CounterSpy Review (PS4, PS3, PS Vita)

I spy...

As an agent of C.O.U.N.T.E.R. in the 1960s, you and your organisation are branded as terrorists and outlaws by the two super powers of the day. As the Imperialists and the Socialists, simple analogues to the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., face off in a Dr. Strangelove-esque tale of brinksmanship over who can be the first to send their nuclear arsenal streaking off to blow up the Moon. Yes, the Moon.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to infiltrate the military installations of either side in order to obtain their various launch plans. It plays out in a predominantly 2.5D fashion, with your lithe spy slinking his way in to try and find his way around, knock out guards, dodge cameras and get a hold of those plans.

Something that makes this quite eminently replayable is the fact that levels are randomly generated every time. Both the Imperialists and the Soviets have their own tongue-in-cheek and mockingly stereotypical representations, but each level is a random assortment of rooms, patrolled and watched by a randomised selection of guards and cameras.

Each time you load a level, you’re stepping into the unknown, but you quickly start to pick up on the building blocks that are used. In doing so, you get a feeling for where there could be a secret passage and where the big battles might be, but even though the room is familiar and the backdrop is one you’ve seen several times before, you’re never quite sure where the guards will be or what the next room will hold.

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Something that’s always tricky to get a handle on is the abilities of the guard AI. They get more difficult to neutralise as you progress and much more numerous too, that’s certain, but the range of their hearing and sight is hard to discern. Whenever you extract plans from a computer or find certain collectables, it makes a noise which nearby guards can hear, with icons around the edge of the screen to indicate this and their location. It’s just hard to figure out whether they will then call this in, raising the alert level, or whether a particular wall or door is thick enough to mask the sounds of this and gunfire. It often leads to the game devolving into brash gunplay as a consequence.

Considering it’s a game of espionage, it has a surprisingly brazen and murderous streak to it. Rather than sneaking up behind and knocking enemies out, it’s quite clear that necks are being snapped. That’s before you get to all the guns on offer which range from the regular pistol to silenced shotguns, knock out dart guns and even more exotic things like explosive gloop guns. These along with powerups to silence footsteps, disguise you a bit from cameras and more are tucked away as multi-part blueprints to discover in levels, though this unlocks them for purchase across all campaigns,

When sidescrolling, combat is a simple dual stick system, but there’s a lot more to the game’s combat than this. Taking cover behind chevron marked objects in the game shifts the camera angle and makes full use of the depth to the game’s 3D geometry. It could be that it looks down the corridor, showing that the guards’ patrol routes actually move in more dimensions than one, or it could see you looking into a corridor or large room into which you can only shoot, not walk, with tons of enemies to try and tackle. In a cute little twist, the enemies can occasionally make use of stairs in the background to move between levels.

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During these moments, it turns into more of a lightgun game or shooting gallery, as you stay tucked in cover and pop out occasionally to shoot at the enemies. There’s no ability to take pot shots, so whenever you try to shoot, you are fully exposed to incoming fire. The right stick handles the aiming once more, but while in cover this is a vague circle and it’s only when you stick your head out that you can get the true and precise target.

The only problem is that it soon starts to demand absolute accuracy and timing. Some scenes featuring around ten enemies armed with machine guns, grenades (which you can throw back) and rocket launchers, and though you can shoot explosive barrels to get the upper hand, you can find yourself in a very bad situation, losing lives and seeing the DEFCON alert rise.

It’s another clever idea for the DEFCON level to represent a kind of lives system in the game. Every time you die, it goes up one stage of severity in the superpower that you’re infiltrating – with DEFCON 1 being the absolute brink of war – but even just staying in the gaze of a camera or letting guards call in your appearance will see it rise very quickly. Max out DEFCON 1 and you have a panic filled minute to make it to the computer at the end of the level, or all the nukes go off.

The only way to lower it is to get officers to surrender to you, by getting them alone and holding them at gunpoint rather than killing them, but this neatly plays into a balance of risk versus reward in deciding which superpower to infiltrate next. Do you go for the country with DEFCON 1, knowing that a single mistake will scupper you but also seeing that there are three officers to subdue, or do you play it safe with the other side?

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It’s a big part of what makes this quite a tricky game, and one where I have failed on several occasions to get to the end of a campaign’s 3-4 hours without needing to do an arcade-style continue. That’s just on Normal difficulty too, with the Advanced and Expert difficulty levels currently way beyond my skill level. Part of this is down to the increased number of AI, the scarcity of ammunition for my go-to silenced “Diplomatic” pistol

Then again, that challenge and difficulty could keep me coming back for more, and this is something that will certainly be helped by the game’s fantastically stylish artwork, smooth jaz and comic overtones. It holds up well between PS4 and PS Vita – with PS3 also included in via cross-buy – though the Vita version loads rather slowly, with a few regular frame rate hiccups when loading areas and during heavy action. Having said that, it automatically syncs campaign progress to their servers without fiddling, which is simply perfect.

