• Secret Service Review - Microsoft Xbox360

    Secret Service shares a lot of similarities with Cauldron's other budget FPS offering, Soldier of Fortune: Payback. Whereas that title meshed its various elements together to provide a satisfying, if niche, experience this release is an altogether more lacklustre affair. Players take on the role of Agent Pierce, part of the President's security detail, on the day that a combined assassination attempt and terrorist attack are made on the American capital. The player is taken all the way from the Lincoln Memorial to the White House and even Air Force One as they try to unravel the conspiracy before them.
    The opening level makes some impressive use of the DC skyline.
    The opening level makes impressive use of the DC skyline.
    If this sounds exciting, don't get your hopes too high, because for most of Secret Service's campaign the potential and promise of these environments and settings are squandered in favour of low-rent underground tunnels and identikit corridor sequences. Proceedings start out fairly strong with an opening level that sees the player alongside their fellow agents, holding off waves of adversaries from the top of the aforementioned Memorial steps. It actually lives up to the strong iconography and drama of one of the world's most famous landmarks but afterwards the player is thrust into a series of bland, uninspired level designs as they explore dreary office spaces and repetitive, grey tunnel networks. There's an overarching lack of grandeur or interesting architecture, with no strong sense of place to these locations. As such, most of the locales feel generic and plain, the colour palettes are extremely limited and many of the levels could really be anywhere in the world for all the use they make of the source material. Even the White House and Oval Office are limited in scope, with only brief escapades through the gardens to break up yet more office space monotony.

    Granted it's a budget development and as such the scope for large-scale outdoors environments is limited but that doesn't excuse such plain, basic geometry. The texture sets do include some very nicely rendered stonework, complete with high quality shaders, which could have been used to far greater effect, without increasing the art budget, just by crafting some more detailed interior designs to place them in. It's perfectly possible to create tunnels and bunkers without resorting to flat, boxy corridor constructions at every turn. And this is the core tenet of the problem, repetition not only in texture use and level decoration, but in the very geometry itself. Yes the game has it's moments visually, with beautifully polished granite flooring, intricately normal mapped flock wallpaper and highly detailed floor coverings but these few pieces are repeated over and over in the course of a level, there's no variety. Disappointing though this is, it's the basic AI coupled with the repetitive design choices that really kill the playability.
    Some nice texturing can't hide the overall blandness.
    Some nice texturing can't hide the overall blandness.
    The enemy intelligence is limited, there are pre-configured firing positions which, if empty, the enemies will move to fill, otherwise they just wait until the player enters the field of view. There's not a whole lot of verticality to combat and due to the restrictive nature of level design most of the time play breaks down to a sequence of popping your head around the corner of a corridor, taking out a couple of guys and hopping back to wait for your health to recover. You can even get away with a little of that old-school behaviour of peeking slightly out and shooting some enemies in the shoulders or arms while they stand there motionless with no reaction.

    Barring the basic pistol there's rarely any need to even change the guns that you are using. Combat is all of the close-ranged variety and ammunition is extremely plentiful, it's rare to run to less than four clips at any one time. Except for one level, where the player is instructed to use their stun gun for US personnel, you're left with the same combat scenarios repeating themselves on a loop for the story's duration.

    There's also a serious issue with the controls - they lack precision. There's far too high a degree of inertia to the analogue stick movements, regardless of whether or not you have your iron sights up. When the screen does start to turn the velocity almost immediately jumps up way too much. So you go from slow, lethargic aiming to wide, sweeping turns with nothing in between. The same lack of responsiveness is manifested in the sprint controls where the player must both push the left stick forward and keep it clicked in for the entire duration of the run. The end result is not only that it's very hard to make quick, accurate movements but that a lot of the time the game feels like you are moving through treacle, each input is a force of effort on your behalf. Thanks to the somewhat redundant enemy AI, the regenerating health system and the lack of too many open spaces these issues don't actually make the game overly hard in any way but it still feels uncomfortable all the same.
    This makes up far too much of the game.
    This makes up far too much of the game.
    So the combat doesn't have anything going for it, the levels feature the odd piece of nice texturing but are overall far too repetitive, there's no multiplayer and the plot (delivered via some Call of Duty style segways), although featuring a reasonable degree of misdirection, isn't intricate enough to carry the rest of these failings. Cauldron have produced what is an extremely uninspiring first person shooter, but they also managed to slip in a single redeeming feature. It's small, usually only seen once or twice per level, but there's a hacking mini-game that's easily more fun than the entire of the rest of the package put together. A variant on a couple of traditional puzzle setups, the player is given a grid of circuit pieces with a single power source that must be linked to a number of chips on the playfield. This is done by rotating the various pieces to create branching paths and connections, with the added challenge that some pieces will trigger a game over if connected and some can't be rotated at all.

    The great thing about this is that the mode can be accessed in its own right from the title menu and is entirely configurable, crank all the settings up to the maximum and you get some well balanced, tense, rapid-fire puzzle action. The exploding cell pieces offer a nice element of risk that come into play on the harder settings, as they complement the harsher time limits well. It's refreshing to have so many options under the player's control for what in many games would have been treated as a more throwaway element, although it would have been a good idea to have also provided a more structured level sequence for players to work their way through.
    At least they won't have to repaint the wallpaper.
    At least they won't have to repaint the wallpaper.
    Coming off the back of SoF: Payback, Secret Service is very disappointing. The good elements of that game just aren't here and the developers have wasted the potential of their setting. There's no soul here, nothing to latch onto and leave an impression on the player. Even bad games tend to have something different about them, but Secret Service is utterly bland. You might not necessarily come away hating it, but even worse, you won't come away with any memorable feelings at all. Sure the puzzle mini-game is fun but it can't carry the entire package on its shoulders. With their Soldier of Fortune entry Cauldron delivered a product catered for the retro-shooter fan looking to relive a bit of old style fun, but with Secret Service they've delivered a Call of Duty also-ran and they just can't compete on that turf.
    Secret Service screenshot.
    First person shooter
    Xbox 360
    -Sophisticated puzzle mini-game.
    -Some nice texture work.
    -Serviceable story.
    -Plain environments.
    -Lacklustre AI and combat.
    -Extremely repetitive.
    Score: 4/10
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