Amidst a heated race to blow up the moon, the job of the counterspy isn’t rooted in the prototypical ‘man-of-mystery’ lore that the intro alludes to. Sneaking, shooting and blowing safes are nestled within a subdued storyline that hearkens back to the Cold War era and gives off a palpable sense of urgency for completing the mission at hand. That doesn’t mean that Dynamighty’s CounterSpy is devoid of style though, quite the contrary actually. There’s plenty of atmosphere to go around, and the ‘2 minutes to midnight’ historical basis helps backup the game’s tone. While the AI may have treacherous aim and a questionably sharp eye at times, players who aren’t keen to brutish stealth games will find that the forgiving nature of CounterSpy’s mechanics makes it a competent and accessible 2D stealth, platformer-shooter without causing too much frustration.
After an introductory cutscene that looks to be plucked straight from the 60’s James Bond films, players take control of the Agent and receive their first faceless transmission from C.O.U.N.T.E.R. . This neutral organization seeks to thwart the Imperialists’ (U.S.) and Socialists’ (Soviet Union) race to destroy the tides and many sea creatures along with it – nothing is lent to the outcome of either side succeeding, but needless to say that if they did Kelly Slater would be out of a job. With both sides casting lunar targets, the plot in CounterSpy revolves around systematically recovering data in order to gain control of Socialist and Imperialist nuclear ordinance.
Storied bits are received after collecting launch plans in groups of five, triggering a dialogue scene that fleshes out the purpose of the gathered information, as well as the next part of the plan. The pacing might feel rushed due to the shortness of the game, but it follows well with the urgency the mission requires. There are also snippets of information at the beginning of each mission that add detail to what the Imperialist and Socialist regimes are up to, but for the most part connecting everything is up to the player.
CounterSpy is a visually arresting experience. Smooth textures, vivid color palette and excellent lighting effects are experienced throughout the game, and there aren’t many instances of seeing a poorly modeled enemy. A lot of attention was put into the detailed backgrounds with both sides (Imperialist and Socialist) having different aesthetics. Propaganda posters and other nuances add variety to the scenery, preventing the feeling of every level looking overly similar.
The Agent and his antagonistic counterparts move fluidly, and more importantly, realistically. This carries over into the game’s controls, too, as there is little to no jankiness. You may occasionally be snapped into cover as you try to roll past it, but this is a minor annoyance and can be quite providential if you’ve also fallen victim to an eagle-eyed militant in the process. Aiming within from cover is quite responsive making headshots relatively easy. The 2D aim plane is a little slower and requires more care in positioning before lining up shots.
Missions revolve around traversing a segmented level towards the launch control console, which ends the mission and undoes any regression towards the next higher DEFCON the player has incurred. Offshoots within each level lead to plans for weapons, formulas, and intelligence as well as money caches; all of which are accompanied with wry bits of humor that hit more than they miss. While these short missives won’t send you into side-splitting chuckle-fests, there is a light-hearted sense of cleverness within them that helps to downplay the serious nature of CounterSpy.
The DEFCON system is an interesting and wholly frustrating adventure in accomplishment vs. folly. Starting at 3, players will juggle each side’s DEFCON level – which rises when the Agent is detected, dies and whenever pesky enemies start phoning in distress calls – at a near constant rate. If the DEFCON reaches ‘zero,’ a sixty-second timer will commence queuing a nuclear strike if players do not reach the launch controls in the allotted time, and thus causing a ‘game over.’ Players can choose to continue and keep their overall progress after a launch, which will deduct 5000 points from their final score as a penalty. Don’t fret quite yet because the game does allow for players to lower the DEFCON, too. Purchasing a ‘free level’ via a formula or staring down an officer with the muzzle of your gun will reduce the DEFCON one number, which helps prevent playthroughs from devolving into frantic chaos.
A spy is only as good as his gadgets, yet guns and formulas (which act as single level buffs to mitigate damage, detection, etc.) are the only tools the player has in their command, except for the Agent’s sneaking prowess and ability to perform life-ending Kung-Fu chops that is. A lack of scientifically inaccurate gadgetry is just another example of how CounterSpy has chosen to step away from 007 stereotypes in order to carve out their own story and setting. A laser-emitting wristwatch would have been pretty rad though.
Formulas can feel like a godsend, especially when paired with the ‘random is random’ aspect of available health and ammo drops, as they improve your ability to skulk and execute enemies without wasting precious ammunition or harshly inflating the DEFCON. While I tended to be utterly reliant on the formula that reduced damage from bullets and explosions, most formulas degrade detection making more stealth adept players stealthier. They do drastically reduce your war funds while also improving your shot at successful level completion, so learning how to properly harness the game’s stealth mechanics may prove more beneficial than leaning too heavily on performance enhancing drugs.
New weapons, especially the silenced ones, will improve your odds of going undetected while also providing new and interesting approaches to completing levels. The Dart Persuader, which turns unwitting soldiers into familiars, can yield incredible rewards as each of their kills count as a ‘stealth kill’ which increases your multiplier, thus your final score. Those who love a good explosion will fawn over the Final Negotiator (grenade launcher) and Treaty Violator (silent, explosive launching thingy) since they are good at clearing groups with large explosions and beaucoup splash damage. Tranquilizer darts are another way to dispatch militants silently, though paltry ammo stores make the gun feel like a waste of inventory.
Those who succumb to the frustrations of failed sneaking and cover may choose to adopt a run and gun stance, especially if they’ve triggered the 60 second launch countdown. Unfortunately, this may prove fruitless, especially if enemies are rotating between the fore and backgrounds as aim correction for those instances are shaky at best. Placing undue criticism on this seems incongruous as it is a game about stealth, and it makes sense that calculated shots should be more effective. From behind cover, the Agent will gain an advantageous perspective that gives players full control of aiming their weapons, as well as a better view of combatants. This form of gunplay handles intuitively and allows for players to make well-placed shots and to utilize explosive hazards sprinkled within the background.
The Agent is no bullet sponge. Damage from enemy fire and ordnance will quickly erode health, even when the damage reduction formula is applied. This places a large emphasis on the stealth and can also feel like an unfair advantage when players are pitted against enemies with gratuitous amounts of grenades and rockets. There were specific instances within my playthrough that echoed the sentiments of the ‘Kobayashi Maru’ since there was no logical way that I would be able to kill all the enemies without dying. These were occasions were rare, though, and I look to them more as falling prey to the procedurally generated nature of the game rather than unfair progression gates.
AI within CounterSpy could use some improvement, especially in the consistency department. Baddies have the truest of aim when attacking the Agent, but seem to shed that ability when players charm them. After being hit with a mind control dart, if there are no other foes on their platform they will begin erratically firing bullets into the ground, or air, causing other enemies to begin radioing in distress calls. Inconsistency within being spotted is also prevalent with units possessing random levels of alertness. Some enemies will spot you while they are not within sight while others have the ocular acuity of Mr. Magoo, which requires you to be very close before gaining their attention. This does degrade some ability for stealth, though there are usually enough cover points within each level for players to regain control of the situation.