Stirring, but I’m not shaken.
Indie games have certainly come a long way and earned a very bright spotlight on PlayStation consoles, with more than enough to drive both blockbuster development and passion projects that eventually turn into bigger franchises or, at the very least, development studios with a following to lean on in anticipation of the next project. Regardless, I’ve found most of these titles to hit and miss on a couple of different levels though I wouldn’t trade the support for anything else on PlayStation 4.
Sony’s latest home console hardware has had a slow start in retail games which should offer the punch of PlayStation 3’s seriously incredible hits. I’ve also been reluctant to invest a lot of time in a shooter on the platform given the relative genre smearing at launch. Maybe that’s why I think CounterSpy’s charming gameplay hooks overcome a feature that I’ve found disappointing in many other games. Developer Dynamighty have a keen eye for artistic representation and frustrating gameplay becomes readily excusable when you start to pick up the rhythm in each level.
Many games offer up missions and objectives in linear or branching fashion and most players have come to expect things to take sudden twists when design allows for it. Where a blockbuster first-person shooter might give the player the ability to rappel down a wall or blow up a dozen huge fixtures, CounterSpy offers 2D levels with a few set piece moments that change the camera angle to better reflect the action. This helps and hurts the overall level design by giving players the impression that they might need to look into the frame rather than side to side as most of the action takes place. You’ll do both in each level. You'll headshot enemies, poison the stronger guards to get them to turn and fight for you, or blow up explosive panels and crates to take out groups.
While stealth is certainly the focus, given you can score more points going quiet and taking out guards with melee, you can’t really avoid the more all-out action elements of the game. In fact, it’s better to quit while you’re ahead and embrace them. Leaving the idea of complete silence and thorough play definitely falls away as you get deeper into the game and more enemies crowd the various American and Soviet bases. You can play both sides, though the final mission will reflect one or the other and it doesn’t really seem like there’s a narrative to speak of other than the absolute absurdity of nuclear war and of the weapon itself.
What is a nuclear warhead, anyway? CounterSpy suggests it as a theme in the sense that two sides compete endlessly to accomplish little more than they’ve already found. Ultimately each side races to destroy or at the very least strike the moon with a nuclear warhead in order to… I don’t know. What’s the point? I suppose in the grand scheme of things that’s just another opportunity to push the title’s gorgeous graphics.
CounterSpy features some beautiful reds, blues, underground browns, banners, flags, statues with mustaches, propaganda, and more. Screenshots do the title relative justice, though most of the game looks better when you tilt the left analog stick just far enough to move things forward at your character’s creep as opposed to his somersault which I’m guilty of spamming to avoid damage. You never forget which side you’re infiltrating thanks to the heavy emphasis on sides and how little they matter to the dark silhouette that sulks through each door and through each secret passage.
While the user interface remains relatively bare for the sake of simplicity, I often got frustrated with DEFCON levels and how quickly bases would go on alert given the variety of ways you could be caught. Some passages don’t look as good as others, though you’ll find that adding a few low-fidelity smoking craters doesn’t help the situation. CounterSpy’s sound design is also a little forgettable. I wouldn’t add it to a playlist any time soon though it sets a wonderful mood as your agent and C.O.U.N.T.E.R. headquarters discuss the impossibilities and stupidity of the situation at hand.
If CounterSpy doesn’t look like the kind of game you’d want to play, don’t. Even for indie fanatics it’s missable, though I doubt you’d want to give up the visuals or the procedurally generated levels. I don’t often appreciate the feature, though this instance offered quite a few opportunities to rid yourself of that lather, rinse, repeat feeling. Look for the game on your device’s PlayStation Network Store.
Code provided by publisher. Review based on PlayStation 4 version. Also available on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita.