Being aged 28 and British I have little to no knowledge of the Cold War. It’s something I know is referenced a lot in films and something I know is brought up by lazy journalists every time Russia is naughty, but other than that my experience is limited. To me the whole thing was international dick swinging contest held between Russia and the US, though as opposed to using their real sausages they went abstract and showed off their nuclear war heads. In CounterSpy you get to live those heady times and enjoy all the propaganda and scare mongering that comes with it through action/stealth platforming.
In CounterSpy you play as an agent who works for “C.O.U.N.T.E.R.” the most obviously named counter intelligence agency in the world, that being said at no point did I see the game tell me what C.O.U.N.T.E.R stood for, my guess is “Cool Outfit Uncle Nigel Top Elegant Ruff”. As an agent of C.O.U.N.T.E.R. you aren’t attached to either political party within America or Russia, or as this tactful game calls them “The Imperialists” and “The Socialists”. The two super powers are in a race to the moon, unfortunately it’s not with dogs in space suits or earth worms, instead they’re playing a game of chicken and the first to blink will be sending a nuke up to the cheese ball in the sky. C.O.U.N.T.E.R. doesn’t want this, and sees the best way to deal with this imminent threat is to break into numerous Imperialist and Socialist bases and sabotage equipment and steal plans for the launch. Once you have reached a certain number of launch plans you have won the game.
Your character, the agent, who is oddly reminiscent of Frankenstein from 1975’s Death Race 2000, must break into these bases and grab plans, intel, memos, new weapon designs and formulas. Formulas and Weapon blueprints come in the same way, when you find a safe on the level you gain a piece of a plan, once you’ve completed the plan you can then purchase it from the shop you access at the start of each level. The game is based around Defcon ratings, if you die in a level, get caught or just generally screw up the Defcon level lowers, get it down to 1 and that’s game over, the world is destroyed with nukes.
There are 3 ways to get your Defcon back to a reasonable level, for sake of ease just think of Defcon ratings as lives. The first way to get them down is to complete a level, you could also use a formula that costs a fair amount of money to lower it by one. Finally some levels contain high-ranking officers, generally wearing white uniforms, if there are any on your level you can kill everyone except them in a room and point your gun at them, once they surrender your level lowers.
At the start of each in-game ‘day’ you have a choice of going and doing a mission in the US or Russia, each will display perks, one may have $2000 of intel but the other has 2 weapon plans within it, strategy is a must at this point, some may have 1 plan and other missions have 4. Once you have collected all the plans the game sends you to whichever country has the highest Defcon rating, at which point you must complete a long and tough level without rockets being fired and sabotage a nuke.
This game is made to be replayed, it’s like Dead Rising or Spelunky or any other numerous games that are perspectively short but long if you allow them to be. I completed the game in an evening, I only died twice in the whole game and didn’t lose a continue, however there were many moments where I sat for a few minutes waiting for a pattern of guards to go in my favour to allow a silenced bullet to take someone out. Once you’ve finished normal difficulty the next one unlocks, all weapons are removed from your possession, however you keep the blueprints so you just need to save up to re-buy them again. Weapons range from pistols to shotguns to machine guns, my personal favourite is the shotgun with a silencer on it, one shot with that deals with most in a wonderfully quiet way.
Counterspy keeps controls to the most simple, I played through the entire campaign on Vita and all the different controls felt perfectly mapped. Often when playing cross-buy games you will notice the lack of L2 and R2 as the developer shoe horns in some touch screen element. CounterSpy thankfully doesn’t suffer from this. The whole experience felt fluid and despite some issues with the enemy detecting you when coming up for a stealth take down, I didn’t put this down to the system, just the programming. When you’re behind cover the camera moves from a 2D platformer angle to a 3rd person shooter, from here you can line up your headshots and pick people out from cover. If you aim your gun outside of cover a laser guides you as to where your bullet will hit. Technically the 2D would be easier to kill enemies with as you have less variables, unfortunately your body can only take so many new holes before you drop.
The game uses a mixture of styles to get its image across; namely propaganda, Pixar and Jazz. The whole game screams cartoon and eccentricity but it also has a number of little details that really make it. Like with a number of games these days you could easily miss a lot of the fun if you’re not paying attention, but if you care to look at things like the posters in the background they really have an awesome style and humour about them. All the characters are exaggerated and tall, the areas are all pastel colours, the player runs like a cartoon character, the whole experience is there to entertain.
The game jumps between styles of music, more often than not it’s playing the soundtrack you would want; 1960’s jazz. If you imagine a 1960’s American spy movie you’ll no doubt have a certain type of music instinctively appear in your mind, yeah, it’s that music in this game. When starting the Socialist levels and during certain scenes you are treated to some traditional Russian music, unfortunately this does occasionally remind you that this was a real-time and there were real threats. It’s easy to let this game pull the wool over your eyes and make you forget about its inspirations, and when you do snap out of the Imperialist and Socialist namings you’re reminded even more. The game isn’t in bad taste by any stretch, but for something that tries not to offend or remind players of the history you can’t help but be more aware of it when the game slips up.
The game uses procedurally generated maps meaning you, in theory, shouldn’t get the same base twice, though you may see awfully familiar locations across your play through. The main problem with procedural games is that it is more than telling the game what to do, the developer needs to give it lots of things not to do. One area this failed numerous times for me was when I would walk through a door into a soldier, completely blowing my cover. Being spotted before an entrance animation has finished is annoying as you haven’t even had time to assess where the nearest cover is before your health is three-quarters gone.
When you start a level you are shown how many plans there are to collect. To my amazement I couldn’t find anywhere whilst playing to tell you how many you have left to collect. This is most annoying when you’re trying to decide whether to bother looking for all the hidden air vents or rooms littered around each military base. In most games pressing pause would bring up at least a hint of how you’ve done on the current level, unfortunately in CounterSpy you’re left mostly in the dark as to your in game progress.
CounterSpy is a game that has nailed the presentation, but needs just a bit of polish to be a classic game. Please don’t read that as me not enjoying the game, I completed it one and a half times in one sitting as I was so into it, I just wish there was a little bit more. The levels design is great and the different enemies work well as fodder, but I sometimes wished I had objects to throw to distract or maybe simple gadgets to use. At first I thought Dynamighty may have avoided this to keep realism, then I remembered the nuking the moon thing and that I used a formula that made me 40% more healthy. This is a pick up and play game, it works perfectly on the Vita and if you buy it close to launch then PS Plus members get 20% off. It’s a fun game with good progression and an interesting difficulty level increase as you play through. It may not be a game to take over the world but if you’ve enjoyed Shadow Complex, Metroid or any rogue like game then there’s a good chance this game could give you a fun ride, just a shame that ride could be on a nuke to the moon.