Counterspy is certainly unique. Take a bit of stealth-based strategy, a bit of decent gunplay, and a unique, 2.5D art style set in the Cold War era, and you get Counterspy. It’s not perfect, but it certainly an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours.
Counterspy puts you in control of a secret agent; a spy for the group C.O.U.N.T.E.R. Your goal is to stop the Imperialists and the Socialists from launching their nuclear missiles at the moon. You’re a third party, and you don’t fight for either side; you fight against them both. You simply realize that the loss of the moon would extinguish life on Earth, due to tide changes, gravitational pull, etc.
The story is a bit zany because it combines fact with fiction, reality with mythos, and truth with over dramaticized exaggeration. It mashes the U.S./Soviet Space Race with the Cold War, but it infuses that with the irrational fear many people held concerning the nuclear threat. Then, that’s even blown out of proportion by throwing in the fact that the powers in this game want to blow up the moon. I mean, really?
Needless to say, that set-up is interesting and just kooky enough to work. The actual story takes a bit of a back seat. You get that exposition, then the game tasks you with collecting enough intel to stop the launch. That’s really the extent of the storyline in Counterspy.
In each level, you have to either infiltrate an Imperialist or a Socialist base to secure intel such launch plans and codes. Along the way, you’ll be able to find weapon blueprints, other minor pieces of intel, and potion recipes. There are no set number of levels; instead, each one randomly generates, and each has a varied number of rooms, intel pieces, blueprint pieces, and so on. If a level is too tough, then maybe you’ll get lucky when it re-generates.
Usually, I’m not a fan of randomly generated environments, as they don’t work well and lack flair at times, but in Counterspy, it works quite well. I never saw two rooms that were the same, and the levels felt very unique and varied. I never felt as though I were repeating something I had already done. The execution there was great.
But each level isn’t barren of enemies, however. The varied levels are nice, but that means nothing without enemies. This is where Counterspy’s unique gameplay comes into effect. You’ll need to make your way through the base, room by room, collecting intel as you go. At the end of every base is a big computer station, at which you can take the base off alert and lower the DEFCON level.
The DEFCON level is essentially the game’s way of telling you how good of a spy you are. The default DEFCON level is three, but if you’re spotted, if enemies call for help, or if cameras see you, the level will rise. If it surpasses one, the base will go into panic mode, and a countdown timer will initiate. Then, you only have 60 seconds to rush to the control panel and deactivate the bomb.
This works so well because it actually creates an incentive to be stealthy. If you perform well and stay hidden, you’ll be able to snag every piece of data in the level, allowing for new weapons and the like. Screw up, and you might forfeit the whole mission and have to start it over. The punishment is just severe enough to be fair, and it’s appropriate for the task.
Counterspy isn’t all about hiding, however. You can press your luck by firing shots, but your character is pretty fleshy. You’ve got to be sure he’s not riddled with bullets, because it won’t take many for him to die. Each death raises the DEFCON level by one, so it isn’t an instant Game Over.
I found that timing my shots well was key. Often, I’d duck behind cover and study the guards’ movements. If I could time it so that none were facing me, I might use a silenced pistol to take out the one in the back of the pack. I’d work my way up from there, hopefully without being spotted. It didn’t always work, but it was effective enough. Of course, others may try rolling out, guns blazing with a machine gun in the hopes that they could take out most of the guards before they had the wit to counter-attack.
The game usually played out in the 2D plane, but hiding behind cover switches the camera to a 3D, third person mode for firing shots at foes more effectively. Hopping out of cover seamlessly throws the game back into the 2D, sidescrolling mode for better traversal of the level. It’s easier to find all the pathways in this form.
I did find myself having issues with the game from time to time, however. At times, the AI would be quite smart and attentive. Other times, they would be pretty dumb. At times, they’d spot me as soon as I entered a room, other times, I could duck to the exit without being noticed. Even my younger brother noticed that they magically managed not to hear the cock of a gun right behind their heads. Oh well.
On top of that, the game is quite short. I was able to roll through it in under three hours. That’s a shame because the gameplay was fun while it lasted. If it had been made into a full length game, then it could have easily thrown in new challenges and gameplay ideas to really create a full, complete experience. Counterspy instead felt more like a tech demo or a preview for a game rather than a full title. It launched on home consoles and phones (plus Vita), so I would have to recommend it more for a mobile game to pass the time as opposed to a serious console title.
As I mentioned before, part of Counterspy’s luster is in its unique art style. At the menus, the game utilizes some of the fonts stereotypical of the day; you know, the ones you always see on the old advertisements of the 50’s and 60’s. Heck, the screen even gets a simulated curve like the old CRT televisions and so on. The screen even has a slight static-like, fuzzy crackle of pixels every now and again while still retaining today’s screen resolution. It’s a wonderful throwback.
In-game, the character models feature the tall and lanky art-style fancied “back in the day.” The walls feature propaganda posters, and the computers are hulking beasts, as they should have been at that time. All in all, it captures the feel of the Cold War era while still feeling fresh and new. The soundtrack for Counterspy performs similarly; it sounds straight out yesteryear, so I love that as well.
At the end of the day, Counterspy is fun. The formula is entertaining and enjoyable in many ways, yet it is too short and often unpredictable. I think the game has more potential than it really displayed, and it stopped itself from being anything more than an average title because of this. Short length and iffy AI are the main reasons that I give Counterspy a 7 out of 10.
Don’t get me wrong: Counterspy is fun, and I’d definitely play a sequel. It’s just not a game I’ll rave about to friends.