These days, developing a game centered harkening back to older television shows seems like a less than stellar idea. To some it may seem a fast track towards being pushed aside due to the player not fully comprehending the creator’s intent. Developers, Dynamighty, have thrown caution to the wind and pushed right down that road in CounterSpy, a 2D side-scroller set during the struggles of the Cold War. Despite the serious subject matter, CounterSpy traipses around the horror of the situation and, instead, brightens it up with a jaunty atmosphere lead by a wonderful art style.
CounterSpy possesses a style unique to itself. The characters seem a tad larger than they should be and the environments mesh effortlessly with the Cold War-era. Throughout your many missions, you will find a multitude of flyers and posters which say things like “SMOKING – Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!” instead of the “No Smoking” sign you would see these days. This is just the tip of the iceberg as finding these little paper gems hidden around the environment can be one of the many entertaining things to do in the game. When you are not marveling at the witty papyrus, your eyes can not help but admire the colorful look of CounterSpy. Every new level has a nuclear facility feel, despite them all being randomly generated each time you start the mission.
The actual story of CounterSpy involves you, the spy, invading both the “Socialist” and “Imperialist” (as the game calls them) bases. You are doing this invading for a group called C.O.U.N.T.E.R., who was tipped off that both nations are wanting to be the first to launch a nuclear missile and blow up … the moon. In order to stop this atrocity, you must seize plans from either side, all while making sure you do not make the respective side raise their DEFCON level to high. If the DEFCON goes past one, it is time for lift off, unless you can get to the end of the mission you are currently on within 60 seconds. You manage these levels by invading both sides; once you invade the Imperialists, the Socialists will become a bit more comfortable.
You can force the nation to raise their DEFCON in a variety of ways, with death being the quickest. If the Socialists DEFCON is at 2 and you die, it goes down to 1 . The enemies can also get scared and begin alerting a commanding officer to raise the DEFCON, which means a circular bar will fill up completely in about 15 seconds. This circular bar will also fill if you are caught by one of the many cameras in-game, some of which are indestructible without a certain upgrade or explosive barrels. Possibly the most difficult aspect of the DEFCON meter is the fact that the circular bar does not return to empty if you destroy the camera or kill the enemy ratting you out. It ends up making the game become a tense micro-managing nightmare as you hope and pray the enemies in front of you do not alert authorities, all while watching out for a camera and hoping you do not take a few bullets and keel over.
While spying on the other nation is one way to lower the DEFCON, you can also capture generals while on the ground. You do so by eliminating all surrounding enemies and aiming your gun at the general, who will be easily noticeable by his bright white outfit. This will lower the DEFCON by 1, but can also be the death of you if you do not watch out. Dying in CounterSpy is something that will happen, and if your experience is similar to mine, it will happen quite often. Your spy is what he is, a spy, meaning he does not take a whole lot of damage before death arises. You can heal up with med stations spread out across the map but those are tough to get to when you desperately need health.
A rare negative that plagues CounterSpy is that it ends a tad bit earlier than you would hope. You obtain all the intel you need within two hours of game time. The last mission takes place in the country who has the highest DEFCON level at the time, and the game allows you the option to go back into those countries before selecting the final mission in order to lower the DEFCON. This adds an extra hour or so, but that still leaves the game ending with you wanting more. Of course, there are the aforementioned unlockables and such, but when a game is relying on unlockables to get the time played mark past four hours, that is disappointing.
The wide variety of enemies contribute to the always-present feeling that death is right around the corner. While some bad guys are just simple folks with a pistol or machine gun, others have armor on their head or are a higher rank, meaning they take a whole lot more bullets before going down. Perhaps the biggest factor contributing to my high death total was the amount of times I ran into enemies carrying grenade or rocket launchers. As you could guess, those can make your day really bad, really fast.
To combat this, you have a variety of different weapons. Half of the weapons are reminiscent of the times as they seem like oddities that would have been tested out in the 60’s, while the other half are your standard machine gun, shotgun, pistol combinations. While the simple weapons lack that creative aspect, they make for a very vital aspect of being a spy. As you could guess, the value of a silenced pistol is hard to top. You unlock these weapons by finding safes throughout the level which contain blueprints, with each weapon having its own unique blueprint. Once they are unlocked, you still have to fork over thousands of dollars, that you earn through being stealthy and completing other objectives within each mission. Money is a valuable commodity as you do not regenerate ammo between missions, which means you have to buy it all back, which can take up more than a few dollars. On top of that, there are modifiers you purchase and add to the mission, such as the ability to destroy those pesky armored cameras. Those modifiers also cost a pretty penny.
One of the core aspects of CounterSpy’s gameplay that grabbed my attention is the ability to hop into cover during combat, which then turns your 2D view into a 3D, over-the-shoulder view. This is a tad disorienting the first few times it happens, but that disorientation is quickly overcome by the fresh feel it puts on 2D combat; something that has been borderline lifeless in previous games. As for the actual gunplay, aiming feels a tad looser than you may have hoped for, and getting into cover can make creating a precise shot a bit frustrating. Overall, that looseness and occasional annoyance does not dampen the fresh feel which comes from hopping swiftly in and out of cover.
CounterSpy does not last long enough, but the time you have with it is an absolute blast. The implementation of the DEFCON system and cover mechanics freshens up an increasingly bland genre, with the spot-on atmosphere and witty writing, feeling like icing on a delicious cake. Throughout CounterSpy’s lifespan, you will die a whole lot, and with that comes frustration. But on the other end of that frustration is an immense feeling of satisfaction as you get one step closer to saving our precious little moon.