I reviewed CounterSpy on the PS4. I got it for the Vita and PS3 as well as it’s cross-buy but haven’t played it on those platforms so I can’t vouch for its technical merits on them. It’s also on Android and iOS, a surprise given that it’s published by Sony.
I wasn’t sure what CounterSpy actually was pretty much until it came out. It’s the first title from developer Dynamighty but Sony was publishing it and they usually make good bets. When I saw that it was a stealth-focused platformer that took place in randomly generated Shadow Complex-esque levels, I was sold as I love all those things and we don’t see as many of them as I’d like these days. Sadly, what started out as a cool and promising idea soon became an aggravating slog that I just wanted to be over with.
There’s very little story in CounterSpy but it’s presented as a daft take on Cold War intrigue. You are an agent of a shadowy and “neutral” spy agency called C.O.U.N.T.E.R. and your goal is to stop goofy analogues of the US and Russia from launching a nuclear strike at the moon. Sure, why not? You accomplish this by sneaking into various complexes on both sides and stealing enough documents to get a complete picture of their plans. As you progress, you can pick up additional plans to unlock new weapons and character abilities. When you complete the plans, a final, challenging level awaits to wrap things up.
Your goal is to get through the levels while being spotted by enemies as little as possible and collecting as much of the available loot as possible. You can avoid some enemies but the game has a scoring system and you’re actually encouraged to take everyone out to maximise your position on the leaderboards. You can be spotted by enemies but things get difficult very quickly in a crowded room as you can’t take much damage while many of the enemies are surprisingly resilient. Each side has a DEFCON rating, which starts at 5 and ends in 1. If you get spotted by a camera or an alert enemy is not dealt with long enough for him to radio in, the rating will start to rise. If you die, the price of continuing is one full level increase. If you max out DEFCON, a timer will start and you will fail if you can’t get to the end of the level before it runs out, throwing stealth to the wind. DEFCON ratings also persist between missions but can be lowered either by purchasing a one level reduction from the character upgrade shop or from Officer enemies, which you get to surrender by pointing your gun at them after clearing the rest of a room. It’s an interesting mechanic but since you’re always free to choose which side to infiltrate for every mission, there’s rarely a reason to not just get one side down to DEFCON 5 and focus on the other. Loot is distributed differently between your two choices but it’s rarely so important that you need to risk having two high DEFCON ratings as you can just keep doing missions over and over until you have all the loot you want, even if you’ve already unlocked the final mission.
At the title screen, CounterSpy claims levels are randomly generated. This is a misstatement at best, a lie at worst. Levels are randomly chosen from a set of pre-configured layouts but they are not randomly generated. I played the same layout multiple times in my playthrough. Power ups and unlocks are peppered around differently which still shakes things up and the levels that are present are neat and often provide multiple path options. Some levels have elevators you can take to a lower level which has challenging but optional scenarios that lead to better loot if you want to risk them. You have to manage ammo as that is also persistent between levels, though you can buy a refill for all your guns (which can get expensive) and ammo cabinets can sometimes be found mid-level which will refill your currently equipped weapon. There are noisy and silenced variants of pistols, shotguns, machine guns that you can unlock, plus some special guns with unique effects thrown in. You can also unlock abilities which do things like reduce damage, make cameras take longer to find you or quiet your footsteps.
The meat of CounterSpy’s sandwich, the stealth, is sadly where it falls apart. Enemies can either by shot (which won’t alert anyone else if done stealthily) or you can melee them if you sneak up on them when their back is to you. What’s frustrating is that it’s very hard to plan your attack and avoiding being seen is almost impossible. When you enter a room, you can only see a few feet in front of you. Off-screen enemies are represented by icons but you’re given no idea where they are, only what direction they’re moving in. Their patrol patterns are often completely random so you usually can’t memorise them to figure out the best approach. Cover is available but it’s frequently hard to reach unseen and you can’t hop between different cover points. Getting out of cover makes your character stand up, often in full view of everyone. If one enemy gets alerted, they will alert everyone nearby which is the entire room about half the time. Later enemies can take multiple shotgun blasts at point blank range before dropping, whereas more than a couple of pistol rounds is the end of your lanky spy. If a far-away enemy starts to raise the DEFCON level, you have to go balls out to get to him, which never works out well. This is a game that’s supposed to be focused on stealth, yet the cumbersome encounter design and random enemy behaviour makes it virtually impossible to fully be stealthy. More often than not, every level just becomes a poorly balanced and poorly controlling shoot out.
At the start of CounterSpy, it felt challenging and a bit frustrating but it also felt like something I could wrap my head around and get good at. As the missions went on, it just kept throwing more and more enemies at me, often stronger ones that I couldn’t take easily out with even the most powerful weapons. More enemies in the same levels made stealth even more difficult and the last third of the game just became about clumsily pushing through as fast as I could after the first stealth failure and quitting and restarting the mission if the DEFCON got too high. The final mission takes place on whichever side has the worst DEFCON rating so I had to spend over an hour trying to get both sides down low enough that it wouldn’t make it extra frustrating.
CounterSpy looks decent enough, though hardly next-gen. It’s a Unity game which means it looks dated right out of the gate but they compensate for this somewhat with a nice cel-shaded art style and popping colours. This is wrecked a bit at times by poorly implemented physics that often causes enemies to freak out and clip through geometry when killed. The soundtrack perfectly nails 60s spy music and complimented things wonderfully. The load times were surprisingly long (only really a problem if you’re quitting out of levels a lot) but once I got into a level, it ran at a solid 60 frames per second. There are leaderboards and your score often gets compared to other random people which always gives that little twinge of satisfaction when you best them.
When CounterSpy inevitably goes on a PSN flash sale, I might recommend it if you’re already into stealth games. At full price, I think it’s too frustrating with too much unfair randomness to recommend. There are great ideas in this game that just weren’t executed well and it’s ruined by a bafflingly unforgiving stealth system that demands too much perfection from a game that’s clearly not designed to be that brutal. There’s a good framework here and hopefully this has done well enough to give Dynamighty another kick at the can. More polish to the base idea could be something pretty cool.