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CounterSpy Review: The Cold War Turned Cool
Back in early October 2013, I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on a PS4 console.
It was part of a pre-release demo kiosk that had been assembled inside a local brick-and-mortar Sony store. The setup featured several pre-loaded clips for titles that were scheduled to be available on or around the console launch window. In between watching youngsters pound in dozens of goals playing the FIFA 14 demo, I remember completing a thorough run of all the video demos on the machine. From there, I can distinctly remember the day I was first introduced to the art deco stylings of CounterSpy.
CounterSpy is the maiden voyage title for developer Dynamighty, a small studio comprised primarily of ex-LucasArts and Pixar employees. First revealed to the world during E3 2013, CounterSpy ultimately sought to integrate the espionage tactics of James Bond, the competitive high score chase of an arcade game and blend it all together with a beautiful rendition of colorful Cold War propaganda. In an effort to maintain sensibility, Dynamighty recreated the tension of the actual Cold War while never identifying the 2 nations in CounterSpy as either Russia or the United States.
Known as the Imperialist States and the Socialist Republic, the rival countries find themselves entangled in a heated arms race. This war of words has cultivated in a sprint to be the first government to launch a nuclear barrage at the moon. Blissfully unaware and unable to see the facepalming errors of their ways, you enter the fray as an agent of the shadowy organization C.O.U.N.T.E.R. With each passing mission, you stealthily maneuver your way through secret facilities in order to disrupt and ultimately prevent either side from completing their missions.
One of the first screens you will experience when loading the game will let you know that each stage is randomly generated. CounterSpy seeks to maintain replay value here, offering players the chance to know that basic floor plans will remain the same in the event of a restart or continue but enemy placement and types may alter. Formulas and weapon blueprints also serve as creative options for allowing users to strategize before attempting their next mission. Formulas act as gameplay modifiers, such as armor-piercing ammo or silent running, while blueprints allow you to unlock greater weapons to expand your arsenal for future levels.
Based on your success in previous missions, each government also uses a Defcon level indicator in order to apply pressure to the player to adhere to spy rules. The stealthier you are, the less likely you are to spotted or enemy soldiers to radio in alerts that effectively raise the Defcon level. Should you happen to die in the line of duty, you will respawn back at the beginning of the room you had previously been killed in but the threat level will frustratingly raise one level. If you manage to reach all the way to Defcon 1 and die or are spotted, the enemy government will assume they are being attacked and will prepare to launch their missiles. The stage initiates a 1 minute countdown where the player must reach the console located at the end of the level map before the timer reaches zero.
While it is possible for players to adopt a high pace run-and-gun strategy, stealth is the name of the game in CounterSpy. Highlighted by button prompts and bright yellow detailing, players can assume positions behind cover in order to assess the situations and setups in front of them. In doing so, the game undergoes a unique 2D to 3D transition, creating depth and revealing unseen details from a side-scrolling perspective. However, players with even the most skilled spy acumen may find themselves entering the next area of a mission only to find multiple enemies already facing their direction and without discernable cover areas nearby.
Due to this design, entering the next room is more or less a crap shoot. There may be 2 enemies; there may be 10. Some doors that lead you into the next areas may ultimately lead you to aggravation. Activating the Defcon countdown forces you to abandon all sensible defense tactics. You are only left with the option of making a mad dash for the exit, hoping you don’t soak up too much enemy fire trying to sprint past the guards you would normally be trying to pick off slowly.
CounterSpy is a welcome addition to the stealth/espionage genre that has previously only been occupied by the likes of Metal Gear or Hitman. Unfortunately, the random level generation isn’t particularly strong at negating the repetitive approach that the vast majority of missions require. Along with the global leaderboard integration, it is possible to complete the game without coming anywhere close to unlocking all of the hidden formulas and blueprints. Despite some of the mechanical shortcomings, you can really tell where CounterSpy puts its best foot forward is with all of the artistic detail that was put into the game.
Though vaguely cartoony, the retro-futuristic motifs and bright color choices make the environments memorable. Dynamighty shows a lot of their Pixar pedigree with character models and movements appearing bold and smooth. Dynamighty artist Mark Holmes joined the studio with a resume that touted the likes of Wall-E, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles, making for some unmistakable reference material. From goofy PA announcements broadcasted inside the bases to different weapon fire effects to the dreaded Defcon siren, effects and background music are crisp and well applied. There is a thoroughly James Bond/1960s flavor of music at play that does an excellent job of setting the tone.
Overall, CounterSpy showcases a fair share of successes and failures relative to certain aspects of the game. The inclusion of formulas and random level generation play their roles well toward trying to preserve a desire to keep coming back to the game for more. That being said, these options are still somewhat limited and can only go so far. The foundation that CounterSpy was built on is more on-point with arcade style gamers and high score seekers. Those seeking to get away from a rinse and repeat experience should probably venture elsewhere. Personally, I feel that some of the more clever design and gameplay decisions make up for lost ground.
There’s enough substance here for Dynamighty to ask players to stay or try again but the jest of the game does expose itself rather quickly. At a $15 price point and with cross save and cross buy capability across all current Sony platforms, there is still merit for Counterspy to have. The game dynamic does feel tailor made for mobile and on-the-go usage.
Take my final score with a grain of salt if you prefer as I imagine playing CounterSpy on the Vita would probably seem a little more practical in comparison to the version I played on PlayStation 4.