CounterSpy rounds off PLAY 2014 as the first development effort of Dynamighty, a studio founded by former LucasArts and Pixar employees. As you can imagine then, the game is not wanting for charm or style, acting as a cheeky, colourful take on Cold War paranoia.
A stealth-flavoured platformer with a hint of third-person shooter elements, CounterSpy is a pretty ambitious game for the PlayStation Store, particularly given its obvious origin as a PlayStation Mobile project. The game was soon after released for both iOS and Android devices, albeit in a slightly downscaled format (but also a cheaper one), with the fully realized vision of the game being downloadable and cross-buy between PS3, PS Vita and PS4.
CounterSpy is quite respectable as a first effort for its developer, particularly given its presentation and sense of humour. With that said however, it is a bit wanting for polish in some surprising places, particularly in its mobile incarnation, and feels disappointingly short, considering how fun and cool it is.
If you’re looking for a deep and engrossing stealth game, this probably isn’t it. CounterSpy is held back in that regard by its technical issues and simplicity. If you simply want a fun distraction though, the game is quite enjoyable while it lasts, particularly on PlayStation platforms.
CounterSpy is a real testament to what skilled artistic designers can do when developing with the indie-friendly Unity Engine assets. The touch of Pixar is evident throughout the stylized polygonal shading style, giving everything a sleek, modern cartoon vibe that nonetheless adds a hint of suave 1970’s flavour at the same time.
The cartoon-style cutscenes that form the intro and outro of the game are particularly impressive, acting as a cartoon-style James Bond sequence that really flexes the artistic muscle of both PlayStation and mobile devices. When you’re not in the levels proper, the game’s menus are also done with a retro chic palette, complete with a grainy, projector-style map screen showing where you stand against both superpowers in CounterSpy. Clearly, great effort has gone into realizing the style of the game throughout every portion of it.
What’s particularly impressive about CounterSpy as well is the fact that it looks virtually identical on any of its platforms, regardless of how current they are! With that said however, there are some differences in performance, and that’s particularly true in the iOS build, which is the most prone to crashing at random. Even on newer iPad’s, the iOS version has rampant framerate issues too, making it often run slowly and chug with its animations. Even the Android version presents some potential stability problems, depending on which Android device you play it on, so be aware that mobile players will deal with a noticeably less smooth and reliable experience.
For those playing the main build of the game on PlayStation devices, once again, the PS4 version of CounterSpy is the most smooth and polished of the lot. It has the quickest load times, the most stable framerate, and the sharpest colour palette. The graphics are virtually the same on PS3, beyond the slight reduction in resolution on Sony’s last-gen console, but bear in mind that the PS3 version has a less stable framerate, and often suffers from moderate slowdown as you play it.
Thankfully, the PS Vita version presents a more stable and enjoyable portable option, though one that still has some of the framerate chugs of its PS3 sibling. Another issue with the PS Vita build is that its load times when you start the game or start a mission are pretty long, sometimes stretching to twenty seconds or more. At least this version doesn’t have the crashing and stability issues of the mobile builds though, and its graphics are pretty well identical to the PS3 version most notably, making the PS Vita version by far the best way to take CounterSpy on the go, even with the longer load times.
The dedicated PlayStation devices are the best way to enjoy CounterSpy overall in fact, but even with the added issues of the mobile builds, CounterSpy is one of the most slickly-presented indie games in recent memory on any platform. Despite being a simpler indie game, its incredible animation style truly feels like it could sustain its own CG feature film, making the Pixar spirit feel pretty palpable throughout CounterSpy.
The spy-flavoured soundtrack of CounterSpy is excellent, marrying the composition style of a James Bond movie with that of Pixar’s The Incredibles. Methodical jazz and classy brass make up the entirety of the music, giving everything the feel of a colourful and cool spy movie. Even then, the music is unintrusive as you’re sneaking around each level, though it nicely kicks up to complement a heated gun battle whenever you’re made by your enemies.
Sound effects are fully done in the cartoon spirit, with even the guns lacking the kind of punch that would suggest they’re truly grounded in reality. Even powerful weapons like rockets and grenades fizz and clink around like cartoon props, and explosions sound like the kind of thing you’d hear in a Looney Tunes sketch. As much as CounterSpy has a true air of spy-flavoured class, its sound effects constantly ensure that the game never takes itself too seriously.
