Counterspy is the first game from independent developer Dynamighty but that fact alone probably wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. On the contrary, the fact that the development team is comprised of talented creators formerly employed by the likes of Pixar and Lucasfilm might get your attention. Throw in that Sony Computer Entertainment’s Foster City Studio, known for working on the likes of Uncharted and Infamous, also assisted in the development of Counterspy, and, well, you get the picture. There is a lot of talent behind this game. Of course, this means little in an industry where even the largest studios have produced veritable flops. So putting aside all the resumes that have preceded the making of Counterspy, how did the game turn out?
Counterspy is a side-scrolling action-stealth game set during an alternate version of the Cold War that replaced the United States and the Soviet Union with the Imperialist States and the Socialist Republic, respectively. Caught in between these two superpowers is C.O.U.N.T.E.R, a spy agency working to prevent either side from launching an all-out nuclear strike against the Moon (you read that right). Yes, this alternate universe apparently casts the Earth’s Moon as the unlikely victim of a nuclear apocalypse rather than the mutually assured destruction of our own world; of course, when you say it like that, it makes total sense.
Our two superpowers have adopted the standard Cold War alert status, DEFCON, to determine how close the world is blowing up its one and only Moon. DEFCON levels range from five to one where one indicates the Moon is about to be nuked to smithereens. To prevent this act of lunacy, C.O.U.N.T.E.R’s spies embark on missions to gather launch codes and nuclear plans stored away in enemy bunkers from either side. Both countries have their own DEFCON level and so either may take out the Moon if the missions fail and the gamer must choose which country to engage for each mission. Of course, a hoard of troops stand in the way of the spy and successfully completing each mission. Not only do these troops seek out and try to kill any enemy spies they detect, but they will also raise the DEFCON alert level if they are discovered. Or, if the spy is killed while on a mission, that too will raise the DEFCON level.
Thankfully, there is a way to bring the DEFCON level back down. Officers will be found among the troops in many missions, and if a spy captures the officer, then the DEFCON level will lower. However, if the DEFCON level reaches its lowest point, then a countdown will begin. Reach the launch console at the very end of the bunker before the countdown ends or the Moon is gone and the game is over. Overall, once the spy reaches the launch console, then the mission is complete, but the game only progresses if the plans are found.
Counterspy’s gameplay works as one would expect a side-scroller would until the spy moves into cover. At this point, the view switches to third person, where the spy has the ability to aim and shoot. In cover, the spy remains hidden until spotted or starts a ruckus. The spy is seemingly invulnerable to shots in cover, but enemies may toss grenades to flush the operative out or even move in for hand-to-hand assault. The shooting mechanics in cover work extremely well, and this added dimension not only serves to engage in a broader combat view than a normal side-scroller but also allows the gamer to size up enemies and their movements before taking action. Like many stealth-action games, the gamer has to choose whether to sneak or strike, bringing in a stealth element a la Metal Gear Solid (including the all-too-familiar above-head punctuation!). Firing a non-silenced weapon or blowing up explosives at any level will alert other soldiers to your presence. Once the enemy gets wind of you, they will send out an alert, which raises the DEFCON meter. So going in guns blazing works at times, but usually that tactic ends in disaster. I found the most enjoyable experience was to take out foes that I couldn’t sneak by with hand-to-hand attacks or a precisely aimed headshot with a silenced weapon. Regardless of tactic, you can forget about using walkthroughs to help you along. Each mission consists of randomly generated levels, so each attempt at a mission will be relatively new, regardless how many times you play.
The gamer must also weigh the risk and rewards of exploring the various levels. Exploring the multiple platforms, or even elevators that descend to optional lower levels, may yield weapon plans or formulas that will give the spy an advantage in future missions or health and ammo for the current endeavor. If the gamer takes a direct approach and foregoes exploring, the chances of successfully completing the mission with a better DEFCON level is higher, but there will be much loot left behind. Then again, whatever DEFCON level you end your current mission on is where you start on the next. Counterspy achieves an excellent level of balance in these decisions and strings missions together brilliantly at the same time. I found myself trying to decide if I was willing to risk a DEFCON hit for the last schematic of that atomic shotgun I so desperately want or if I would just chicken out and make a break for the console. On several occasions, I made the wrong choice and had to make a mad dash to the end and save the Moon.
Counterspy’s artistry is what one would expect from the creators of such a talented and diversified background. The Bond-esque music and the simplicity of the cel-shaded graphics create the perfect action-espionage atmosphere. The spy is shadowy and slick. The backdrop of the bunker piled with tanks, bombs, and missiles are over the top in their looming size. It all compliments the gameplay perfectly.
Lack of multiplayer is a common criticism for many games, but it does not apply in Counterspy. The loner spy makes the most sense in a game like this, so a multiplayer mode really wouldn’t fit. But Counterspy does offer some treats in lieu of a true online experience. Some missions will include the additional mode of "Beat Rival Spy" where another gamer’s online score for that mission is shown and the challenge is to top it. In other missions, you will have the opportunity to seek out a fallen spy from someone else’s game and relieve him or her of the loot obtained. These, along with an online leaderboard, bring in a social element to the game without sacrificing its core nature.
Counterspy has no story to speak of. A quick, often humorous debriefing with the spy’s superior serves the vast majority of dialogue. It suffices. The focus on missions and a near obsession with lowering my DEFCON level as much as possible truly dominated the experience for me. Any story that could have been tacked on would have most likely felt contrite.
There is plenty of value to be had in Counterspy with its $15 price tag. PlayStation gamers will love the Cross-Buy/Cross-Save features that Counterspy brings with its buy it once, play it anywhere benefits. Fans of the PlayStation Vita will love that the controls map to the handheld perfectly. In fact, very little is sacrificed in mobile play; the only issue I found was that loading times on Vita are noticeably longer, but otherwise this makes for an exceptional game on Sony’s handheld.
If my exuberance hasn’t shown through yet, let me be blunt. This game is massively fun. My only other complaint resulted in failing in a mission where the missiles fired and, I assume, the Moon was utterly destroyed. That is fine, but when prompted to continue I inadvertently selected No. My game did not just end. My save game disappeared and I started from step one all over again. Thankfully, the weapon upgrades and formulas I had accumulated remained, but I couldn’t help feeling frustrated that my progress thus far did not. This isn’t so much a flaw as an annoyance. Of course, I guess if any game would have dire consequences for pushing the wrong button, a game involving nuclear missiles would fit the bill. And as my co-worker pointed out, "The game did what you told it to do.” Fair enough.
Counterspy is funny, clever, satirical, and simply a joy of a game. The style and artistry delivers what the development team’s heritage promises. The sneaking aspect of moving through levels blends perfectly with the third-person action of gunning down enemies while the threat of the Moon’s destruction hangs over every choice made. Dynamighty delivers a mighty game in its first try, and I expect great things from the studio in the future.