Espionage, specifically the glamorous, Hollywood portrayal of Spies and the act of spying, has always just been one of those things to me. Whether it be the infamous 007 himself, or even something as silly as The Saint, the thought of one man/small team of highly trained, super specialized operatives working their way through an enemy base/encampment/place where the number of them is greater then the number of you by some ridiculous exponent, has always just put a stupid grin on my face.
Counterspy puts that same stupid grin on my face. Capturing the spirit of the Cold War, this spy romp sets you as a neutral party between two super powers, the Imperialists of the West, and the Socialists of the East. Your mission, as an agent, quite possibly the only agent, of C.O.U.N.T.E.R., is to stop those powers from firing their nuclear weapons at.... THE MOON.
Wait, what? Yeah, THE MOON. I know, not the most noteworthy of targets for Cold War nuclear warheads. When I was first made aware of this nefarious plot to shoot rockets at our glorious satellite, which would in turn knock it off it's orbit and into Earth's gravity, thereby killing everyone, I found the science a bit dubious. I still do. It's a crazy assertion, and a real nutso way of getting to the idea of mutually assured destruction. In fact, even “Agent,” the appropriately named secret agent whom you control, even questions it between mission briefings.
Despite the utter zaniness of Counterspy's Sword of Damocles, Agent's mission to delay the inevitable launch and our assured deaths works. Combing 2D stealth with some cover based shooting, Agent is sent on assignments against both superpowers. Each power is assigned a DEFCON level, which moves from 5, which is bad but whatever, to 1, representing peril of the most imminent variety. Getting caught during Agent's infiltrations results in the DEFCON lowering, which itself turns into a countdown timer, spurning you to either not get caught, or risk having to race to the computer at the end of the level to stop the timer.
And the purpose of the perilous assignments? Data collection. Over the course of the game, Agent collects various pieces of information about the flight plans and launch sites of both sides. Before each mission, you're given a choice of which side you would like to infiltrate, and information as to what collectibles you can expect to find during the course of your secret excursion. The collectibles range from simple info drops that equal money, to dossiers that, on top of money, also lend a bit to the back story. They're fairly entertaining reads if you're the kind of person who needs additional information on what kind of governments would consider bombing THE MOON.
Also available to find are Formulas and Weapon Schematics. Formulas are available for purchase before a mission, giving you perks like extra health, or armor piercing bullets. They only last for the mission they are purchased for, but some of them, like the armor piercing bullets, feel like a necessity, as they allow you to shoot through armored cameras... and armored helmets. Weapon Schematics are exactly what they sound like. Collect enough and they unlock another weapon for your arsenal. I unlocked a handful during my first play through, and while each felt appropriately different, nothing really compared to the handiness or reliability of the Diplomatic (read: Silenced) Pistol. It, along with a pretty sweet mind control dart gun, came with me to every party.
Walking around in the 2D space feels great, though the field of view feels a bit smaller then it should. Comparing it to a more recent 2D stealth game like Klei's Mark of the Ninja, I always felt like I was aching to see more, and never felt prepared for what was waiting behind the heavy doors of the Missile bases I was infiltrating. It's never a good feeling in a stealth game, that sense that you are missing something important, and it was one that not only dogged me for the duration, but was more often then not, absolutely right.
That being said, Agent sneaks around at a decent speed, and should you pop up behind a guard, he delivers a mean neck snap. If they spot you, that neck snap turns into a series of judo chops that would make Austin Powers proud. It's when you're spotted, and you will get spotted, that everything gets a little nuts.
Now I'm sure it's possible to get through a level without being seen, I mean, hell, there's an achievement for it, but you're eventually going to have to drop into cover. Doing so shifts your field from 2D to 3D. It's a neat effect, and in the running for the nicest looking cover animation I've yet seen in a game, but it's implementation leads to some clunky game play. Moving the right stick around while you're in cover gives you a real wide aiming reticule, allowing a bit of pre-aiming. There's no blind firing, so your only recourse is to pop up into an actual aiming mode, exposing you to your enemies. In low number situations, this action isn't a problem, and getting the drop on your foes is easy and satisfying. It's when you get into the big rooms, when the enemies number above 5, that aiming feels a bit unwieldy. Multiple times, especially when faced with guards carrying heavy ordinance like rocket launchers and grenades, I found myself struggling with the reticule. Could it just be my problem? Certainly, but where it feels natural in true shooters, in Counterspy, it feels cumbrous.
Dynamighty makes it very clear, though, that you are supposed to avoid those gunfights as much as possible. Agent isn't a bulletproof one man army, and standing up, welcoming the terrible fire of the waiting guards is the fastest way to see those rockets start their trip to THE MOON. To communicate this, every action Agent takes is given a point value, which is then totaled at the end of a mission. To get that point total higher, which can lead to bonus money for weapons and formulas, stealth actions build a multiplier, while noisy actions which attract enemy attention, drop the multiplier back down to zero. It's a system that feels very organic to the flow of the game, and it adds a ton of replayability if you are in to things like leaderboards.
By far, though, my favorite part of the game is its style. The animation is fresh yet timely, and it immediately draws you in. Moving around the silo is made easier by different visual cues, like yellow hash marks on the floor pointing out a spot where you can leap onto a ledge above you, and the shifts from 2D to 3D are flawless. Even more so, the design of the you're sent to find have a real B movie feel to them, and everything looks like it was pulled out of a “spy movie” file found buried in some Hollywood basement. I also feel compelled to mention the sound design, which is kind of a rare thing for me. The title track straight up reminded me of Archer, right down to the colorful cutouts flying across the screen, and the little sound additions, like the reloading of a gun, or the measured steps of a patrolling guard, really added to that “spy movie” feel.
And in the end, that's really what it all comes down to. Counterspy succeeds because it takes a concept that everyone is familiar with, and delivers something a bit unexpected in its ability to capitalize on those familiar aspects. Sure it frames its narrative in one of the most patently ridiculous stories I've ever heard, but it captures that danger and excitement of the Hollywood Spy like nothing else in gaming has. Don't let this one sneak by.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!