Saturday, June 23, 2018

'I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike': An Overlooked Masterpiece

A long time ago when video games were gaining newer grounds among worldwide entertainment mediums, they were becoming less arcade-oriented and more cinematic-inspired in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the Call of Duty franchise came to exist. One of these video game franchises was the Project I.G.I. series that only spawned two video games, both developed by the Norwegian-based late Innerloop Studios.

The first video game itself was described by the developers as "GoldenEye 007 on Windows PC," bearing the difficulties of a hard-edged first-person shooter (minus the blood and gore a la Wolfenstein and Doom, for instance) while involving a plot centering around military espionage. It challenges the player to move quick, think strategically, and fire the weapon accurately without being reckless as the enemies are themselves quite the marksmen. Each level has to be completed in one go where mid-game saves do not exist. Although, it did garner a lot of fans back in the day, the game received mixed reviews from the critics for a number shortcomings including the aforementioned lack of save option and a multiplayer mode that is demanded by the general audience of the video gaming world. Project I.G.I.: I'm Going In was published 15 December 2000 by the late Eidos Interactive, whose current parent company, Square Enix, hold the rights to this particular title.

Three years later, we've had a sequel to the millennium game, that is vastly updated from its previous effort, adding more agility, a lot of functionalities and further induced development and programming into the heart of the project. I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike arrived on the shelves on 3 March 2003 by the same development team, albeit with a different publisher - Codemasters. A game that was different yet the same, although better - a debatable matter among the fans - as it introduces new arrays of strategies that would lead the player to tackle each of the levels, objectives and given missions. But, of course, the game's military strategy and other set of technicalities were consulted by ex-SAS officer and Bravo Two Zero survivor turned author and novelist Chris Ryan. A fact that's very apparent in this game and why is it so great (perhaps even better) compared to many stealthy shooters that came before and after, hence the sub-title as it suggests "covert strike."

The story sees the return of I.G.I.'s most trustworthy agent, and ex-SAS operative David Jones who is sent to collect stolen modified EMP device smuggled from NATO by the Russian Mafia in and around the Carpathian mountains and Romanian borders, but overtime he discovers that things are not as they seem, having himself caught amidst the crossfire as he hovers around the globe, evading the dangers of betrayal in the process, and uncovers a plot by Chinese rogue military General to start World War III. And it's up to Jones to prevent the chaos.

The gameplay reflects on realism, albeit differently than the likes of Call of Duty gave birth to at the time. You, as the player character, are allowed to carry one primary weapon, one secondary weapon, a combat knife (always present by default), a hand grenade and sometimes other optional instruments of kill and first-aid kit rarely making appearances. Equipped with a GPS map tablet computer (called map computer, a product of its time), you can observe and decide where to make the attack or sneak in if you want it stealthy. Putting on the complete undetected stealth mode requires a lot of experience. But, if you're going to burst in with full attack mode, you are going to have to be very quick. Especially when confronting the Chinese troops face to face. Their level of accuracy in marksmanship is very high.

Now, what is my opinion of this video game? Let's see...

It is designed rather greatly, if I'm quite honest. Chris Ryan's influence on how to infiltrate a base, engage with the enemy (or disengage for the matter), balance your accuracy and learn to control your subtlety is evident throughout the experience. It is up to the player to dictate one's own movements and method in a sandbox map, allowing you to move around the area in your preferred order, delude the enemy, and pave the way in for your own advantage if you play your cards right. It's a lot more atmospheric, in my opinion, than the first installment, and draws the world around you as if it were real. Imagine the experience in virtual reality, it could be a commando's survival simulator, if you will, as opposed to its predecessor which relied on the player's accuracy and quickness of the hand - namely, a generic shooter (albeit a great one!). I could describe David Jones as a more "hands-on and gloves-off Sam Fisher" minus the acrobatic agility and the nightvision goggles.

Each mission one tackles places the player in circumstances where somewhat of a huge responsibility has to be taken, if one isn't an expert in the game. I myself am not an expert, despite my years of playing the game since it came out. A large part of what makes this game fun is that you are given the option to be rewardingly stealthy, but it would require a huge amount of patience, bravery and strategical thinking for you to go through with it. Otherwise, you could play the game just like Project I.G.I.: I'm Going In, blast the doors open, and leap in with guns blazing, provided you're as careful and quick as you were in the first game. As for me, I fall in the middle - Half stealthy, half confrontational, depending on my situation.

What also makes the game outstanding in its tone is Kim Jensen's music as I stated above who has upped his game and gave every level its own specific track which could get to your nerves and spawn anxiety if you will - the fear of getting caught. That is, of course, if you are to take the game seriously, which I do. Without the soundtrack, half of the game's fun aspect would be taken away, truthfully speaking. For a spy experience, you need quite the ambiance to keep you away from the fourth wall and treat the missions accordingly, it's supposed to be haunting even for someone as professional as David Jones. Then, there's also one element in each of the levels (well, most of them, anyway) I rather like - in each of their beginnings, the first thing the player sees is the landscape overview of the map from afar, and the world around it is silent, thus paving you the way in for an atmospheric infiltration.

A sample of the soundtrack by Kim Jensen - I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike main theme

...And then, there's that one specific level set at the Romanian borders where you are to evade hordes of hostile border patrols with Dragunov sniper rifles. Good Heavens! That's one level where you can't simply barge in with full action commando execution and let your gunbarrel flash its muzzle. It's even more petrifying than its namesake from the previous game (both called "Border Crossing") where you start off with no weapon but your combat knife.

Overall, while the first game is a tactical shooter, this one is a strategically stealthy shooter. Personally, I prefer the latter. The storyline for Covert Strike is also more appealing to my tastes, as I could see it easily being a James Bond thriller, something that is indeed noticeable this time around in the characterization of David Jones who differs quite than that of his previous incarnation. No disrespect to the great Philip Morris (Jones's voiceover in the first) in the slightest, but I do like Boris Sosna better as I find him more suited to the veteran ex-SAS turned IGI covert operative character with his deep voice and the confidence that oozes in the lines he delivers without overdoing it. Then again, being a lifelong Bond fan myself, I do like Jones better as a Bond-like rather than something akin to a young and yet-inexperienced Jason Statham type. While I love Project I.G.I.: I'm Going In very dearly, the second game is by far higher in my book as it is in my top five spy video games list (all of them being shooters, mind?) that I yearly revisit, at least once.

Is there a future for this series? Luckily, yes. Sometimes, good things come to those who wait, as they say. Video games developer studios named Artplant purchased the intellectual property regarding Project I.G.I. as well as the character of David Jones and others in January, last year. Artplant is in itself founded by former employees of the now-defunct Innerloop Studios, who officially announced that a third game in the series, named Project I.G.I.: We're Going In is already in development as of May 2017. While the general fans of the franchise prefer the first game by a wide margin over the second, I personally hope the third installment is akin to I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike which is more atmospheric, in my opinion. We're yet to get a first look at the third game or any reports for the matter. But, Artplant revealed that it will continue building up on the feature of "the freedom the series has become known for." Well, I can hardly wait!

Thank you for reading! Feel free to discuss the topic below!

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