CounterSpy review: arms race

Russ Frushtick
Polygon

CounterSpy offers a light-hearted take on the Cold War, but it probably needed some more time to cook.

While the Cold War has appeared as the setting for a large swath of games, the conflict is generally portrayed as seriously as it happened. The world was, after all, on the brink of annihilation. It's pretty tough to make light of that.

But, rather than playing it straight, CounterSpy goes another way, delivering a goofy, Pixar-esque take on the events that almost brought two superpowers to blows. Unfortunately, despite exemplary presentation values, CounterSpy's frequently-flawed gameplay brings the overall experience into the red.

CounterSpy places you in the role of an agent of COUNTER, an apolitical spy organization whose simple goal is to prevent the planet from going poof. The biggest present threat: two major nations ("subtly" referred to as The Imperialist States and The Socialist Republic) are racing one another to be the first to launch a nuclear strike...on the moon! As a briefing message gravely states in prologue, "Our boffins calculate the combined detonation will knock the Moon into the gravitational pull of Earth. The ensuing Earth impact will extinguish all life on the planet."

The game's silly premise is tonally backed by 1960s aesthetics and jazz music. Films like Doctor No were definite inspirations and the game even opens with an animated, James Bond-style credit sequence. It's clear a lot of love was put into making sure that the art and audio matched the time period and the end result is spot-on and extremely impressive. The in-game graphics are equally slick, with a cel-shaded look that has a propaganda-poster vibe, albeit in 3D. The heroic spy and his foes (guards stationed in secret military bases within both nations) are animated incredibly well, calling to mind the precise movements of games like the original Prince of Persia or Out of this World.

Once you're done drooling over the incredible presentation values, though, CounterSpy starts to show its cracks.

CounterSpy is a 2D-sidecrolling mix of stealth and action, neither of which works well. The game clearly encourages stealth, as you're rewarded with a boon of points if you string together stealth kills (like sneaking up behind guards for a neck snap or shooting them with a silenced pistol). But CounterSpy frequently makes stealth unfairly impossible. I often opened a door to find myself instantly spotted by a half-dozen soldiers who standing there, waiting for my arrival. Other times, I was spotted, even when I was behind cover. There's no clear indication or logic defining when guards can see you and when they can't - a major problem for a stealth game.

There's also a peculiar use of depth in CounterSpy's level design. Guards on your 2D plane can be shot. But if they walk into the background, the only way to take them down is by going into cover at very specific points. This turns the game into a strange, over-the-shoulder shooting gallery, and the transition from 2D to 3D rarely works well. I frequently ran into bugs where guards would be unkillable, clipping through scenery or appearing at odd angles, ruining an otherwise perfect mission. This element reeks of presentation trumping good gameplay design.

If the developers wanted some chaos to break up otherwise perfectly silent playthroughs, CounterSpy's combat is sadly not up to the task. Once again, it relies on clunky cover-based mechanics that are extremely limiting. You'll often find yourself on one side of a room, getting shot at by guards you can't see, simply because you can't find a cover point that'll let you see clear across the room. It's awkward, forced and feels broken.

This is particularly frustrating because the game is designed around scores and performance. The idea of a procedurally-generated spy game (the levels are crafted from randomly-selected rooms) that you could play "forever" is, at its core, awesome. But every time a guard bugged out or the game didn't act as it should, I felt cheated. The best, most polished games make you feel like you're always the one at fault. Instead, I got a buggy, frustrating two-hour quest that, as a reward, unlocks a new, harder series of buggy, frustrating levels.

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