At the height of the Cold War, the world’s two super powers are ideological opposites, but they share a common goal. Both are in a race to blow up the moon.
To stop this lunacy, a rogue agency known as C.O.U.N.T.E.R. has sent in their best agent, who also happens to be named Agent, to infiltrate bases on both sides in order to bring this lunacy to an end. Should he fail the rockets will be launched and full moon nights will be a thing of the past.
“What do you want Mary? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll launch a hundred nuclear rockets at it and blow it up!”
CounterSpy is the debut game from the new studio Dynamighty. This team, comprised of ex-PIXAR and LucasArts employees, has drawn inspiration from old spy novels to bring this action-packed platformer to life. The game is oozing with nostalgia that brings to mind the early James Bond films as well as the lesser known film In Like Flint with James Coburn. This game nails it in both tone and gameplay, and it is an absolute blast to play.
Set up as a traditional side-scrolling platformer, CounterSpy relies on equal parts action and stealth. You must traverse and explore each level (which are all procedurally generated so you’ll never play the exact same level twice) to steal the various plans that will keep the Imperialists and Socialists from carrying out their dastardly plot. Standing in your way is an army of soldiers that you must sneak past without raising too much suspicion. It’s important to use stealth, be quiet, and not bring notice to yourself.
But wait. James Bond has a “license to kill” not a “license to stealth.” Why does Agent have to do all this sneaking? Good point. Should you not be up for sneaking up on unsuspecting bad guys and quietly putting them down, you can just pull out your gun and blast your way through the level. Scattered throughout the level are cover points that you can hide behind and the game changes to a 3-D shooter. This unique element turns the everything on its side and opens up a completely different way to play. No need to be silent here (though it is still a good idea). With good cover, you can pull out your assault rifle and go to town. But if you’re going to do that, you need to do it well before they raise the alarm and launch the missiles early.
Each mission starts off with a DEFCON status. If you remember you War Games trivia, then you know that DEFCON 5 means “At Peace” while DEFCON 1 is the start of World War III. You want to keep that number as close to 5 as you can. When you engage in combat, the enemy will call in an alert and the DEFCON level will start to go up. If you get spotted by a security camera, the level goes up. And if you die, the DEFCON level goes up. When you go below DEFCON 1, the missile launch is initiated, and you have sixty seconds to make it to the end of the level to abort the launch. If you fail to make it, it’s bye-bye moon. To bring the level down, you will need to find enemy officers in the level and take them hostage. It is one of the only ways to lower the DEFCON level and give you a little breathing room.
In addition to searching for launch plans in each level, you’re also on the lookout for formula schematics and money. Formulas are items that you purchase at the beginning of each level, and they grant you certain bonuses. You can purchase up to three at a time, and they give you benefits such as lowering the DEFCON level or making you more resistant to damage. They’re not cheap, and they only last for a single mission.
You can also find blueprints for new weapons to bring on your missions. You start off with a basic pistol, but will soon be able to purchase a silenced pistol, an assault rifle, and a shotgun. Later on in the game you get more advanced weapons such as the Dart Persuader which confuses the enemy and makes them attack each other. But you need to be careful when you use these weapons because ammo is scarce and buying more gets expensive. The money you find in each level has to be divided up between purchasing new weapons, refilling the ammo on ones you already own, and purchasing formulas before each mission.
CounterSpy is not a multiplayer game, but they do have a clever way of incorporating other players into your game. Occasionally you’ll be notified that another spy (another player) was brought down in the mission you’re about to do. If you can beat his score, the next mission you go on will have that spy’s dead body lying somewhere hidden in the base. Find it and you’ll be rewarded with extra intel and money.
The controls in the game work really well and are very responsive. Diving behind cover or pulling out your gun for a quick shot happens very fluidly, and I never had any problems with it. The only area of concern that I experienced was when trying to walk in stealth. This is accomplished by pushing the left stick slightly to the side in order to quietly walk instead of run. Due to the limited amount of play the Vita’s sticks have, it can sometimes be tricky finding just the right amount of pressure to get the result you’re looking for.
The ease of controls is a testament to just how well CounterSpy runs on the Vita. Surprisingly, it makes the transition from the PS4 pretty seamlessly. The only complaint I had was that the loading times for each level were quite long. Maybe some of this is due to the fact that each level is being generated just before you play it, but the wait can seem excessive at times. Aside from this however, the game runs extremely well, and I never suffered from stutters or bugs of any kind. The same cannot be said of the PS3, in which I constantly came across stuttering in fire fights that would freeze the screen for a second or two.
(Some people have mentioned to me that they experienced notable stuttering and flickering on the Vita, but I have not experienced this at all)
Outside of the load times, there is very little in this game not to love. Visually it is breathtaking with its vintage art style brings to mind early Cold War propaganda posters. The characters are drawn with sharp angles, and the color contrasts are nice with good saturation. It’s not only the style of the art that is appealing, but also in the way it is rendered on screen. Quite simply, it’s beautiful (screen shots can not do it justice). When Agent is walking through a missile bay and everything sweeps across in the background in three dimensions, it looks like a work of art.
To compliment the art, the music is also a throw back to the classic Bond films. The game’s main theme may easily be mistaken for a score lifted out of Dr. No, but its horn heavy melodies are very fitting in this atmosphere. The slow jazz and growling trumpet during in-game menus helps to put you in the right frame of mind before you drop behind enemy lines. Then the music shifts to a more intense, action pace as you begin each mission.
What makes CounterSpy so amazing to me is that it strikes a good balance across the board. The game is challenging, but not frustrating. It’s very humorous, but it isn’t over the top and slapstick. It’s action but it’s also stealth. It’s a combination of various elements that all get woven into a game that is wonderful to play. The game manages to balance numerous elements to craft a truly delightful experience that had me smiling constantly. It gets it right. The nostalgia, the platforming, the shooting, the stealth; it is all just done so well.
CounterSpy is a cross-buy title between the PS Vita, PS3, and PS4, but more importantly, it is also a cross-save game that works exceptionally well. Unlike other cross-save titles, you don’t need to upload your save to the cloud because it is automatically done for you. When you start a game on a different console, it will ask if you want to use the data off the server or if you want to continue with your local game save. This makes it simple to quickly go from the Vita to the PS4 or to the PS3.
Saying I enjoyed CounterSpy is a bit of an understatement. This game amazed and entertained me in countless ways. Playing through to the final mission only took a few hours, but the game is far from over at that point. In order to collect the blueprints for all the weapons and unlock all the formulas, you will need to invest a considerable amount of time. Finishing the game also unlocks harder difficulty levels that really ramp up the challenge.
Every once in a long while a game comes along that seems as though it was tailor made just for you. That is this game is for me. Some love their JRPGs, their visual novels, and their twin-stick shooters. I will hold up CounterSpy and say, “This. This is what I want in a game!”