Published on September 5th, 2014 | by Michael Ormonde0
[icps4] [icps3] [icvita]
The world is split. In the west, “The Imperialist States” decry the political leaning and oppression their enemy asserts over the people. To the east, “The Socialist Republic” denounce their opposite as a corrupting influence on the world as a whole. Both want, nay, need to show their superiority over the other. And what better way to do that than – nuking the moon?? Taking on the role of an unnamed agent of C.O.U.N.T.E.R, you are the last hope of averting the destruction of the entire planet. While the two superpowers race towards the brink of destruction, you must covertly sabotage their operations, not to aid an agenda, but to ensure the survival of the species.
Counterspy eschews the typical serious demeanour of the Cold War, and instead delivers an over-the-top, unashamedly silly take on its only semi-fictional premise. Drab greys and browns are replaced by colourful palettes reminiscent of propaganda posters, and the entire aesthetic has an “Incredibles” feel to it – not surprising given Matt Holmes, the studio’s Creative Director, was a prominent artist at Pixar for many years. Those with a fondness for Austin Powers or other similar genre pieces will be right at home here.
In order to stop the nuclear launches, you need to infiltrate the heavily guarded compounds of both superpowers. The game plays out over a number of days, with each day presenting a choice of missions – one infiltrating an Imperialist compound and the other a Socialist one, offering their own benefits and drawbacks. The primary goal of each mission is to gather intelligence documents such as radio frequencies or flight plans pertaining to the impending nuclear launch, with the different missions having greater or fewer number of these documents around the compound. The compounds will also contain a number of optional collectibles hidden away in vaults. Collecting these gives you access to better weapons and “formulas” – per mission boosts that you can purchase and equip at the beginning of said mission – that allow you to customise your spy to your play style. You’ll also earn cash during each mission to spend on the aforementioned weapons and formulas.
Mission to mission, the status of both the Imperialist west and Socialist east is tracked by their DEFCON level. Alerting enemies, walking within view of a camera or dying all raise the DEFCON level of the superpower. Once this hits DEFCON 1, you then have 60 seconds to reach the end of the mission and hit the “Abort Launch” button or face restarting the mission. Luckily, there are ways to lower the DEFCON level as well. A formula you acquire fairly early on in the game serves to lower the current DEFCON level by one at the beginning of a mission. There are also officers located on several stages. Training your weapon on these enemies once all others have been eliminated also lowers the DEFCON level.
Each mission plays out in a traditional 2D side on view (think Super Metroid or Castlevania) with a unique twist. Each compound is randomly generated, both in layout and in enemy location. Stealth is paramount, and each location features numerous pillars or ledges which you can take cover behind. Doing so switches the perspective to a quasi 3D view, where you’re able to aim your weapon using an on screen reticule and then pop out to fire a few quick shots before skulking back to the shadows unseen. Each room can also feature hidden paths and vents, so it’s always worth exploring every nook and cranny of each stage.
I had played an (admittedly early) version of Counterspy way back at GamesCom 2013, and had concerns over some of the 3D aiming, but happily these issues are negligible in the final release. During the platforming sections, my agent controlled well and I was able to climb and navigate the various catwalks with impunity. Occasionally I had issues with my character locking into cover when I tried to roll past a cover point, but these were minimal as to be superfluous. The 3D aiming was responsive, and being able to aim whilst in cover meant that picking off individual assailants was a breeze.
For the most part the stealth approach works, and works well. Sneaking in and out of cover becomes second nature, and planning your approach to take out an entire room of enemies, and seeing that plan executed to perfection is satisfying. However, when entering a new room, you’re given no initial indication of where enemies are, so oftentimes I’d walk into a room and be immediately spotted by two or three enemies in the vicinity of the entrance. Once you open the door to the new room, indicators show the location and facing of any off screen enemies, but this is oftentimes too late to maintain a stealthy approach. The 3D shooting is snappy, and I had no problems picking off enemies with head shots and well placed explosions. When things get hectic, aiming can become a little imprecise for my liking, but ducking behind cover and taking stock of the situation nullifies that.
No matter what platform you decide to play on, the experience remains virtually identical. Progress is seamlessly transferred across devices meaning you can play a level or two on your PS4, and then take your vita out and continue on exactly where you’ve left off. Given the random generation of the individual levels, saving progress during missions isn’t possible, but each take in the region of 10-15 minutes so this isn’t a concern. With all that being said, the PS4 is definitely the optimal experience of the 3 platforms. The graphical fidelity certainly takes a knock on both the PS3 and PSVita, with the character models lacking the sharpness of their PS4 counterparts. I also experienced fairly severe frame rate drops on both PS3 and Vita when there was a lot happening on screen at once. This appeared to be restricted to the latter parts of any individual stage, and never lasted longer than a few seconds, but was definitely noticeable more than I would have liked. It should also be noted that the load times on the Vita version are irritatingly long.
Counterspy’s charming aesthetic, ridiculous premise and stealth-lite gameplay do more than enough to mask the shortcomings and occasional technical hiccups in developer Dynamighty’s first foray into the Playstation ecosystem. While a few design choices somewhat take the sheen of the ambitious debut title, Counterspy provides more than enough solid espionage action to keep players coming back for more.
Summary: Being a spy during the Cold War has never been as fun, but a few technical hiccups take the sheen off a solid title