CounterSpy review: That slinking feeling

CounterSpy has a lot going for it: a slick visual style filled with bright colors and distinctive silhouettes, a handful of interesting gameplay ideas, a lovely Mancini-esque soundtrack and an opening sequence that would make James Bond blush. For fans of an older era of espionage – when microfilm was king and USB was still decades away – it's very promising.

Like a lesser Bond film, however, these polished elements never quite come together.
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CounterSpy (8/20/14)

CounterSpy puts you in the shoes of an agent of C.O.U.N.T.E.R., a spy agency of the top secret variety. The game plays on the tensions of the Cold War, putting your agent directly between two equally paranoid factions, the Imperialists and the Socialists, obvious stand-ins for the US and Russia. To prevent these countries from mutually assured nuclear annihilation, you must infiltrate their facilities and steal their launch plans.

Of course, most paranoid military authorities tend to keep their secret launch plans under heavy guard, so some sneaking and dispatching of enemy forces is in order. Gameplay generally hinges on eradicating soldiers as quickly and efficiently as possible while you search for launch plans and, optionally, blueprints for new weapons and formulas that give your agent special abilities. I suggest you do search for these goodies, as certain weapons and formulas make the work of a prominent super spy much easier.

How you choose to eliminate enemies is up to you, whether it be silent and stealthy or loud and explosive. Both methods have their merits. Quietly snapping necks or delivering silenced headshots will prevent other enemies from being alerted to your presence, but mowing down soldiers with a machine gun or perforating a volatile propane take will wipe out large groups quickly. Taking care of business quickly is important, because alerted enemies will radio their comrades, which raises the "DEFCON" level (as does being spotted by security cameras or dying). If you get caught when the DEFCON level is down to 1, you're suddenly given 60 seconds to reach the end of the level, which can be a pretty tall order when there's a horde of soldiers armed with rifles, shotguns and grenade launchers between you and your goal.

It's a challenging system and, at first, it's fun to watch a formation of soldiers and exploit their movement patterns. Taking cover swings the camera from a 2D plane to a third-person view, allowing you to get a bead on enemies or better plan your assaults. Popping out of cover just long enough to get a soldier's attention, only to silently pistol whip him when he comes to investigate, is sure to induce a few smiles. Likewise, CounterSpy's arsenal makes for some wonderful possibilities. My favorite weapon is the Dart Persuader, which temporarily causes an enemy to fire on his allies. If you find yourself faced with a room full of baddies, all you have to do is find the one with the biggest gun and "persuade" him to blast his buddies, leaving you with just one brainwashed dupe to take care of.

Unfortunately, while CounterSpy's basic components are enjoyable, they're undermined by the game's overall structure. For one, every level is randomly generated, and soon they all begin to feel the same. CounterSpy doesn't have a set number of levels, but instead allows you to keep taking missions until you've collected enough launch plans to unlock the final mission. Rather than challenging you with more devious and complex layouts, CounterSpy raises difficulty by filling levels with more enemies and making them harder to kill. Encounters with large groups of enemies feel less like meticulously designed tests of skill and more like luck of the draw. Tougher enemies also have the effect of making stealth less feasible. Helmets block headshots, for example, and non-lethal bullet wounds tend to make soldiers suspicious. You're more likely to be noticed by enemies, which means they're more likely to raise the DEFCON level before you can put them down for good.

On top of all this, the DEFCON level for each country is persistent. In other words, if you finish an Imperialist mission at DEFCON 1, the next Imperialist mission will start at DEFCON 1. There are certain things you can do to lower the DEFCON level, like buying special items or forcing commanding officers to surrender but, again, the randomness of each level makes that feel like a crapshoot. For example, on one mission, you might find an officer surrounded by underlings. If you lose and play the same mission again, you might find him wandering around alone and defenseless. It's technically the "same" mission, but one play can feel dramatically more difficult than another. It's annoying, and it distracts from what is otherwise well-constructed gameplay. When you consider that officers have to be alive in order to surrender – meaning you can't use your most effective weapons, like explosives, for fear of collateral damage – it can be downright maddening.

Finally, when you do best the final mission, CounterSpy ends with very little fanfare – certainly nothing on the level of its brilliant, Bond-esque opening sequence.

It's unfortunate, because the core gameplay of sneaking, assessing the situation, downing enemies, disabling cameras, pilfering plans and occasionally snapping necks is great fun. Setting up a string of sticky bombs for a connect-the-dots series of explosions is especially satisfying, but delights like these are weighed down by CounterSpy's random structure and, in particular, its "more more more" approach to difficulty.

This review is based on a pre-release PSN download of the PS4 version of CounterSpy, provided by Sony. CounterSpy is Cross-Buy, and one purchase unlocks the PS4, PS3 and PS Vita versions. Images: Dynamighty.

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