I’ve spent the better part of an hour trying to come up with a spy movie analogy to Counterspy’s style over substance but so far I have nothing. This is why Tom should write this review. Best I could come up with was Mission Impossible 2 where Coppola’s tense moodiness was traded in for John Woo’s stylish hyperviolence. But then I remember Tom Cruise climbing that mountain with nothing but chalk and grit and the fact that if it wasn’t for that movie, Dougray Scott would have been cast as Wolverine thereby plunging us into a dystopian future worse than anything Days of Future Past could come up with.
See, Tom really should write this. So yeah, Counterspy. It’s flashy, but then what?
After the jump, the spy who bugged me…
Counterspy has an interesting aesthetic, recalling 60’s spy romps, complete with trumpet blasts, old timey computer sounds, and visuals that make the game look like a spy caper set in the Incredibles universe. You play an agent of C.O.U.N.T.E.R., a neutral third-party organization working to stop the Imperialists (Americans) and the Socialists (Soviets) from launching nuclear missles at the moon to knock it out of orbit. To do this you infiltrate their bases and steal launch plans. Since it’s the 60s, no one thought to back up said plans. Also apparently whoever came up with the launch plans has been fired or murdered or fired and then murdered.
The gameplay combines 2D stealth and third-person cover shooting, yet neither feel fully developed. There’s no consistency for when guards will see you as you’re bouncing between cover. There’s no indication as to when a guard will investigate a noise rather than call an alarm. The tried-and-true method of trial and error for determining a stealth game’s systems doesn’t work here because you can’t pin down what’s luck and what’s skill. In one instance I shot one soldier surrounded by three others. Of the three that were left, one remained unfazed, one went into search mode with a body at his feet, and one called an alarm. Clearly one was jockeying for a promotion. When I’m lining up my shots, I shouldn’t have to figure out who’s looking to climb the career ladder.
Shooting is slightly more effective. But even though this is a cover shooter, don’t expect to be able to move between cover. Once you’re in one of the designated cover locations, trying to move to another piece of cover will switch back to 2D mode, which usually results in then switching to 1D mode, that D being “death”. If you haven’t been discovered yet it’s easy to line up headshots, take out cameras, and set off explosions. But once bullets and grenades start flying, once Counterspy embraces its dreams of action sequences, it becomes a matter of waiting until no one is shooting at you and then popping up to take out a target. Just hope that someone doesn’t bum rush you or hit you with a grenade launcher.
Just like in actual history, the Defcon meter is an ever-present buzzkill. As you make your way through levels, bad spy things such as having an alarm called on you and getting killed raises the Defcon meter. Doing good spy things such as getting to the end of the level, stealing launch plans, and capturing officers at gunpoint lowers the Defcon meter. If the meter gets too high the launch starts and you’ll have sixty second to run to the end of the level and stop the launch. Otherwise, say goodbye to the moon and hello to a reloaded save point.
The problem with the Defcon meter is that while it’s supposed to raise tension and force you to be the best spy you can be, it’s at odds with everything else in the game. Levels are randomly generated, so when you open a door, you don’t know if you’re walking in on one lone guard with his back turned or a half dozen soldiers looking straight at you. Sometimes you have the chance to be a sneaky good spy, sometimes the alarm is raised through no fault of your own, and sometimes guards start searching for you. But when they start searching, they never stop. Leaving them searching by moving to the next room gets you one step closer to launchapalooza. Similarly, sometimes you’ll get a lone officer to surrender, but sometimes he’ll be surrounded by soldiers who all have to be killed, and sometimes you might not even see them until it’s too late. Counterspy wants you to tackle the levels in a Metroid-esque style, backtracking and looking for collectibles but the threat of coming across soldiers who might raise your Defcon level takes the joy of exploring out of it.
Similar charges can be leveled at the game’s economy. I can understand having to use money to unlock newly acquired weapons and to purchase perks for each mission. But making me buy my own bullets? What kind of spy agency makes their employees buy their own bullets? This economy ends up stifling the desire to explore just as much as the Defcon level, because finding intel usually alerts the guards, which then leads to battles in which you’re throwing away money with every shot fired. Not to mention risking a raised Defcon level.
As much as I’m complaining, I can say that while I did cry foul at some particularly unfortunate level generation situations, many of the game’s problems didn’t come to light until I finished the campaign once on the default difficulty and then restarted on a higher difficulty. On normal you can see the cracks, but you can work your way past them. On higher difficulty levels, these cracks widen into gaps, then pits, then chasms. Maybe if I had just put the game away after my first playthough, these issues wouldn’t have bothered me as much. Maybe if the new weapons you unlock were worth the time and money. But the moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t compelling enough to make the fourth or fifth mission different from the first. The draw of the Cold War setting, the visual aesthetic, and the soundtrack only last so long. And all too quickly, Counterspy gets left out in the cold.