Alekhine’s Gun is a 3rd person stealth-action game spanning the World War II and the Cold War eras. Players assume the role of an agent infiltrating a Nazi research facility, in order to eliminate a doctor working on a deadly biological weapon. Upon further investigation, our protagonist finds that there are agents in the shadows attempting to disrupt the allied resistance by inflaming the already strained ties between the Americans and Soviets. To find this nefarious person (or persons) unknown, it’s Alekhine’s job to sneak into a bevy of global locales by means of deception, disguise, and good ol’ fashioned violence.
Veterans of the Hitman series will be right at home here. Sneaking up behind enemies to strangle them or knock them out with chloroform are leaves taken straight out of the Square Enix book. Unfortunately they won’t find the same finesse they’ve become accustomed to. Alekhine’s movement doesn’t feel nearly as tuned or polished as Agent 47’s. In fact, most of the time players don’t have to sneak at all (and trust me, they really don’t want to). Sticking objects to hide behind is not only glitchy, but it’s even difficult to maneuver after assuming cover. Thankfully, the game’s disguise system allows players to assume the identities of those they’ve felled, but it’s exceptionally liberal, allowing players to enter otherwise-restricted or hostile territory without so much as a second glance from passersby. Unfortunately, unlike other stealth titles, if the player is discovered it’s next to impossible to throw off the unforgiving AI’s scent. Enemies are like bloodhounds, following the player clear across the map without so much as slowing down. Not only is there nowhere to run, but there’s nowhere to hide either. There’s no hiding mechanic to wait out the storm and breaking the enemy’s line of sight won’t help out in a full blown alert. Be warned, if you die during a mission, you have to restart at the very beginning because there are no checkpoints or autosaves.
Manual saves exist at any point, but there are also multiple missions to complete in each level which make the player’s only reprieve from constant replay frustratingly dated.
Each level, players can be tasked with eliminating multiple targets, capturing hostages and wire-tapping all in the same mission area, which means that once a player does manage to shake the wonky and overly-aggressive AI long enough to complete a task, they then have to remember to pause and save. There’s not even a reminder to save between each mission. It’s these kind of oversights that keep Alekhine’s Gun stuck in the last century. Sadly, this isn’t the only thing that’s keeping it behind the times.
The title looks visually dated in nearly every aspect. Character models are stiff and jerky. Little nuances in character animation and other details are things that the champions of the industry have made staples of the modern age, and they are almost all absent here; facial expression and mouth movement synchronous to dialog are advances that lend immersion and life to contemporary game avatars that it’s hard to do without now. These shortcomings, in addition to the blocky and hitched movement, make the models of Alekhine’s Gun feel lifeless. Exacerbating the missing visual underpinnings, here is a bland overworld with few visually pleasing environments. Though the locations players visit are full of potential, their uninspired design worsens the vapid aesthetic. The one reprieve from this visual drought is the textures. Small details like cobbled stone pathways and grains running through wooden beams are a notable contrast to the rest of the animation work. It’s a shame that the same can’t be said for level design.
Maps are cumbersome at best, and labyrinthine at worst. The only standard tool to aid players with navigation is a minimalist compass in the top left-hand corner of the HUD. It displays the cardinal direction the player is headed, along with each of their objectives in order of priority. It helps to give a general direction of the next task, but it’s a poor substitute for the full-blown mini-map the game limits access to. To use the mini-map, players will have to tap the controller’s right shoulder button. Doing this activates an espionage mode that reveals which enemies are suspicious of the player, makes adversarial lines of sight visible on the mini-map and shows objectives within the player’s immediate vicinity a la the Metal Gear series. It’s exceptionally helpful in making sense of the disorienting maps, but depletes rapidly and doesn’t replenish over time. This means that for the lion’s share of the time, the location of the player’s goals are largely left in the dark, which makes sneaking around an unintuitive pain. Confusing environments and clunky gameplay mean that players will rely on those inconvenient save states to replay parts of each level multiple times. It artificially lengthens the game in a way that is, frankly, just tiring and brings the pacing of the entire narrative down.
The story of Alekhine’s Gun, as noted earlier, is rooted in the strained ties between America and Russia that started to simmer during their collaborative efforts to take down Nazi Germany, and bubbled over completely due to the nuclear arms race that ignited the Cold War. It’s an historically-rich time period defined by tension and mistrust that a narrative of this era should thrive on. Yet, Maximum Game’s thriller is a bit of a lame duck, in this regard too. It doesn’t completely miss the mark, but it’s largely saved by the style with which it presents the story and not the narrative writing itself. It’s a palatable enough plotline, but the real achievement are the cutscenes illustrated with noir-style charcoal sketches. They help to lend the air of espionage and period tension to the game, when the gameplay and the story simply don’t.
The ho-hum narrative, interspersed with frustratingly backwards gameplay and visually unimpressive surroundings make Alekhine a game to approach with caution. Its ideas are solid; a noir suspense thriller complemented with stealth action gameplay, and topped off with historically rich narrative. It’s a good premise that a few quick changes, like allowing players a constant mini-map, fleshing out character movement and implementing modern staples (such as auto-saving and checkpoints) could have made the game more enticing and less of a slog, without requiring much development work; that would have paid dividends in player experience.
Unfortunately Alekhine’s Gun (like its storyline) remains trapped in an age gone by.