With the world on the brink of annihilation, the Cold War is remembered as one of the more terrifying time periods in human history. Appropriately such, its portrayal in the world of gaming has been equally as serious, as alternate world takes on the conflict, like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, have been deathly serious. Looking to switch things up a bit, however, is developer Dynamighty and their debut title, CounterSpy. Blending together the bleakness of the Cold War with the aesthetics of the swinging sixties, the game is a unique take on this particular time in history.
In CounterSpy, players step into the shoes of a secret agent working for an organization known as COUNTER. With no affiliations to speak of, COUNTER’s sole goal is preserving the world and making sure the two mega powers, The Imperialist States and The Socialist Republic, don’t blow each other up. Rather than target each other, however, the two nations share a current goal of being the first to launch a nuclear strike on the moon. While you may think that this is better than launching one on Earth, COUNTER has deduced that the combined power from both nations’ missiles would blow the moon into our orbit, causing the extinction of all life. So, now it’s up to one heroic spy to save the day.
While all of this sounds gravely serious, the game’s plot is rather tongue-in-cheek. Jokes are frequently made at the expense of both powers, and Dynamighty even includes fun tidbits describing some of the more absurd plans the U.S. and Soviet Union thought of during the Cold War. The plot is refreshing, especially compared to most modern war games, but I wish Dynamighty would have spent more time crafting an ending. There’s a short cutscene, and then the game spits you right back onto the title screen. It reminds me of old NES titles, but not in a good way.
Like the plot, the aesthetics are also heavily influenced by the culture of the 1960s. Foot-tapping jazz fills each level, and the graphics are reminiscent of old propaganda posters. The intro video even looks like something that would be at home in a classic James Bond flick. The animations are equally impressive, as both the spy and the various guards in each level boast fluid and dynamic animation. The levels themselves could have used a little more work, as even though they are randomly generated, they tend to follow the same patterns. You can only crawl through so many vents and shoot so many guards on the can before you get a little bored of the surroundings.
A mixture of a 2D sidescroller and a 3D cover-based shooter, CounterSpy is reminiscent of the excellent Shadow Complex. Unlike that title, however, stealth is heavily encouraged here, thanks to a scoring system that rewards silence. By eliminating guards with silenced weapons or efficient strikes, points can be earned, and can then be turned into extra cash. Said money is then used to purchase new weapons and power-ups that help tilt the odds in your favor. While shotguns and assault rifles may not be the most silent of weapons, you’ll need the additional firepower in order to deal with the cheap difficulty that later levels provide.
For a title that encourages stealth as much as this one does, it’s frustrating how often Dynamighty makes players run through awkward firefights. While I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no Sam Fisher when it comes to sneaking around, the game rarely plays fair in its later levels, often making stealth impossible. Whether it be guards standing by a door, or being spotted across the room by guards you can’t see, CounterSpy is unfair and broken at times.
Even with its poorly implemented stealth system, I would have been satisfied with CounterSpy if its combat was up to par. Unlike the aforementioned Shadow Complex, though, the combat here is frustrating, and frankly, not fun at all. Most of this frustration stems from the fact that the spy cannot take many hits, which is fine in theory, because the game is supposed to be about stealth. However, since the game often does away with any semblance of stealth, the frequent shootouts lead to many deaths. It also doesn’t help that end game enemies are bullet sponges who can somehow survive being blasted with a full assault rifle clip, while the spy can barely survive two pistol shots.
CounterSpy is the worst kind of disappointing to me. All of the pieces are there for an excellent experience, but it never comes close to being together. I’m a sucker for this time period in history, and the Cold War lends itself perfectly to the stealth genre. It’s just a shame then that it seems like the team at Dynamighty couldn’t decide if they wanted to make a full-on stealth game or a regular action-adventure game. Rather than focus on one or the other, the simply mashed both genres together for one disappointing experience.
This review was based off the PlayStation 4 version of the title.
While CounterSpy's unique aesthetics and fun plot are sure to intrigue some, its frustrating and unfair gameplay make it hard to recommend to anyone but diehard fans of the genre.