A smart stealth ’em up from Dynamighty that embraces the 60’s spy genre and brings some interesting ideas to the table.
|Physical English||No – Digital Only|
World-building & Story
Counterspy takes place during a fantasy version of the Cold War, where two factions (the Imperialists and Socialists – you won’t need two guesses to figure out who they’re based on) are edging ever closer to launching nuclear missiles at the moon. It’s up to a spy from the secret agency C.O.U.N.T.E.R to infiltrate both factions to steal launch codes and schematics to ultimately avert a deadly crisis.
By rooting itself well and truly in the vein of stylish spy flicks from the 60’s, Counterspy tackles a time period which isn’t uncommon in videogames but is rarely shown in such a humorous and memorable way. You can expect quirky comments from your superior at C.O.U.N.T.E.R as well as a plot that escalates well in terms of the threat level (represented by a DEFCON meter for each faction), meaning I was kept engaged until the ending scenes.
The universe it takes place in is even more interesting than the story itself – full of little touches that ensures you’ll remember it long after playing. Each faction’s levels are coated in their associated colours (blue for Imperialists, red for Socialists) and you can expect to find tonnes of humorous propaganda lying around warning of the danger from spies (and indeed, this will also be announced over the tannoy as you explore around too). It really feels like this is the Cold War era where everyone is on tenterhooks at the threat of nuclear war, although it’s all given a nice comedy twist.
The only thing I can criticise is that there’s not very much to the story, with it finishing after only a few briefings, but otherwise it’s a brilliant journey while it lasts.
Presentation & Sound
By using a low-poly design mixed in with stylish characters and a popping colour palette, Counterspy is a visual treat you won’t be forgetting any time soon. Some technical issues dull the experience, but otherwise it hits all the right notes.
Instantly notable are the character designs, which maintain a brilliant sense of style thanks to their exaggerated features. The playable character seems more than a little influenced by the spy from Team Fortress 2, right down to his swagger when walking and hiding behind cover. Imperialist soldiers feature militaristic clothing and armoured helmets, while socialists sport Soviet-style hats to hammer home their inspiration.
The areas you’ll run through are just as inspired, particularly considering they’re procedurally generated. You’ll start out in snowy airfields or in the Nevada desert, before making your way inside through air ducts and into military installations full of pointed weapon-heads and computer terminals, with the occasional glass-panelled meeting room or elevator shaft. They’re all awash with blue and red colour schemes too, meaning that despite the fact they’re using fairly low-poly objects you’ll rarely find anything ugly about the environments.
The Cold War aesthetic spills over to things like menus, which feature a dossier-style design of being presented on documents to give you the key information – even the opening cutscene is a beautiful parody of 60’s spy thrillers with funky animations. It all comes together to create a beautiful package although I have to criticise the performance – there’s an excruciating initial load upon starting a level and the framerate is unreliable during large-scale shootouts, which frustrates the aiming mechanics.
The audio package is decent – music isn’t anything special, but effects fit the atmosphere well like the buzz of a walkie-talkie when you raise the alert. There’s no voice acting aside from the brilliant announcers during your infiltration, who attempt to raise morale of their troops with ill-conceived ideas – they always had me chuckling and were very well delivered, you just don’t really hear enough of them.
Gameplay & Content
An interesting take on the stealth-action genre, Counterspy mixes 2D metroidvania-style exploration with elements of third-person shooting and plenty of stealthy takedowns. It works well for the most part, although repetition begins to set in by the closing scenes.
As an agent of C.O.U.N.T.E.R you’re tasked with stealing various pieces of intel to avert the nuclear disaster – which means that at any one time, you can choose missions to infiltrate either the Imperialists or Socialists. Each faction has a DEFCON level which, if it rises too high, will cause them to launch their nukes which will end the game – you can avoid this by carrying out your missions stealthily (so as to not alert the guards to call for backup) and not dying, which is easier said than done.
Before a mission, you’re given a chance to spend any money you’ve stolen on new guns and perks (which are unlocked by stealing the plans while on a mission, of course), which is a nice way to help customise how you play. Things like silenced pistols are invaluable while a mind-altering tranquiliser can help turn the tide of battle – similarly one perk tricks enemies into lowering the DEFCON level which I honestly couldn’t do without by endgame.
Once you start playing you’ll discover Counterspy behaves much like any 2D metroidvania – the spy can run and jump and his guns mean he can take out enemies from afar. You’ll make your way through a number of different separate areas which can be fairly big and either need to find your way past guards and security cameras or take them out altogether, using either attacks from behind or gunshots.
Along the way you’ll encounter various objects that can be interacted with – cupboards usually contain information that can be sold for profit, while safes contain plans that can be collected to unlock new weapons and perks. Most important are computer terminals which have the important mission objectives, but accessing any of these will cause noise which alerts nearby guards, so you have to choose your moments to steal from them.
Counterspy sets itself apart by its cover system – by pressing circle behind walls and crates the spy will duck behind and the viewpoint switches to third-person shooting, allowing you to headshot enemies to take them down. This is a little clunky to get used to at first but once you’re used to it opens up a world of possibilities and was probably my favourite aspect of the game – it felt thrilling to take out a room full of soldiers with carefully-placed shots while not being spotted, although if you are noticed the framerate chugs once they return fire.
The game quickly gets into a rhythmic groove of pulling off missions and gathering intel, monitoring DEFCON levels and upgrading weapons that I found highly addictive and fun… and then it ends abruptly. Counterspy isn’t a long title and you’re encouraged to return on a higher difficulty to chase high scores (although this is less impactful once the servers go down as it makes a point of constantly comparing your own score to rival spies), which worked for me as I did feel the need to go back and see it all again immediately after
It’s certainly fun while it lasts and remains one of the most thematically and aesthetically unique Vita titles that’s well worth checking out for an afternoon of fun – there’s definitely a few flaws, but overall it’s an impressive package.
Counterspy takes some basic gameplay ideas we’ve seen before but mashes them together in an extremely unique way which, combined with the gorgeous aesthetic and thematic design, makes one of the most interesting Vita games I’ve played in some time. Technical issues and a short run-time let the package down, but it’s still a load of fun and something I can definitely recommend.