What’s Good:

  • Outstanding sense of visual style and comic take on the 60s Cold War era.
  • Clever mixture of 2.5D stealth and shooting gallery gunplay.
  • Randomised level layouts keep repeated plays fresh and interesting.
  • The clever blend of lives and detection within the DEFCON system.

What’s Bad:

  • Difficult to interpret the guards’ hearing abilities.
  • Pacifism is not in your spy handbook, and a very heavy reliance on gunplay.
  • Difficulty increases sharply towards the end of the campaign, at high DEFCON levels and on higher difficulties.
  • Vita version suffers a little from long load times and frame rate hiccups.

CounterSpy was a game that caught many people’s eye with it art style and Cold War setting, but it’s great to see that it also has the gameplay to back it up. The mixture of side scrolling stealth with the cover-based 3D shooting is quite an ingenious one, but simple enough that when combined with the randomly generated levels, you can hop into the game for a few minutes and, ignoring a few flaws, find yourself staying for an hour.

Score: 7/10

13 Comments

  1. But the question is, should I buy it now or should I wait for it to be on some sale ?

    • Well, would you rather pay £8 with PS+ to buy it now and have a bit of fun, or £5 at some indeterminate point in the future where you’ll likely have forgotten about the game or have other things you want to play?

      I can’t answer that for you, really. I had fun with it, and a price around the £8 mark is something I’d find pretty tempting if it’s a game concept that captures my imagination. Then again, I can be quite fickle and decide to wait for a sale, too.

  2. Really good fun game and different every time to boot,downloaded the the Vita version last night as PS4 was out of action the loading is certainly slower but still a great game,I was really surprised when i started it up and it was where i’d left off on PS4 plus the trophies where separate so twice the bronze ware :)

  3. Enjoying this, it’s frustrating at times (when you get a room that cannot be beaten without being spotted) but equalling incredibly addictive. I like the way you can choose your next level, allowing you to choose the best opportunity to gather more cash, or intel/weapon blueprints, or launch document thingies. It’s a bit like how you choose your next path in Dead Nation’s Road to Devastation DLC in that respect. The DEFCON system is also quite good, especially since you can also use a perk to reduce it. In fact, everything is balanced pretty well when you consider the weapons and perk choices too.

    The random level design can also help. Sometimes I’ve restarted a mission since I raised the DEFCON level in error, and then I’ve been given a much easier level!

    I’m just on the Final Mission on Expert difficulty with a DEFCON level 5 level, so I should be fine to complete that before tackling Advanced setting. Only missing the Advanced mode trophy and “kill 5 enemies with 1 explosion” on both PS4 and PS3/Vita. My advice is to save money for the later rounds and use the early levels and reduce the DEFCON levels asap so you won’t struggle with the difficulty increase at the end!!

    • Weapon choice is also important so finding all the blueprints as quickly as possible is vital to a good score. As for rooms where it is almost impossible to be seen, that is where the golden gun and grenade launcher come into their own. The Persuader though, is probably the single greatest weapon in the game, particularly on the final mission where you can essentially get an entire room cleared with a single well placed shot.

      Top indie game this one and I would probably have scored it an 8 or 9 to be honest as I can’t think of any other recent indie title at this price with so much re-playability or simple neck snapping joy.

      • Although I’ve unlocked them I haven’t used the Golden Gun or Grenade Launcher yet…after buying 4 weapons on my Expert run I wanted to save cash for perks and brining the DEFCON level down, just to make the last mission easy. That’s another great thing about the game though, you can play and approach it how you want. I’ll probably use the launcher for my Advanced run if it’s that good. The presentation is also second to none.

        What does the Golden Gun do – one shot kill?

        Agreed about The Persuader – especially if you shoot a guy with a launcher who is above everyone else! :)

      • The Golden Gun one shots enemies and one shot head shots specialists and helmeted enemies and also takes out armoured cameras. In a pickle it’s great as you can effectively clean most of the room just hitting them without aiming for the head. While the dart gun can also do that, it’s rate of fire is pretty poor.

      • Cheers. Sounds good. I’ve been using that Precision perk but sounds like the Golden Gun will replace that. Mind you, I’d like to carry the silenced pistol, launcher and Persuader too, so may need to stick to the Precision perk, unless the Golden Gun is silenced and can replace the Diplomatic Pistol.

      • I tend to forego the Persuader until the final mission/s.

  4. Oh yeah, duh! Forgot I could change weapons. Will swap that out, cheers!

  5. Good review and i enjoyed the gameplay i watched so i’ll be picking it up at some point.

  6. This review seems to ride right alongside my experience of this game. Some reviews seem to be expecting a serious stealth game and are marking it down for not being. Hours spent between the Vita and PS4, not sure I can see any difference (bar dropped frames and load times).

  7. This one completely passed me by. Quite like the look of it actually.

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