Posted by Kell Andersen
From Russia with regret
CounterSpy is a strange beast. Developed by fledgling studio Dynamighty, it's an ambitious game that strives to bridge the gap between 2D and 3D stealth, while also attempting to juggle randomly generated levels. And while it plays host to some truly unique mechanics, and consistently brilliant presentation, it's unfortunately largely unsuccessful in this goal.
The title features a fairly rudimentary story: you work as a super-secret spy in an agency whose goal is to stop Russia and the USA from bringing about the devastating destruction of the entire world. In a crafty bit of social commentary, the game posits that the two countries have such similar plans for world domination that it doesn’t really matter which you infiltrate. Thus, you can always choose between taking a mission in Europe or North America. The differences between the two types of stages are largely cosmetic, but it does give you control over which rewards you collect in exchange for your daring deeds.
In terms of gameplay, the indie is, as previously mentioned, surprisingly ambitious. In many ways, it feels like the developer has attempted to take the stealth of the original Metal Gear Solid and flatten it onto a 2D plane. The levels themselves are randomly generated, and initially seem quite simple. However, when you take cover you’re instantly switched back to a more traditional third person perspective, which is used to line up and take shots. These clever perspective shifts give the levels a sense of depth, both in terms of gameplay and visuals.
Sneaking is obviously the name of the game here, with countless alarms and guards littering the title's many hallways. If you happen to trip one of these alarms, or fail to take out your attackers in a speedy fashion, a gauge will fill up, which, if ignored, has the potential to increase the defcon level. If either of the two spurring superpowers hits maximum defcon, it will immediately bring about a never-ending nuclear winter. Needless to say, you’ll get a game over when this happens. This structure creates a palpable atmosphere of tension, which only grows as the two giants inevitably creep closer and closer to certain doom.
However, the key to a good stealth game is the inclusion of a wealth of strategic options, and in Dynamighty’s first effort, there just aren’t enough. While several unlockable weapons and upgrades are available, encounters still often play in out in very similar ways. You’ll wander into a large room filled with around ten goons, find a convenient vantage point, and then attempt to take them out one by one. Oftentimes, you’ll fail, and then be forced to engage the enemy in a frustratingly dull firefight.
What’s more, the lack of clear signposting of what awaits you on the other side of an unopened door means that you’ll often innocently walk into a new room, only to be immediately spotted by a nearby guard, and then forced to mow your way through the remaining enemies. This can be especially maddening if you’ve made the misguided attempt at a totally stealthy playthrough, as you’ll soon realise that you’ve quite literally bought a dart gun to a bazooka fight.
To the game’s credit, when these systems work, they really do work. Quickly diving between cover and then popping out to fire off a few stealthy shots can be an incredibly gratifying experience. Sadly, the clunky moments far outweigh the rewarding ones. It’s a shame, as this fast-paced action clearly has the potential to make you feel like a suave and sophisticated superspy, but instead it makes you feel like a clumsy klutz.
Still, to say that the game is dripping with atmosphere would be a gross understatement. Rather, it is so utterly drenched in atmosphere that your platform of choice will likely buckle under the weight of its magnificent mood, and simply explode into a giant ball of cigars and shag carpets. We’re obviously being a touch hyperbolic, but the stealth-‘em-up really does have a smashing sense of style. It’s clear that every effort has been made to fully realise the potential of the 60s superspy theme; from bold and brassy jazz bands to a very subtle touch of film grain, the whole thing feels exactly like a James Bond movie – just not a very good one.
Despite its seemingly vanilla exterior, CounterSpy is a remarkably ambitious title. It makes an admirable attempt at creating a new kind of 2D stealth game, but unfortunately the results just aren't particularly compelling. While its presentation is dapper and divine, its gameplay is clunky, and the whole experience gets tiresome very quickly.