Content Warning: The following article contains mentions of warfare.
With critically acclaimed titles such as Perfect Dark, GoldenEye 007, and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, it’s not surprising that the spy genre is one of the most significant video game sub-genres. Besides being enjoyable experiences, many of these games also changed history by introducing new gameplay mechanics and ideas.
But because the genre is so vast and there are many excellent titles, most spy games are often forgotten even if they’re worthwhile experiences. While they may not be on the level of Metal Gear Solid installments, titles like Alpha Protocol deserve at least one playthrough.
MySims Agents (2009)
Released as part of the sadly abandoned MySims series, a spin-off of The Sims franchise, MySims Agents is a 2009 mystery life simulation where players customize and control their own secret agent. Depending on whether it’s the Wii or DS version, the player will experience a brand new plot with different gameplay mechanics, but both versions have the player solve a major mystery.
In the Wii version, the player is a new special agent who must stop Morcubus and his evil company MorcuCorp from obtaining the Crown of Nightmares. To do this, players get their own headquarters that they can customize and they recruit agents that can help with various tasks. Meanwhile, the DS version has players control an agent who is sent to a small town to stop the infamous Thief V from stealing the town’s treasure.
Published by Adult Swim Games, Jazzpunk is a comedic first-person adventure game released in 2014 that takes place in a surreal cyberpunk alternate reality Cold War world. As the silent protagonist Polyblank, the player completes nonsensical missions for a spy agency located within an abandoned subway station.
While each mission has one main objective, players can explore the world and interact with the many NPCs instead. Though there are some gameplay elements and mini-games, the main focus of the game is simply to walk around and experience the many jokes along the way.
Known as Strider Hiryū in Japan, Strider is a 1989 hack-and-slash platformer that was originally released in arcades and later ported to multiple consoles. Set in a dystopian cyber-future in the year 2048, a dictator known as Grandmaster Meio has taken over the world. To defeat the Grandmaster, an organization of high-tech ninja agents known as “Striders” send in Hiryū, who is the youngest agent to reach the highest rank.
Shortly after its release, Strider was an award-winning success, and the game inspired other popular franchises such as Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, Mega Man, Street Fighter, and God of War. Over the years, Strider has had sequels and a reboot, and Hiryū has appeared in multiple fighting games.
Phantom Doctrine (2018)
Reminiscent of classic spy films, Phantom Doctrine is a 2018 turn-based tactical espionage thriller that takes place in an alternative 1980s Cold War setting. As either a former CIA or KGB agent, the player runs a secret organization known as The Cabal that’s trying to prevent a sinister plot conducted by the Beholder Initiative. Besides having turn-based battles that are either stealth or combat-focused, players also manage The Cabal’s hideout, interrogate enemies, investigate clues, and train agents.
Unlike the luck-based XCOM games, Phantom Doctrine relies on an “awareness” system rather than dice rolls, which means that a character’s level of awareness determines their ability to dodge attacks, take less damage, and perform special moves. Because players control every aspect of The Cabal, and the game has random elements, there’s plenty of replay value over not only the two main campaigns but also the extra campaign that’s unlocked after one playthrough.
Operation: Tango (2021)
Released in mid-2021, Operation: Tango is an asymmetric online co-op puzzle game where agent Angel and hacker Alistair B. Fleming must work together through several missions to defeat the evil criminal Cypher. In order to accomplish these missions, one player must be the agent while another player must be the hacker.
Since the players cannot see each others screens, they can only solve puzzles by properly communicating to one another about what they’re seeing. Although two players are required, only one person has to purchase the game while the other player just needs the Friend Pass.
Created with help from prior staff from LucasArts and Pixar, CounterSpy is a 2014 2.5D stealth side-scroller that takes place in an alternate Cold War timeline where the Imperialists and Socialists are having a space race to see who will nuke the moon first. The game has players control a spy as they move through procedurally generated levels, avoid getting noticed by enemies, collect secret plans, and shut down the weapons at the end of each level.
Inspired by 1960s spy fiction such as James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., this indie game has a distinctive cel-shaded art style and a comedic backbone that makes the entire experience fun and engaging. After each level, players can use the points they’ve earned to upgrade their character’s weapons and attributes.
Spy Chameleon – RGB Agent (2014)
Released in 2014, Spy Chameleon – RGB Agent is an indie top-down stealth-based arcade puzzle game where players control a chameleon who is also a secret agent. Since this mostly silent protagonist can change its color to blend in with the environment, they are known as an “RGB Agent.”
Using the RGB Agent’s color-changing ability, the player navigates through 75 levels and avoids getting noticed by the patrolling robots, cameras, and other obstacles in order to obtain valuable items such as a painting, celebrity photos, or a secret formula. Besides simply making it through the levels, players can also try to complete certain objectives, so each level has some replay value.
Quadrilateral Cowboy (2016)
Taking place in the same universe as the surreal critically acclaimed titles Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, Quadrilateral Cowboy is a 2016 first-person puzzle adventure game where the player is a hacker within a cyberpunk 1980s setting. Using the laptop-like hacking deck, the player helps one or more agents navigate through heist locations by typing in the proper computer codes in the DOS-esque interface.
Besides the main hacking abilities, the player slowly gains other gadgets that can be hacked and used in the heists, and the agents have their own special abilities. Since this game is much more straightforward compared to the previous two titles in the series, it’s more accessible to general audiences. For fans of those games, this installment still has the blocky art style that made those previous entries iconic.
Released in 2013, Gunpoint is a film noir-esque stealth-based puzzle platformer which has players control a freelance spy named Richard Conway, who specializes in infiltrating buildings. After Conway is framed for the murder of a potential client named Selena Delgado, he is hired by Selena’s boss, Melanie Rooke, to figure out what really happened and clear his name. But as he digs into this mystery, he slowly uncovers more than he bargained for.
During the game, the player uses various gadgets, such as spring-loaded pants that allow Conway to jump extremely high or far. But, the most important gadget is the Crosslink, which allows Conway to see and rewire the security within the buildings. For example, Conway can use the Crosslink to rewire a camera so that it opens a door when activated rather than sounding the alarm.
Alpha Protocol (2010)
Developed by Obsidian Entertainment, who are best known for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, Fallout: New Vegas, and Pillars of Eternity, and published by Sega, Alpha Protocol is a 2010 action RPG that was inspired by iconic spy protagonists such as James Bond and Jason Borne. At the titular United States black ops agency Alpha Protocol, players control a new agent named Michael Thorton.
After his first assignment, Thorton is forced to become a rogue agent to uncover an international conspiracy. Depending on the player’s choices, Thorton will have different relationships with different characters, and the plot will be drastically affected. Also, players can slightly customize Thorton’s appearance and greatly customize his abilities, which leads to varying styles of gameplay that range from pure stealth to brutal action. Overall, Alpha Protocol is possibly one of the most realistic and in-depth games within the spy genre.
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