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.
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.
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?
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.
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.