For obvious reasons, Berlin has been the settings of countless pieces of spy fiction across different media. A separated city, the western part being an island inside the eastern block. It therefore easily dethroned the former champion Istanbul in this genre. Thoughts of Funeral in Berlin or The Quiller Memorandum came to mind when I first booted up.
The intro in newsreel style sets the scene, the accompanying audio coming from the audio tape found in the box. The second World War has just ended few years ago. Now that the common enemy was defeated, the blockade of West Berlin put the final nail in the coffin of the former alliance between east and west. The ad-hoc airlift spelt resistance and the conflict could have easily gone 'hot'. As we know from today's history books, things remained in Cold War state for decades, but plans for the seemingly inevitable surely were ready on both sides.
In the fictional setting of the game, the US army has smuggled a nuclear bomb into the city. Of course for the sole purpose of being prepared. Erm… Just that then, they sort of lost it. Erm… CIA agent Sam Porter is tasked to retrieve it again, while staying under the radar as far as possible.
The beginning is rather straightforward. Inside his wallet, Sam finds a first contact address, which then sends him on to the next location and so on and so forth. This, however, already illustrates the inherent issue of this approach to the genre: how to make this neither trivial, nor impossible? If the next location is always explicitly handed to the player on a silver plate, things turn too simple. This probably being the reason why the plot contains a couple of break points where follow-up is not quite obvious. Berlin being a large, busy city, finding the next lead by chance is hardly possible. Even more than in his previous game, designer Ralph Stock (who later came to fame with Mad TV) attempts to simulate a large game world in which the player has to locate the plot threads by herself, identify them as relevant and follow them.
In abstract terms, this could be perceived as quite realistic. If there were a concrete lead, Sam's mission may not even be needed. Anyway, a real criminal investigation likely consists of fumbling around in the dark for most of it. Just that this isn't reality and it shouldn't be. Good spy thrillers follow another approach. They tell their story in a compact manner and don't care much about realism. In the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock: the audience will accept anything, no matter how unlikely, if they are well entertained.
The game takes quite an effort to make the locations interesting. The city comes to life through the strolling pedestrians, the omnipresent soldiers of different nations, the talkative taxi drivers, the black markets and the queues in front of the empty stores. This makes roaming around intrinsically interesting. Just that in the sense of actually solving the game, it remains untargeted.
After picking up a lead again, you will come to appreciate the stronger hinting which again follows. One clue leads to another, until the next stumbling point. In any case, genre appropriately, the main in-game currency is information. The unintuitive, but quite powerful interface allows for very detailed questioning of other characters. Objects are often just examined instead of taken. The city map is a constant necessity and even the audio tape is used another time to have an essential piece of the puzzle. Taking down your own notes is expected anyway.
Qualities on paper may be there, but nevertheless, the game simply remains too mechanical. All too much time is wasted assembling questions from long lists of building blocks. Outside the specific solution path, characters hardly ever provide anything of interest in return. This helps solvability as red herrings are avoided, but makes interaction even more tedious and boring. Even when you learn something, there is still the task of actually finding the mentioned locations. The rather small screen doesn't exactly help. Taxis taking you directly to the desired address only appear randomly, unless you happen to be close to a call box. Whereas taxis never seem to be there when needed, other vehicles or passers-by most certainly will block your way when trailing a suspect (which becomes the main activity in the second half of the game). Similarly annoyingly, it is not completely ensured for critical events to occur at the right time and in the right order. This, of course, is due to the real-time approach. The world doesn't stand still waiting for the protagonist. Once again realistic, but not necessarily helping motivation.
On the whole, it is all rather so-so. The theme is great, aspiration is high (just think how far Stock has come since Stein der Weisen!), production values are extensive – nevertheless, it just falls apart, it's all too mechanically fussy to really draw you in. By today's standards, after decades of attention span erosion, this is even less acceptable than back then.