As fiction has taught me, the key to being an effective espionage agent is a good support team. James Bond has Q, Solid Snake has Otacon (among others), Sam Fisher had Grimsdottir (the last time I enjoyed one of those games), and the guy from Burn Notice has… the rest of the cast of Burn Notice, I guess? I watched two seasons of that show and remember nothing but feeling it was pleasantly inoffensive. Anyway. Games have provided plenty of NPCs to counsel player spies, but Clandestine is the first time my handler was another player.
The pitch is pretty straightforward- a two player cooperative spy game, where one player is the agent on the scene, and the other is a hacker, manipulating cameras and computers to enable espionage. The agent needs the hacker to direct him toward objectives, disable cameras, mark patrolling guards, and obtain passcodes. The hacker needs the agent to… well, do things, as the hacker is purely an enabler and cannot achieve mission objectives. As Q puts it in Skyfall, “Every now and then, a trigger has to be pulled.”
Clandestine makes it a little more often than just “now and then,” in my experience. Ben and I traded off spy and hacker for a number of games, and while Ben made the effort to set up melee takedowns, I was pretty liberal with shooting people in the head. Certainly, I play a more aggressive style of stealth than some, but even I was struck by how little the game seemed to mind my gunplay. Guards weren’t alerted even when my weapon was unsilenced, and I was even rewarded points at the end of the level for my impressive body count. Clearly, the game wasn’t intended as a shooter- there are stealth kills, and a detection system. They just aren’t very effective at disincentivizing the nine millimeter solution at this point.
Not much behavior is disincentivized at all, actually. Stealth games tend to be designed around consequences- if you go loud or act carelessly, the enemy will be alerted, and things will Be Unpleasant. However, Clandestine’s systems don’t effectively penalize you,. In many situations I was able to literally sprint around the map snapping people’s necks. I’d throw a man to the ground and curb stomp his neck, and soon his friend would see me standing over the body. With an exclamation of “What happened here?!” he’d run up… and then I’d throw him to the ground as well. In certain areas, the AI seems to treat your presence with a healthy amount of suspicion, but in others guards will not even object to being shot so long as they aren’t staring at you as you pull the trigger.
These design holes make its status as an Early Access game painfully clear- the game isn’t done, and they’ve been very transparent about that. Still, the core gameplay is quite fun: cooperation between spy and hacker is rewarding, and with better AI, the stealth could be very engaging. Currently, they’re targeting February for the game’s final release- in its current state, that seems optimistic if not naive. They have mentioned a willingness to push that date if necessary, however, and I sincerely hope they do. What’s here is pretty compelling, when you look past everything that isn’t here.
When I started Clandestine, I figured the spy would be my preferred role. Having played every Splinter Cell under the sun (along with a long string of subpar shadow-slinkers), I’m well acquainted to the deft movement and keen observation espionage requires. Recruiting friends as my handlers was just a nifty bonus: instead of dealing with scripted lines, I would be working with a live human, shooting the breeze or inventing our own convoluted story as he shepherded me from room to room.
Sadly, Katya Kozlova isn’t quite ready for the field. Despite her slim frame, she lacks the finesse seen from bulkier agents like Sam Fisher or Gabe Logan. Due to her disagreement with corners and inputs (simply turning her around can be an exercise in frustration), I found myself fumbling with the controls and narrowly missing detection. Error is a key part of the stealth experience, but mistakes should be left to the player. If the game itself is screwing up, I’m only left with the desire to throw in the towel and find something else to do.
For now, the true strength of the package lies in the hacker’s trusty fingertips. At first glance, his user interface was nearly indecipherable, with an intimidating web of nodes and four windows to micromanage. After a few helpful pointers from Colin and a few rounds of stumbling in the dark, I quickly grew to love the challenge of successfully coordinating a mission. The node web is indeed complex, but getting from one end to the other isn’t as difficult as it looks. Deactivating cameras and cracking door codes takes time, however, which makes babysitting the spy a must.
The spy might be able to see what’s directly around them, but as the hacker, you see enemy placements and every active camera long before the spy will. I had to verbally halt Colin’s advance when he was too close to a camera, then tab over and frantically dash to the representative node, hoping a guard wasn’t creeping up on him while I was distracted. I was the one who facilitated his escape from a heavily guarded compound (even if he occasionally abandoned the sneaking altogether and went loud). I properly skimmed each floor for the necessary intel and acted as Colin’s verbal minimap. I helped him find the very last agent he needed to gun down.
There’s a laundry list of things that need fixing, from the settings that revert every time you return to the main menu to the unhelpful tutorial and braindead AI. But even when things were falling apart, I had a blast synchronizing my actions with Colin, helping him evade security and work his way through a nest of hornets. Clandestine has taught me that being the handler behind the monitor is just as satisfying as the agent’s role in the line of fire. If Logic Artists fix the spy bits along with the other technical issues, this could quickly turn into my co-op game of choice.
Two copies of this game were provided to Scanline Media by developer Logic Artists for the purpose of impressions. Clandestine is currently in Early Access on Steam for $29.99.