Some games just piss me off. I tend not to get pissed off at bad games, they get indifference, the games that get my ire are the ones that are good, but also critically flawed. CounterSpy is one of those games. With a beautifully realized 60’s art style with interesting shifts in perspective, CounterSpy is hampered by AI issues, poor level design and inadequate stealth mechanics. All this adds to make a game which is both enjoyable but also frustrating, in slightly unequal measure.
Set in an alt history version of the cold war between USSR and USA (but which the game insists on calling Capitalists and Socialists). You play as a Spy under the employ of C.O.U.N.T.E.R: a shadowy organisation that tasks you with preventing nuclear Armageddon and the destruction of the moon. The brief dialogue boxes between the spy and Counter are rather amusing in the Archer sort of way, with a cadre of Spy’s having Yoga evenings and such. Effort is made to point out how silly the whole cold war is, with the planned destruction of the moon by both sides being very much an analogue to the 60’s space race, not meant as an achievement but as a piece of one up man-ship from one to the other. But don’t expect Dr Strangelove levels of satire here.
The Spy from Team Fortress 2 has a brother, who knew?
Gameplay itself is a odd mix between stealth 2D platforming, exploration and 3D shooting gallery’s. Played mostly as a 2D stealth platformer, you navigate the randomly generated levels, fighting guards, finding collectables and secrets before getting to the end. You can at specific points take cover behind environmental objects such as barriers. When you do the perspective shifts and becomes more akin to a third person shooter, giving you a precise layout of how the area before you looks. From this perspective you can also out guards with any of the weapons you have or let patrolling foes get close and take them out in a quick takedown move. The shifting mechanic works for the most part, with few graphical stutters between transitions.
This is going to get dark.
Where CounterSpy lets it’s self down is the Stealth, it’s simply too basic and in certain environments impossible. Unlike games such as Assassin’s Creed, where if a guard sees you, it takes a moment or two to realize who you are, in CounterSpy if spotted once, the guard clocks on to you immediately. This can make stealth through some of the games more populated sections impossible, as you have to contend with the patrol paths of several guards at once, all of which perfectly complement each other in such a way to leave no room for stealth. The unforgiving nature and the speed of which most guards can take you down makes the game frustrating as all hell to play. In most of the environments there can be collectibles hidden in safes, which needs to be blown open, the noise from the explosion can alert guards, If you haven’t cleared the room beforehand. This can lead to some rather awkward choices in play style:
A: Clear the room in as stealth manner as possible, but accepting the inevitable fire fight and lose of health.
B: Sneak my way through, forgetting any collectibles.
The collectibles you find are the only way to upgrade your character, giving him new blueprints for weapons, formulas which affect certain game elements and the money to buy those other two. If you forgo the collectibles, you’ll soon find yourself under powered and under equipped to deal with the problems before you.
International man of blowing shit up.
The difficulty wouldn’t be so much an issue if it wasn’t for the DEFCON system, where as you are noticed more and more, the DEFCON level rises. With each level, the games difficulty grows, with more guards and cameras put in place to stop you. If it reaches 1 you have 60 seconds to get to the end of the level and deactivated the impending launch of nuclear missiles that you’ve triggered. Each faction has a separate DEFCON level, meaning you can really piss of the socialist in one mission, then do a couple against the capitalists to lower the socialists. It’s a nice balancing act but one that can be infuriating at times. The only way to lower the level is to capture a officer by isolating them. This would be fine if not for an issue with the AI where the officer would open fire on me before noticing he was isolated and giving up, the shot he fired killed me and triggered DEFCON 1 which upon respawn I couldn’t stop. Nuclear Armageddon caused by one bullet how poetic. These systems lead very much to a case of the rich get richer, with poor early play resulting in harder later game challenges. This system most likely calls for multiple play through, with the player improving on each one until they play to an almost perfect degree
The games achievement list has an medal for doing an entire play through of the game (which could take 2 to 3 hours) without being spotted. This in my humble opinion is impossible, maybe in the early stages of the game a level or two maybe done without being spotted (provided some of the more challenging rooms aren’t involved) but once it gets into the mid to late stages the game becomes a trial, and not an enjoyable one at that. limited stealth functionality with systems that require more option other than shooting and hiding hold back the game significantly.