CounterSpy is a fun little gem of a game from indie studio Dynamighty that draws on a rich stylistic history of espionage in 1960’s cinema. It starts with excellent graphic design inspired by the likes of Saul Bass, then layers on a cool, “spy jazz” soundtrack that would have made Mancini proud. Add some fun, light gameplay combining side-scrolling action with simple stealth mechanics and you have an experience that will have you longing for the simpler times of cold war espionage.
CounterSpy is a homage not just to films from the sixties and seventies, but to their animated title sequences in particular. I was a kid back then, and I can remember sitting through any number of movies where I enjoyed the opening sequence far more than the actual film. The titles were bright and animated! The music was brash and exciting!
Too often, the rest of the film turned out to be slow, drab, and (from my inexperienced point of view) dull as dirt. Time after time, my young mind hoped against reason that the rest of the movie would somehow be replaced by a feature-length animation based on the credits.
CounterSpy goes a long way toward fulfilling that wish. The game sets the mood the moment the titles begin: A watchful eye is superimposed by the hands of a clock, the sound of the countdown ticking away, leading quickly into a slick, animated montage depicting nuclear escalation between the superpowers, a struggle for superior intelligence waged by spies and counterspies.
This mod vibe extends seamlessly into the game itself. The level design is excellent: clean and beautiful in all its deceptively simple, retro glory. A low-key jazz score sets the mood perfectly. Game mechanics are straightforward. What they lack in variety and sophistication they make up for in their simplicity: Creep through ventilation shafts, sneak up on unsuspecting military personnel, avoid or disable security cameras, and shoot or evade everyone you meet.
The game takes place at an unspecified time during the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. You play the part of a spy working for an ostensibly neutral third party, an intelligence organization known only as “C.O.U.N.T.E.R.” You spend most of the game managing two things: Your cash flow, and the respective DefCon levels of the two superpowers.
The DefCon level is a nice touch. Every time your presence is detected while on a mission in either country, the corresponding country’s DefCon level drops. If the DefCon level on either side reaches zero, a countdown to launch begins, and you must now race to stop the imminent launch of a nuclear arsenal.
Once the DefCon level has been lowered, your means to raise it again are limited. Just one brash, careless, run-and-gun level might take two, three or more carefully-played levels to repair. The final mission must be played in the country with the lowest DefCon level. Start out too low and you risk triggering a launch. Thankfully, you can play as many levels as you want before committing to the final challenge.
While CounterSpy gets many points for creativity and style, is loses some in its occasionally glitchy gameplay and unbalanced, mostly useless upgrade trees. Having tried numerous combinations of weapons and enhancements, I found myself always returning to one particular configuration, not because I preferred it, but because anything else felt less than adequate. The ability to purchase additional ammo clips or upgrade slots would have greatly extended the game’s playable lifetime.
CounterSpy was a pleasant surprise. I recommend it to anyone who appreciates light action games, 1960’s graphic design, or cold war espionage themes in general. If you have a PlayStation Plus account, you can even download it for free.