With so many games centered around War, it’s nice to see CounterSpy take a much more lighthearted approach to the subject matter. With a fantastic aesthetic and cool conceptualization, CounterSpy seemed like an impressive little indie. It’s quirky and fun, but ultimately a flawed experience.
The game focuses on a secret agent who is dropped behind enemy lines as part of an operation for C.O.U.N.T.E.R., a spy agency that isn’t affiliated with any government but is rather designed to prevent countries from destroying the world. How are they going to kill us all? By firing nukes at the moon, of course. Your job is to acquire all the launch plans hidden throughout the levels to eventually sabotage their launches and save the world. Preposterous, but there have been worse premises for games.
The first thing that is incredibly striking is the fantastic design used for the game. The art style is very classic 60s art with cell shading and propaganda posters that mirror our Bond-esque view of the period. It’s clear that the James Bond movies and other TV shows from the time were major inspirations for the game’s vision with a vivid color scheme and upbeat soundtrack. With Pop Art style posters indicating that spies aren’t welcome and plenty of nuclear imagery, Counterspy will probably make you smile at the ludicrous image we have of spying during the Cold War.
With the exception of the tutorial and the final mission, each level of the game is procedurally generated. This is actually brought up as a warning when starting up the game, something I laughed at initially – why would they need to give a warning of a feature of gameplay. However, while the procedural generation does add some variety to the game, it also serves to undermine some core gameplay mechanics.
At the start of each level, players choose if they will infiltrate the Imperialist or Soviet side of the Cold War. Apparently, they are using the same plans, so you can actually find out about missile launches regardless of which side you choose to spy on. As you are discovered, enemies can report in on your location and raise the Defcon level in that area. Defcon levels persist between missions, adding consequences to early mistakes; once enemies reach Defcon 1, the missile launch sequence starts and players have 60 seconds to stop the launch or they will lose the mission. These alert levels can only be reduced by forcing officers to surrender, or using a specific formula.
Formulas are enhancements that last for one mission and can greatly enhance player success rates. Personally, I ended up using Persuasion (the ability that lowers Defcon levels by one) and Precision Aim (an ability that allows players to take out armored cameras) the most. Formulas and weapons aren’t just served up on a platter, though. Players must find recipes for each, eventually spending valuable money to buy the weapons or craft the formulae.
Stealth is valued above run and gun in CounterSpy, with bonuses given to stealth kills or traversing the map undetected. However, due to the procedural generation, stealth was often impossible as I would open a door only to be immediately noticed by the five guards in the room. Unfortunately, there is much more wrong with the game.
Most of the time, CounterSpy is a 2D stealth platformer. As soon as you move into cover, it changes perspective, widening the view into a cover shooter style. While this is a really innovative idea, it simply doesn’t always work. Guards would often see me while in cover, or shoot at me from a background that was completely inaccessible. Staying out of a camera’s cone of sight would become seemingly random as in 2D view you couldn’t always see the 3D movement it would take.
Added to this were some serious AI issues. Guards might see me through levels at times, but not always. Some guards might become alerted to my presence when I was still supposed to be hidden, making the stealth unpredictable and unworkable. Additionally, the aiming and shooting was a bit unwieldy, adding to the frustration. While the game is still manageable, it certainly doesn’t feel like it works as a stealth game, or as a cover shooter.
Finally, the game is really rather short. I managed to complete it in just under three and a half hours; I would estimate that the average gamer would take between three and four hours to complete the game, perhaps a bit longer if they went for every collectible and achievement. It ends up feeling like quite an abrupt end. While you could play infinitely through the procedurally generated levels, it just starts to feel rather predictable after a while.