The game even features voice acting throughout the stages, most notably in the remarks of the guards. It’s likely impossible to understand those on the Socialist (read: Russian) side, but playing missions in the Imperialist (read: American) side will often treat players to some rather humourous guard announcements, along with every guard oddly all being named, “Johnny”, among other things. This makes playing against the English-speaking superpower especially fun and rewarding, and is another thing dragging down the iOS and Android versions of the game, which only allow you to undertake missions against the Socialists.
Dynamighty has polished the audio as much as the visuals, making CounterSpy consistently entertaining, even during its shakier moments.
CounterSpy places you in control of an agent of C.O.U.N.T.E.R., a secret spy agency that aims to put a stop to two feuding superpowers’ ambitions. In a satirical mockery of the real historical arms race between the U.S. and Russia, both the Imperialist and Socialist powers are racing to launch a nuclear warhead at the moon, and destroy all life on the planet. C.O.U.N.T.E.R. is thus attempting to disrupt their plans so that this can’t happen.
After playing through a tutorial sequence, you can then choose to undertake a mission on either Imperialist turf or Socialist turf at your leisure, at least on PlayStation platforms. Again, on iOS and Android, you’re limited to playing Socialist missions. Each level is randomized, and potentially offers different spoils in the case of the PlayStation builds, which the game indicates for you on the main map screen.
CounterSpy allows you to hunt down Formulas and Blueprints, which unlock new character perks and weapons respectively, both of which can be purchased with cash that you earn from scoring points on successful missions, but the main objective of the game is tracking down launch plans. Each mission can have a variable number of launch plans, and as you collect more of them, the game gets progressively more difficult. Guards start becoming beefed up. More defensive measures are put in place. The procedurally-generated level layouts become a bit trickier.
Fortunately, not only does cross-save capability allow you to freely move your progress between your PlayStation devices via the cloud, but thanks to a special online account that you can make with Sony, you can even transfer your progress back and forth from PlayStation to iOS to Android at will. This is very cool, and should prove attractive to people who want to own both the PlayStation versions and mobile version, or perhaps have, say, an iPad and an Android phone. What’s better is that any Formulas and Blueprints that you find are yours to keep, and even if you play on a different device or start a new campaign on any difficulty, you’ll never lose the spoils you’ve already found.
This means that persistent play will gradually make CounterSpy easier, though you will have to re-purchase any weapons that you’ve unlocked after starting a new campaign. Still, with enough play time put in, it won’t be tough to get your hands on every trophy in the PlayStation builds, though for some strange reason, only the PS3 and PS Vita versions share a trophy roster, with the PS4 version having its own separate, but identical trophy roster. Why? Who knows.
Anyway, the levels may be randomized, but making your way through them is never a complex affair. They’re mostly linear, and tend to overlap in terms of their fundamental architecture and enemy placement. Sure, you can’t perfect a single stealth sequence like you can in more dedicated stealth games, but at least CounterSpy doesn’t make things too needlessly complicated.
While much of the game is done like a side-scrolling platformer with randomized levels, players have to do their best to avoid detection. They must shoot out cameras, headshot or beat down any guards in their way, and make sure they don’t alert nearby soldiers when they steal launch plans or intel. Much of this can be done with a simple press of a button, or tap of the screen in the case of the mobile editions, provided you’re careful about remaining undetected.
Should you find yourself provoking a gunfight though, CounterSpy features a cover-based shooting system, where you can take cover behind a protective surface (one that is thankfully clearly marked with yellow and black striping), and aim and fire your equipped weapon at enemies. The mechanics clearly borrow from games like Uncharted and Gears of War, with players simply able to switch weapons using the Directional Buttons in the PlayStation versions, then aim with the Right Analog Stick, and fire with R1/R2/R.
The shooting generally feels smooth and responsive, though it’s a bit stiffer and fussier on PS Vita, thanks to the shorter and more rigid analog sticks, so bear that in mind. On PS3 and PS4, gunfights feel a little more enjoyable, and shooting generally feels quicker and more precise. This is especially important while you’re still sneaking around too, since you can more easily pop two adjacent guards in the head while creeping around on Sony’s consoles, compared to Sony’s handheld, and especially the mobile builds.
In fact, both sneaking and combat can be very fussy on iOS and Android, with the iOS versions having particularly fussy touch controls. With some practice, you can get used to the touch interface, but CounterSpy suffers from the same issue that many mobile games do when they’re clearly made for dedicated gaming platforms and their buttons; The more interpretive touch gestures are often misinterpreted. This means that you’ll likely expose yourself by jumping instead of taking cover, or may roll into a hail of bullets while trying to shoot at a platoon of enemies. This is the kind of stuff that avid stealth gamers will have absolutely zero patience for, and it’s a big part of the reason why stealth games don’t often mesh well with smartphones and tablets.
