Moment of Truth is an apt subtitle for this stealthy sequel to 2007's Death to Spies--because every move you make is, indeed, a moment of truth. Leaving a corpse where it can be seen, getting caught picking a lock, and sometimes just walking into the wrong room can mean sudden death in this incredibly challenging third-person sneaker. Yet when every bungled deed can lead to an untimely demise, success is all the more rewarding, because while oft-amazing AI makes tiptoeing about highly difficult, the action doesn't usually feel unfair. That doesn't mean, however, that every death feels appropriate. There are occasions in Moment of Truth when gameplay contrivances and a lack of information lead you right to the grim reaper's front door, and you are powerless to avoid his scythe. Nevertheless, there's a satisfying ebb and flow to the game, where long periods of tension are relieved in a single sigh when you accomplish an important objective.

The setup is similar to that of the original Death to Spies. You're a member of SMERSH, the Russian predecessor to the infamous KGB, and you spend most of the game slinking around Nazis and assassinating vital targets. In some ways, this is a typical stealth game: you watch patterns of enemy movement closely while looking for ways to sneak past them, creep up behind them and slit their throats with a single slice of your knife, and steal their clothing so you can disguise yourself and roam among your foes. Eventually, you'll discover a number of clever ways to accomplish your objectives. For example, in one level, you must eliminate an important target. One way of doing so is to infiltrate a medical office, where you can strangle a doctor from behind in a restroom stall. Disguised as the doc, you can then enter the examination room where your victim waits for medical attention. The treatment you administer, of course, is much bloodier than he expects. Following your target about reveals other options; discovering them takes a keen eye and a little bit of brainpower.

Unfortunately, the cutscenes and voiced objectives that precede each level don't offer much context for your deeds. The story doesn't matter, and you'll never know much about your own character, which is too bad, because the setup hints at intriguing possibilities. Yet where the deficient narrative leaves some gaping holes, the excellent visual atmosphere will help draw you in. Moment of Truth isn't a showcase for modern technology, but it looks moody and oppressive. Most environments look as if the color has been sucked out of them, which doesn't sound attractive, but it works. For example, the sepia-tinged fourth level is like an old photograph come to life, so it feels as though you are reliving a fading memory while you play. While there are some moments when the light flickers and fades in unusual ways, the softness of the sunlight as it shines through windows is attractive, and the lighting in general looks terrific. The stiff character models and their expressionless glares won't impress you, however, nor will their constant silence. Moment of Truth is a very quiet game, so touches like the music from a creaky phonograph are effective. However, the tension levels could have been further elevated with stronger sound design, and here, the game falters.

That doesn't mean, however, that you won't be chewing your fingernails down to nothing. Moment of Truth is excruciatingly difficult, so it is by no means recommendable to anyone who hasn't played a stealth game before. And even if you have, you may not be prepared for the challenge ahead of you. The artificial intelligence is insanely smart, and it reacts in interesting and authentic ways to your actions. For example, you can change into your victims' clothing, assuming you haven't torn his apparel up with bullets. Should you dress as a mechanic, you may not be able to enter certain areas without arousing suspicion. If guards discover your identity, they'll pass on the word, so you won't be able to stay in that disguise forever. And if you off a high-ranking officer, you can't roam about freely, because everyone will be able to distinguish you as an impostor almost immediately. Once caught, whether it be from poor fashion choices or because you were seen with a garrotte in your hand, a few shots from an enemy or two lead to certain demise.

You won't be dealing with a single enemy most of the time. Your foes are everywhere, and they don't necessarily wander in easy-to-recognize patterns, so you need to pay close attention to cues like vision cones on your minimap. Should the alarm be raised, hordes of heavily armed officers will swarm about, and it's not easy to escape their wrath. However, you will discover that once firearms are involved, enemies become significantly dumber, especially indoors. They're pretty good with grenades, which have an almost impossibly large range of effectiveness. But when they're gazing down their sights, Nazis will run about aimlessly or position themselves in odd ways when they could have simply fired. In some cases, you can hide in a box or behind cover and pick them off as they try to figure out how to react. Moments like these are jarring, and in a few levels, the potential slaughter is so extreme that the floor may be covered with bodies.

The levels are intelligently laid out, which gives you a chance to approach situations in a number of ways and tackle your objectives in any order. Of course, this also means you will be frequently saving and reloading as you experiment with the tools of your trade. Every action comes with a potentially fatal consequence, and when you fail, it's usually your own fault; you just need to do better. There are occasions, however, when Moment of Truth doesn't give you enough information to go on. For instance, you might enter an area only to have your backpack examined; if you don't have the proper pass to avoid inspection, you'll be shot to death when your identity is discovered. Yet the game doesn't let you know this is a possibility, which means you'll be loaded with lead very quickly. From the total lack of a tutorial to a few unclear mechanics, Moment of Truth does a poor job of communicating with you.

Death to Spies: Moment of Truth is a nerve-wracking and often fulfilling experience that will give you a headache with its highly difficult stealth action--and cure it every time you successfully leap a seemingly impossible hurdle. The absence of narrative context and mission inconsistencies keep it from reaching its potential, and its tough-as-nails difficulty slams the door in the face of stealth novices. If you're resolute enough to withstand the challenge, however, you'll emerge from a play-through feeling victorious.