to develop, the volume actually sold, even for a critically acclaimed title, cannot make up the expenses put into development. Moreover, this does not even take into account the intricate royalties / contract between developers and publishers. Trainwreck Studios is a division of 2015, the team behind the massive effort to bring a Q3-based Medal of Honor title from the PSX to the PC. While 2015 is utilizing the Q3A engine, this division has used the Q1 engine for CIA Operative.
There is a good chance that if this were ever advertised in any way shape or form, most people will balk at taking a nostalgic trip back to the release of Quake. To their credit, the developers have used a much-improved version of Quake, in the form of Quakeworld. Through this engine, CIA Operative takes the protagonist through exotic locales, from Colombia to Iraq. The objective of the game is rather similar to the recently released Hitman, although in a much reduced fashion. Another title this game can be affiliated with is Soldier of Fortune, but I prefer the comparison to Hitman simply because the title tries to include some semblance of reality, whereas Soldier of Fortune had you shooting everyone in sight. Like the earlier missions in Hitman, the objectives take very little time to complete and consist of a mix of assassinations and sabotage. The mission design is very much inspired by movies, which probably explains the choice of locales, but the actual execution is a far cry from the movies. One of the influences on this title, admitted by the developer, is The Professional or better known internationally and to cult favorites; Leon. And true to this, you are able to snipe your target and make a dramatic escape afterwards. However, the drama found in the film is sorely lacking in the game.
Much of the blame could be placed behind the antiquated engine. Such technology like the infamous Reaper bots for Q1 illustrate that complex AI can be found in the Q1 technology. When you descend to street level after the assassination in the first mission, you are immediately confronted by the target's hoodlums among some civilians. In a real game and as in the films, much chaos ensues as the "good" assassin must fight his or her way out without killing the civilians. In CIA Operative though, the civilians run for a few steps, then unmistakably pause for a few minutes. The enemy hoodlums try and run you down but one will get caught behind a car. Full automatic fire will be punctuated with sudden silences as the enemy probably has an epiphany that murdering a CIA agent is not exactly the wisest choice in his career. With that said, players will think this is a mod-level quality game but it is not entirely so. Compared to the drab colors of Q1 and the QW world, the palette and textures used for CIA Operative are incredibly vibrant. Some of the architecture, like the last level in Iraq, is fairly impressive for a value title. Though there is constant usage of the same coffee crates in Colombia, you can never say this is a slipshod Q1 mod, since there usually aren't any barren walls or incredibly box-like buildings. Even then, any visual strength of the game cannot be sustained at all since the title is so short. There are only six missions in the game and most of the mission designs use clichéd elements from other titles. There is the hold your ground at all costs motif. There is also the assassination gone wrong. Then there is a mission where you must walk in and find a non-combative way to gain entry to the target. But it seems like the developers have seen these clichéd titles repeated too often in other lacklustre titles as they only use each cliché once. My personal feeling is that developers can use clichés from one title in another even if they were not the developer of that other title. We can take a look at The Mummy, which probably copies many elements of Indiana Jones. The Mummy, however, does not take itself too seriously and the repeated pranks become a self-made satire. Such a thing could also happen with CIA Operative but the title is much too short to give any feeling at all. The last mission has you in Iraq for "the big one", maybe a subtle poke at Desert Storm. As expected, the target is someone named Hussein.
CIA Operative lets you take out your enemy with three primary weapons. You are equipped with an unlimited usage silenced pistol. You also have a submachine gun and a sniper rifle. The latter is the only really effective weapon in the game but it is also the one that is hardest to find ammo for. The SMG, though supposedly effective at close quarters, has so much recoil and kickback that it is usually not worth the trouble, especially when you can trick the enemy to come at you one at a time. CIA Operative also features a sniper scope from which you can zoom into your targets. Like all Quake-engine games, I found the sniper scope was of very little use. Too often in the indoor-oriented Quake games, I can aim just as well from the naked eye unlike a title like Delta Force where a scope is paramount.
This title never feels empty like a lot of the unsuccessful Q1 mods. You are almost always told how to complete a mission through radio chatter from a person who monitors your progress. In Russia, it is a stereotypical Russian. The chatter, used expertly in titles like Deus Ex to build story, is relegated to a much more practical function here. There are a few odd jokes but that is about it. The other factor that contributes to some lively environs is the number of enemies. They are not too overwhelming and when the level is cleared, the enemy spawn depending on your objectives. For example, after placing a bomb and making a lot of noise, I found my escape routes, previously thought cleared, to be surrounded by enemy units again.
Probably the weakest portion of this title is the audio component, which definitely gives the title an amateur mod feel to it. For one, the sounds of the three guns are rather weak. You would think with only three guns to sample for, some decent recordings could be found but alas, it is not so. The subtitle of this game is Solo Missions. This becomes an excuse, I believe, to exclude any multiplayer component or friendly AI.
CIA Operative really rekindles a bygone CIA era. Your missions are audacious strikes into the heart of enemy territory. Although you are bound by some abstract ethical code not to shoot civilians in the first mission, your actions attract a great deal of attention by the last few missions. The CIA is now engaged in much more low level espionage activities than the rabble-rousing ones before the disastrous Bay of Pigs. But despite all the rationales and explanations I try to apply to this title, at its core, it is still a value title; and quite a limited one at that. The treatment of value or budget oriented titles has been of late, under debate by fellow critics. Developers are still vehemently asserting that there is a huge market for these budget-oriented wonders and they argue critics are too far removed from the world of the mass gamer to properly judge them. Thus, budget or value titles, like the famous Deer Hunter, are like popcorn movies, under-appreciated by critics but seemingly embraced by the public. Critics in film surely are going through the same dilemma as they debate whether to apply the same standard to artistic films as they do to popcorn movies. However, I believe the dilemma is a moot point. I smiled through Serious Sam (the best 'value' title this year, par excellence) because it simply could not take itself too seriously but with CIA Operative, the humor simply was not there and via extension, neither is the magic.