Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Sony PS Vita and Sony PlayStation 3
Many videogames in the past have tackled the subject of war, from storming the beaches on D-Day in Medal Of Honor: Frontline to Homefront’s depiction of a near-future military occupation of the USA. The early Call Of Duty games explored World War 2, the 2010 edition of Medal Of Honor brought us into the present day and delved into the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and finally games such as Titanfall are creating fictional wars for us to suit up and take part in. However, one factual war that is often overlooked is the Cold War, and CounterSpy attempts to change that, but with its own very unique twist.
CounterSpy is a 2D side-scrolling stealth game set in an alternate version of the Cold War, in which the Imperialists and the Socialists are both competing to launch a nuclear strike on the moon. Stuck in-between the two superpowers is the C.O.U.N.T.E.R agency who are tasked with preventing either side from launching an attack on the moon. You play as an agent from C.O.U.N.T.E.R, and it is your job to stop any nuclear weapons from launching. As an agent, the player will sneak through the bases of each superpower to try and steal their plans and sabotage their weapons, thus decreasing their chances of a successful launch. CounterSpy’s premise is certainly a unique one and we applaud it for that, a new and interesting take on war is always welcome in a market that consistently sees a fresh batch of first person shooters released every year.
One of the biggest aspects of CounterSpy’s gameplay is the DEFCON level, which has an ever increasing importance as you progress through the game. A DEFCON level represents a country’s expectancy of an attack, with DEFCON 1 being the highest and DEFCON 5 being the lowest. In CounterSpy your main objective in each mission is to make sure the DEFCON level isn’t raised while sneaking through each superpower’s base and stealing their nuclear plans. If an enemy spots you then they will attempt to raise the DEFCON level if you do not take them out, and if DEFCON 1 is reached, the player has sixty seconds to reach the end of the level. Failure to complete the mission will result in that superpower launching their nuclear attack on the moon, and thus the game is over. The DEFCON system is a great addition to CounterSpy as it makes the player question which which mission they should tackle next, because each superpower has its own DEFCON level which must both be lowered separately. The DEFCON system is something that is largely unexplored in videogames, so we commend Dynamighty’s attempt at recreating it in CounterSpy.
While the player sneaks around each superpower’s base, they will encounter a large number of enemies, and they can be taken out in a few different ways. You explore CounterSpy in 2D, however at the push of a button you can enter a 3D over the shoulder camera view when you enter cover. Here, you can eliminate enemies within your field of view with relative ease using the assortment of guns on offer. While this is a fun mechanic of CounterSpy that adds some much needed depth to its gameplay, unfortunately we did come across some problems. Your agent can only access this 3D view from behind a piece of cover, which can become a problem when an enemy is in the background of an environment. There were times when we were frantically searching for the single piece of cover that gave us access to the 3D view of the background to the environment, in which time we took significant damage and hindered our journey through the level. We think this aspect of CounterSpy could have been tweaked and refined a little to make for a smoother experience in finding that piece of cover you need to access the correct 3D view the player wants. Besides gunplay, our agent can also sneak up behind enemies and perform silent takedowns on them, eliminating them for good without alerting any other guards. Sadly CounterSpy’s stealth mechanics can also fall apart in certain situations, particularly when faced with an area full of enemies. In these situations it is almost impossible not to be spotted, at which point you must engage in combat, or run the risk of raising the DEFCON level. For a game that promotes stealth, these sections just feel unfair.
Every level in CounterSpy is randomly generated, which in theory means you’ll never experience the same level twice, but unfortunately this is where we encountered another flaw. About two thirds of the way through the game, we started to confront the same environments with the exact same enemy locations in a few levels. This let us down a little as the game started to feel a little repetitive at this point, taking out the same guards in the same location as we did a few levels back. To counter this repetition, each level has many hidden paths which lead to upgrades and enhancements for you to collect. Spread throughout levels are safes, which the agent can blow up and gain access to blueprints for new weapons and formulas. In between missions you can use these blueprints to craft new weapons and then spend the money you gained in missions in the weapon store, to better equip yourself for the next level. Along with new weapons, there are also new formulas which act as perks for your character. These range from a decrease in damage taken from enemy fire to the DEFCON level being lowered by one at the start of a mission, and three of these formulas can be equipped for each level. Both the new weapons and formulas become more important as you progress through the game, as enemies get tougher and more frequent.
Clearly one of CounterSpy’s most unique traits is its cel-shaded visual art style, and we loved it. The game is visually very striking and a joy to look at, which really makes it stand out as we see the rise of 2D indie games coming to consoles. To complement this, CounterSpy’s soundtrack fits the mood and the era it takes place in perfectly. As you traverse a level, you will be treated to music that very much reminds you of the 1960’s Bond movies such as Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. CounterSpy doesn't take itself too seriously, and this becomes apparent in the dialogue we see before and in between missions, which takes on a humorous tone as our agent cracks a few jokes here and there. CounterSpy tells its story through text boxes on screen, the same goes for all dialogue. This reminded us of a Metal Gear Solid codec call, except without the voice acting.
You amass points from everything you do in CounterSpy, from silently taking out an enemy to blowing up a safe and taking the blueprints inside, it’s all worth something. At the end of each level you will be given an overall score, which will then be put on the online leaderboard where you can compete for the top spot. As well as this, a random player just above you in the leaderboard will become your rival for the next mission. Here, you are tasked with beating your rivals score and if you do, they will appear as an enemy in your next mission and can be taken out for extra money and rewards. CounterSpy’s point system encourages the player to perform at their very best and to explore every nook and cranny of a level to gain every last point. We particularly enjoyed the rival system as it gave us a target to beat for each level and the rewards you get for taking out your rival in the following mission are more than worth the effort. We completed CounterSpy in just two hours, and we were disappointed when our journey came to an end. The only things to keep you coming back to the game are the online leaderboards and harder difficulties to play through, so it would have been nice to see a new mode to unlock upon completion of the game.
CounterSpy has a lot going for it, its unique take on the Cold War is one we very much enjoyed and the cel-shaded art style definitely caught our attention and demanded we admire it. However, a few too many annoyances got in our way of truly enjoying the game, such as the occasional awkward placement of an enemy and the unfair situations you can find yourself in when you are overwhelmed with guards. If these flaws had been refined and tweaked with just a little during development, CounterSpy could have been something truly fantastic.