With spies like us…
CounterSpy‘s stylized Cold War re-imagining is on point. It looks good, with its spindly spy running, rolling, and leaping like a jumping spider. It sounds good, with its jazzy soundtrack that reminds of James Bond.
Unfortunately, the rest of it feels half-baked.
CounterSpy (PS3, PS4, Vita)
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release: August 19, 2014
As an agent for the group COUNTER, your goal is to infiltrate the thinly veiled Imperialist States and Socialist Republic to stop their shared goal of a nuclear strike on the moon. This involves stealing launch plans, though in your espionage you’ll also have chances to steal information (traded for petty cash) and blueprints for new weapons (bought with petty cash) or temporary buffs (more health).
Each side has a DEFCON level (5 being lowest, 1 being highest). If you are bad at stealth and put yourself in view of cameras or alert guards, it raises. If you die, it goes up a full point. If it goes past 1, you have a minute to reach the end of a level and stop whichever side you’re infiltrating from firing their nukes. These levels also persist throughout your playthrough (a couple hours, roughly), but can be lowered a point by making officers surrender.
Loading times between levels are actually a bit long, likely because the levels are being procedurally generated, modules being stitched together. The result is disjointed and feels like a cover up for the short run time.
Most levels begin with a wide run up towards a facility you’re meant to infiltrate. The camera doesn’t pan back enough, so this often means running up on a guard that you, the player, couldn’t see though he is in your spy’s line of sight. This meant starting every level with a slow creep and hoping by the time you get to the initial guard (or close enough to see him), he wouldn’t be facing you. Stealth is not necessary to get through the game, but linking stealth kills is the best way to get a high score.
You can do some stealth things. You can perform takedowns from behind or while in cover. You can take headshots (later, with a silenced pistol). But sometimes you’ll leave a room, a module, through a door and come into the next bit with a guard looking right at you. There is no way to know and it kills your stealth combo. Often you will come into “2.5D” shooting gallery rooms that encourage you to take cover and try to stealthily pick off guards with an over-the-shoulder view. If you’re patient, it’s probably possible, but those rooms, sometimes filled with a good seven enemies milling about, tend to turn into loud shooting galleries.
It’s almost like playing a puzzle game with occasional twitch shooting rather than a stealth game, especially when rooms have nothing to do with each other, aside from the DEFCON level trying to string things cohesively together. It feels patchwork because it is. It could work for quick, high score chasing, yet when you have no way of knowing if going through the only door to proceed is going to kill your score, that’s sort of a bummer.
CounterSpy nails its style. The angular art, the tight animation. Even the 2.5D cover mechanic stuff, the over-the-shoulder shooting, looks cool. But there is a weird tonal inconsistency to the whole thing that leaves it feeling unfinished despite the polish. The absurdist premise meant to invoke Dr. Strangelove is half-heartedly written with laziness that pretends at deadpan while the stealth is undercut by the stitched-together rooms used instead of careful design.