Being in the mode for some stealth games is rare for me, but it does happen, occasionally. The last time I played a stealth game was Mike Bethel’s Volume, and even that didn’t really quench my thirst for the stealthiness. This week I was browsing through my PS4, to see what games I could maybe complete in the spare afternoon I had, and happened across Counterspy in my library. I gave it a quick download and decided to get on with playing it.
Right out of the gate Counterspy warns you that it’s randomly generated, so not all players experiences are going to be the same. Nice, I thought to myself, this should make for an adventurous play through. So off I set on being a stealthy spy.
The game takes place at the height of a nuclear war between the soviet state and the imperialists (USA). Both states are wanting to make nuclear bombs to explode into the moon, causing it’s orbit to shift in such a way that it would destroy all life on Earth. You’re a spy who works for COUNTER, an organisation that has tasked itself with making sure this never happens by collecting plans for the nuclear weapons, and in turn, their launch codes and flight telemetry.
Because you don’t work for either side, you’re able to pick and choose which state you spy on to get these plans. Each state has a “Defcon” level, which goes up should you ever be seen in missions or should people phone in help. Think of this level as lives, and it makes a whole lot more sense. Being able to pick which state you spied on between missions was great, and added a layer of tact to an otherwise boring stage selection screen.
The Defcon level isn’t the only thing you’ll be looking out for when choosing which missions to go on, as each state will have different collectibles to unlock. The imperialists usually have loads of weapon blueprints to collect, with the soviets having lots of formula blueprints. Once enough blueprints have been collected in each area, you can unlock new weapons to use between missions, and new formula’s (think of the formula’s as perks).
So, enough about the interface and the meta game of picking where to play, how does the gameplay itself actually hold up?
Well for one, for a game that bills itself as a stealth game, I didn’t find it all that stealthy. Yes, you can sneak up on guards and knock them out stealthily, and yes, you can get around security cameras by sneaking past their vision cones, but for the most part, Counterspy pushes you into violence at every turn. There are so many occasions where you’ll have a room full of enemies and the only way past is to shoot them all. There were times that I was able to shoot the enemies in a nice order so that not one was alarmed at the others falling, but due to the AI’s walking patterns, these stealth kills are few and far between.
Each level is adorned with multiple layers, which is a good thing for a 2D platformer. being able to get behind a guard by passing above or below him is always great fun, and helps to keep a stealth game interesting like a puzzle. The problem is these moments rarely occur within Counterspy, due to it’s very random nature. There are just so many rooms where the only way forward is through 3 guards all facing each other, with no way above or below them, meaning starting a firefight is your only option.
It’s in options that the game truly falls apart. Whilst you have quite a few options about what level to select and what weapons you’ll be taking into a level, you have next to no options when in the levels proper. Stealth is all about options: “should I stay where I am and wait for the enemy to come to me? Or should I shoot the explosive, wait for the carnage, and then pick the guards off one by one?” Options like these were plentiful in Volume, but are lacking in Counterspy, where I felt that I constantly had to take cover and shoot my way through almost every section in the game.
I tried being stealthy as much as possible, even going so far as to get myself killed should I have been spotted time and time again, but the game just still corners you into action. There are sections of levels that are no longer 2D, and instead have depth to them with lots of enemies patrolling in the background. These sections are nigh on impossible to get past unless you kill all the enemies; not something a spy would necessarily do when they’re trying to be quiet.
Regardless of the gameplay (and lack of stealth) at least the weapons are varied and help to keep you in stealth mode for as long as possible. I found myself using the silenced shotgun and silenced pistol as much as possible, otherwise guards nearby would be alerted by my arrival. When all else fails and there was an all out firefight, I’d use my hypnotising gun to hypnotise a guard in fighting for me; a brilliant tactic for running away from a firefight without having to deal with he rest of the guards.
The aesthetics are generally lovely to look at, with soviet and imperialist posters scattered throughout areas both being funny, and great in achieving a cold war-era feel. Soviet missions will take place in hard concrete rooms with great towering statues adorning most rooms, whilst the Imperialist rooms are generally more metallic and useful. This contrast between both states is fantastic, and really helps to give the game a charming look and feel throughout.
After 2 and a half hours of fighting, I finally come to the stories conclusion, and whilst it wasn’t a great ending, I still enjoyed my time with the game. As a stealth game, I feel Counterspy is a failure; it’s own random levels push you out of stealth rather than encouraging it. But as a polished product that manages to make you smirk and smile at it’s aesthetics, Counterspy is enjoyable. Give it a go if you already own it, and if you don’t, download the game on Android; it’s cheaper, and you’re bound to find more than 2 hours of enjoyment out of the game.