Fortunately, it could be worse. Despite later introducing armoured cameras and more durable guards, on top of new arrangements of weapons for both you and your enemies, CounterSpy never becomes more complicated than it starts out as. Even the last mission of the game, which you can only access after you find enough launch plans on either side, is just a larger run of guards and cameras. The entire game skims the edge of repetitive drudgery because of this, since there’s surprisingly little depth, even for an indie game that’s at least partially made for mobile devices.
Fortunately, the style and rewards will help to carry players through. There’s also a nice bit of challenge thrown in thanks to the DEFCON level, which encourages players to play smartly. When you start the game, the DEFCON level on both sides is at 3. Whenever you take too long to take out guards on radios that you’ve alerted, or are seen too much by cameras, the DEFCON level will raise. If it goes past DEFCON 1, a launch countdown will begin, which signals whichever superpower you’re infiltrating about to launch their nuke. When that happens, you have a limited time to reach the end of the stage and abort the launch, or else it’s Game Over.
Fortunately, you have infinite lives and retries, so you can keep coming back at something until you’ve overcome it. Every death will raise the DEFCON level by 1 however, and if you die during the launch countdown, ten seconds will be taken off of it. It’s a good balance between giving a player death weight in the game, without punishing players too harshly if things suddenly don’t go their way.
The only way to lower a DEFCON level is to either point your gun at an officer, a special enemy in white garb, when no other enemies are around to have them surrender, or unlock and buy a certain formula that will lower that superpower’s DEFCON level by 1 automatically when you start. Naturally, the lowest that the DEFCON level will go is 5, and the only way to get it that low is to continually hold up officers, or use the formula that lowers it before a mission, without raising it again by being spotted and/or dying.
Mostly, the play mechanics are sound, albeit uncomplicated. The game is very much a light play experience that serves as more of a fun diversion than a serious stealth game, but it’s fun once you get into a rhythm. It’s a shame then that the game is pretty short, and could potentially be blown through in just 3-4 hours, if you’re not particular about trophy hunting or boosting your scores.
A few other issues with the design occasionally interrupt the fun as well. Chief among these is the problematic A.I., with enemies having very simple cover and firing patterns during gunfights that are very easy to exploit. Whether or not they hear you while you’re doing something in a fenced off or adjacent room can also sometimes be purely random, with some enemies idiotically failing to detect you even when you sometimes poke them with the butt of your gun, and others somehow knowing exactly where you are, even when you fire a silenced gun on a platform above them. This also leads to some inconsistencies about whether or not you’re actually detectable when you’re far away or using certain tools, and it’s another thing that will really frustrate avid stealth gamers.
Still, even if it’s short-lived and simplistic, CounterSpy is entertaining as a simple-minded action game with stealth and shooting elements. It’s just a shame that the gameplay isn’t always as polished as the presentation.
CounterSpy is the least deep of the PLAY 2014 offerings, and the least polished in terms of gameplay for that matter, but there’s still plenty to like about it. It’s a fun and charming little experience that won’t take you long to exhaust, but it still proves entertaining thanks to its stylish visuals and cheeky tone.
As much as the game’s structure is friendly for mobile devices, be advised that CounterSpy definitely turned out best on dedicated PlayStation platforms. The iOS version in particular has considerable crashing and performance issues, and both the iOS and Android builds suffer from finicky, unreliable controls, particularly when you’re limited to playing with a touch screen, and that’s before the downscaled gameplay elements. You at least pay less to play on a smartphone or tablet, but you get what you pay for, so be warned.
On PlayStation platforms, the $14.99 price feels a bit high for the paltry package, and you may wish to wait for the game to go on sale on the PlayStation Store if you’re interested. Still, CounterSpy has the benefit of being cross-buy and cross-save across all three of Sony’s current dedicated gaming platforms, and you can get around the issues of the mobile versions by taking the game on the go on PS Vita. Sure, CounterSpy handles best on PS3 and PS4, but it still sports a portable-friendly, short burst structure that makes it undeniably appealing to take on the go, giving the PS Vita version an especially attractive appeal, even with its longer load times and stiffer analog sticks.
In any case, CounterSpy is a solid first effort from Dynamighty, despite some of its flaws. It doesn’t offer enough depth to satisfy hardened stealth gamers, but if you’re just looking for a fun and colourful little diversion, its kooky take on covert Cold War operations should at least leave you with an amused smile.
- Charming visuals
- Great soundtrack
- Amusing Cold War parody
- Very short
- Sloppy A.I.
- Mobile editions play poorly