The Cold War sticks out in history as a huge period in time that touched everyone on the planet, so it’s no surprise that so many works of art have been made about it. CounterSpy lets you ride the middle ground in the war as a spy for C.O.U.N.T.E.R. (an independent organization) collecting intel, blueprints, and launch plans to prevent a nuclear strike on the moon. The game pokes fun at the ridiculousness stemming from tensions during the Cold War, and conveniently lets you observe both sides from the shadows while balancing the fate of the world.
CounterSpy feels very well-rounded because of the DEFCON system. Each new mission gives you a chance to raise or lower this “doomsday clock,” and put off a nuclear strike on the moon. However, if you mess up too much, you will raise the DEFCON level, which affects both countries, and subsequent missions. You have to be careful and plan out your attacks. The 2D platforming makes this feel even more like a puzzle that can be solved in multiple ways, stealthy or not. Collecting blueprints can unlock new weapons and formulas that can make the job easier, but these cost money. There are many checks and balances that you need to be mindful of in this game, as your choices have a lasting weight through the campaign.
Actually playing the game and stealth-ing around feels very smooth and fluid. I was annoyed to see that I would have to constantly move up and down ladders and jump to ledges, because for some reason that is usually the most annoying thing in a game, but it’s very quick and easy in CounterSpy. You can dart around with ease — very befitting of the dark, slinky spy you play as. You can walk instead of run to sneak up behind enemies and take them down, but sometimes it feels like, while stealth is very encouraged in the game, you are forced into a room where every enemy sees you the moment you enter, with nothing you could have done. It seems like this is due to flawed AI, and can totally screw you over if it happens during a mission.
Dying during a mission raises your DEFCON level by one and restarts you at the room where you died, but enemies that you took out remain gone. To avoid such a huge penalty to your DEFCON level, you can quit out and restart the entire mission, which gives you a whole new set-up of randomly generated rooms. This new layout could be advantageous, or more difficult than the one before, but at least your DEFCON level doesn’t take such a hit. The only time I felt a sense of boredom was from seeing the same rooms over and over, albeit in different orders, in each mission. It’s not a very big complaint, but having a larger amount of unique rooms to travel through would be more entertaining.
The look of the game is fits in with the smooth, cool spy theme, too. The animation is this slick, graphic style of cel-shading that could translate perfectly into a cinematic still at any point in gameplay. The propaganda posters in each superpower’s base feature hilarious mockery of real propaganda of that time, like a poster depicting a heroic-looking soldier that states, “The first step to victory is being on the winning side,” or posters that warn that spies are not allowed. There was a surprising amount of these posters, and I loved reading each new one while sneaking around. I only wish I could have actually understood the ones in the Socialist base, as I’m sure they said funny stuff too. I wasn’t disappointed with the sound design of the game either. Appropriate 60’s spy movie-esque tracks accompany you through the shadows as you deftly drop enemies one by one.
A huge part of CounterSpy’s appeal is it’s humor. When being briefed by C.O.U.N.T.E.R., you, as the agent, question some of the absurd aspects of the situation, like why you and not some other spy has to do all of the missions, whether C.O.U.N.T.E.R.’s intentions are good, or why the launch plans are exactly the same for both superpowers. Some of the most funny content comes from the intel you gather. For example, a study about “the use of cats to deliver atomic payload,” or a document about “how to stay a superpower for the next 1,000 years.” I hope no one is offended by this game making light of the Cold War, because I really think it means well and is all in fun. It even seems to be a sort of subtle statement about reflecting back on a time when things escalated very quickly, and how we can see now that was not the best way to handle things. Much detail was put into making this a fun game, and I think the title even makes a great Vita game because of the quick missions, unique DEFCON system, and bold graphics style well-suited for a small screen.
I really enjoyed this game because it has a lot of historical commentary delivered with subtle humor, and the unique DEFCON system challenges you to be smart about how you complete each mission. Playing as a spy who doesn’t align with either side and also questions the agency he works for makes for an engaging PSN title. CounterSpy touches on the gravity of the cold war while presenting it in a polished game that many will enjoy, if they choose to accept the mission.
CounterSpy review copy provided by publisher. Review done on PS4. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.