If I learnt nothing else from Alekhine’s Gun, it is that the highly paid and morally dubious world of jet-setting hitmen may not be the career for me. I am sure I could work my way past the ethical quandaries, but attempting an infiltration without the use of Save States may lead to nothing but my untimely demise.
There is a lot to take away from Maximum Game’s first attempt at the helm of the once beloved ‘Death to Spies’ franchise. A chequered developmental past doesn’t prevent this game from offering an experience which is generally positive. A game that will feel very familiar to fans of the Hitman series: you sneak, swagger, and shoot your way through various small sandboxes to eliminate targets, collect intel, and unravel a conspiracy that goes all the way to the very top.
You’re placed in the controls of KGB agent Semyon Strogov, known as Agent Alekhine (after the chess grandmaster Alexander Alekhine), who teams up with CIA operatives in an attempt to prevent a series of acts that will otherwise destabilise the world, and threaten to thaw the Cold War. You’ll have to gather specific intelligence, and kill off the various governmental agents who are attempting a pseudo-coup within the US. The locations vary across the US and Europe as you attempt to locate the necessary targets, taking you from massage parlours of questionable legality, to biker bars in the middle of nowhere, as well as secret military training camps and Nazi strongholds. Each location offers different challenges and opportunities, as well as a new set of rules to learn when engaging enemies.
The new rules generally boil down to what costume to wear to gain access to various areas, and who will and won’t be suspicious of the very Russian, very burly looking man now masquerading as a lowly construction worker (or other equivalent outfits). This is where a problem with the AI, and the game’s fundamentals, starts to rear its ugly head. After a few hours of playing the game, you begin to get a feel for what is required. Find a costume that allows you entry, discover the restricted areas and ascertain how you need to dress to enter and go find that costume. Rinse and repeat, it all begins to feel like a very violent Moscow Fashion Week by the closing chapters. But how exactly the costumes work in terms of access and suspicion is sometimes unclear.
In one mission you need to find a specific costume to enter restricted huts, however, when wearing this costume outside of the huts the soldiers grew highly suspicious of Seymon, eventually opening fire on him. In another level, an outfit that gives you free access to every other area of the level will lead to you being denied access by some support crew, meaning you have to dress as a much lower rank to pass unnoticed. This happens quite a lot throughout the game, and can become frustrating.
Luckily, the game employs a ‘Save Anywhere’ approach, meaning you can (and probably should) save multiple times throughout a level. This is a saviour, because with mechanics that are cloaked in a shade of uncertainty, knowing exactly what will happen when you do something is unlikely. You want to know whether a switch kills someone or not? Save beforehand. Want to know whether you can kill someone without alerting everyone? Save beforehand. Want to just avoid having to redo the 15 minutes of preparation of this assassination goes south? Just save beforehand. Without this freedom, this game would go from having moments of annoyance, to being a frustratingly unplayable cascade of punishment.
Outside of frequent costume changes, you have a few weapons and tricks to help you along the way. You are armed with a pistol, which you can replace with a silenced variant or a tranquiliser gun as you advance in the game, as well as a cheese wire (for a casual garotting), some chloroform, and a small amount of poison. You can pick up other implements throughout the levels (mostly poisons and ways to hide deadly weaponry), as well as purchasing some more unique weaponry during the mission briefing (ranging from undetectable pistols to high powered sniper rifles). Seymon is also a dab hand at lock picking and safe breaking and is a remarkably adept electrical engineer. These extra skills allow you access to new areas, hiding areas (useful for storing the now naked corpses of your past victims), and unique kills.
Despite problems with the logic of the game, and inconsistent AI behaviour, the gameplay is mostly solid. The controls are generally responsive, with a few issues with the correct action not activating due to yourself and your target being slightly out of line, The gun control is the weakest part of the main gameplay sections, but you can complete every mission without using your gun, so it makes this problem ignorable if you choose to play without guns. There is nothing groundbreaking to be found here, but there is a solid experience instead.
Your silent, murderous rampage is tied loosely together by a story which takes a very long time to transition from bland to adequate. The story is mostly told through comic book style sequences between missions, where you learn about Seymon’s past, how he has become involved in the operation that occupies most of the game, and some sort of relationship between Seymon and Vera that mostly goes nowhere. The overarching problem with the story comes from the delivery, specifically the voice work.
The audio is delivered in a style which is astonishingly jarring during the opening chapters. It is meant to mimic the style and tone of secret recordings, with a background hiss and volume rising and falling as the characters walk around the room. But it doesn’t feel like you are listening to a secret recording, it feels like you are listening to a college film where no one has bothered to learn sound mixing. Add to this the overexcited foley adding footsteps and papers being ruffled constantly, and it seems very comical. The accents deployed by the supposed Russians are also incredibly inconsistent. This means that the big relationship, which drives the final chapters misses the mark entirely (much like me when trying to shoot in this game).
This final two levels scrap this and stick to simple monologues and dialogues, which are much cleaner, and have a streamlined approach to delivering the narrative. When the game is acknowledging real world conspiracies and politics it is enjoyable, when it is trying to do character development it falls flat on its face.
Alekhine’s Gun is named after a famous chess move, designed for taking down lots of targets at once, which is similar to what the developers were going for here. They tried to take on a lot of mechanics and ideas, but, unfortunately, didn’t deliver on all of them. Alekhine’s Gun is by no means a bad game, but it is a game that could have done with more aggressive direction to differentiate itself from similar games on the market right now.