Agent 64: Spies Never Die follows John Walter, who, according to the game’s description on Steam, “is called back into action to save the world once more.”
Hang on. When was the last time he saved the world? To judge by the look of the game, the answer is: the 1990s. Only, the look of the game has been artfully scumbled and smeared, the better to evoke that epoch – when we peered at games through double-thick layers of glass and fuzz. The developer, Replicant D6, has made a shooter that looks like a memory, and a hero who, despite being freshly cooked up, looks as though he belongs in the history books.
The title points us to the exact chapter, of course. To the Nintendo 64, and to those heroes who were expected not just to plant bullets in the heads of their enemies, but to dress impeccably while doing so. Think of James Bond in GoldenEye 007, with his tuxedo of finely tailored polygons. Or of Joanna Dark, the heroine of Perfect Dark, with that black-and-blue jumpsuit and those glinting silver shin pads. Walter, not to be outdone, sports a three-piece suit, in navy, which compliments the grey of his hair, as if he had combed a rain cloud into a neat side part. If spies never die, they at least age stylishly; imagine Pierce Brosnan being called back for Bond now, with his white whiskers and fine lines, and you’ve got an approximation of Walter.
His mission, in the game’s demo, is to gun his way out of a villain-stuffed skyscraper. It’s set at night, and you’re equipped with a boxy pistol – a “Sparrow G5,” apparently, with a polished slide and a suppressor. You start at rooftop level, and the whole thing is flooded with glare and bathed in crunchy glass; it reminds you of Die Hard, and of Bruce Willis’s bleeding feet. No such desperation for Walter, however. True, his objectives include the likes of “defuse explosives,” “free civilian hostages,” and even the touching “open ventilation hatch.” But his escape is far more measured and classy than that of John McClane. When Walter reloads his Sparrow G5, there is no onscreen fumbling, no dirty magazines; it just dips below the camera and comes back up, freshly cocked. And when he does crawl through a vent shaft, it isn’t the breathy, shoulder-scuffing ordeal that it was for McClane; it’s the roomier version that James Bond enjoyed in GoldenEye 007, and, sure enough, it ends with a chance to shoot a fellow in a toilet cubicle from above. The dying comes easy.
Agent 64 is part of the odd movement, somewhere north of nostalgia, to remould games, giving the impression that they were made in another time. To look at the recent spate of “demakes” – where enthusiasts cram the likes of BioShock into the sharp, crenellated style of a PlayStation game – is to witness a kind of double-jointed longing. It’s a wish not just for the past, but for the briny present to be filtered through it.
The trouble is that these things are an aesthetic exercise: good for a YouTube video, for the pleasant flooding and short-circuiting of your recollection, but not necessarily for a game. The coup of Agent 64 is that its kicks feel, if not new, then half-forgotten. Earlier this year, Goldeneye 007 was re-released, more or less unmessed-with, and the best thing about it wasn’t the fireballs, the machine guns, or even the crinkled smirk on Pierce’s Brosnan’s face. It was the polite reminder that down time – all but drummed out of shooters, in the dreary wake of Call of Duty – can still be a thrill. What a joy it was to consider your secondary objectives, to double back on your progress in search of junction boxes to be hacked and tapped. You felt more grounded in each location, the longer you looped through it; and far from killing the pace, the developer, Rare, pulled the tension taut.
Replicant D6 tunes into that same pitch. Try venturing onto Steam, downloading the demo, and hopping into Walter’s head. (The game performs the trick, familiar to Bond fans, of having the camera curve around our man and plunge behind his eyes, the joke being how unknowable he remains.) I’ll bet that it isn’t long before you find yourself slowing down: inching around corners, admiring the dark marble, and watching the windows as they burst into shards. There is a tactile buzz to the gunplay, and the game needs it. Note the kickback on your Sparrow, the pink-misted punch as each round slams into a goon, and the flail as he expires: timely reminders that animation – rehearsed and rehashed, again and again – can feel more physical than physics engines, as they drive home the facts of death.
For spies, of course, death isn’t a fact at all. It’s something to be cheated. The exploits of Joanna Dark and James Bond may well be entombed in slabs of grey plastic, but they play on in our minds. That is why Agent 64 has the shock of the new about it, while fulfilling a well-worn brief. We don’t yet have a release date for this intriguing debut, and I can think of no more fitting a game to go without one. Keep your eyes open, this year, for John Walter, as he creeps back onto active duty. For Replicant D6, our memories aren’t enough. There is much to be regained by going over old ground.