Being a fan of stealth, I have no problem with trial-and-error and strategic planning. I don’t require a more fast-paced blend of action and stealth to keep my attention. However, one has to admit that pure stealth games do suffer from pacing and balance issues almost by default, just because it’s difficult to maintain any sort of momentum. Dynamighty solves that problem with the slick, well-designed CounterSpy, which keeps you playing with its nicely balanced presentation of gunplay and sneaky maneuvering.
The cel-shaded graphics and 1960s theme greatly enhance the player’s interest and immersion, as the environment continues to please throughout. This is one of those procedurally generated games, in that going through it a second time will present you with fresh obstacles (although, as I will address in a minute, the changes aren’t exactly drastic). I haven’t seen a cel-shaded presentation in a while, and I’d forgotten that when done correctly, it can really shine. It also fits the game’s style perfectly; it doesn’t appear outdated, but it does fit the date in question, if that makes sense.
The audio takes advantage of the time period by utilizing a retro soundtrack featuring some smooth jazz, and the effects straddle the line between goofy and intense. The sound simply strikes a nice chord, bolstering the player’s enjoyment of the environment and adding some era-specific goodness. Combine this with the classic 60s style – from the uniforms of the enemy to the Socialist propaganda – and you’ve got a distinctly attractive package that stands alone. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, either, as the game has a dry sense of humor that will make you grin.
CounterSpy is simultaneously accessible and surprisingly robust. On the one hand, just about anyone can pick it up and play, immediately understanding the basic premise: A spy must liberate sensitive information from a heavily guarded area, and he can snap necks in the shadows, pop heads like watermelons with his trusty silenced pistol, or, if necessary, engage in a serious firefight or two. Being spotted isn’t the end of the world, as it is in some stealth adventures, but you’re still encouraged to approach each situation with a calm hand and a cool head. There are no overly complex gameplay mechanics that can hinder the game’s streamlined nature.
The only downside to this unique presentation is when you opt to use walls as cover, which changes the perspective. This can be a little confusing at first and difficult to get used to, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker. You just have to realize that with a shifting perspective, you can’t act too rashly. This drawback actually plays into the game’s theme, which I don’t mind in the least. That being said, there were times when the perspective shift left me momentarily confused, which gave the enemy the upper hand. That’s why it needs to be mentioned. Other than that, the control is spot-on.
You do have a silenced pistol and stealth takedowns, but you can also unlock heavier weaponry. Discovering schematics gives you access to bigger – and louder – weapons like the shotgun, so if the level demands some dirty work, you’ll feel better prepared. You also have access to various character modifiers, such as silent steps, that have a big impact on the gameplay. Choosing your skills and weapons before a level is critical, and the more difficult missions often require a better balance between stealth and commando tactics. This is one of the highlights of the game because it’s appreciated depth within a more accessible setting.
The only thing that bugs me in all stealth games, even if they are more dynamic and naturally paced, is any sort of time limit. As you’re racing the clock in this game, getting spotted won’t just alert the guards, it will also expedite the launch of a nuclear attack. If that happens, game over. You’re always racing that clock and the more your foes remark your presence, the faster the end will come. I thought I’d really hate this feature and while I still don’t like it, it doesn’t have a tremendous impact on the fun factor. It’s not like you get spotted twice and nuclear winter ensues; you’re allowed to make a few mistakes, so that’s cool.
The other issue I have is with the concept of “procedurally generated” environments. In my experience, this just means parts of the environment have changed; playing again never really feels like I’m playing an entirely new adventure. Once you’ve played through this game, I’m not sure what you’ll get out of another play-through, despite the aforementioned changes. And as the game isn’t very long – you’ll probably finish it within 2-3 hours – it seems the developers were relying on the procedurally generated feature to add longevity. It does increase the game’s replayability but it's not a gigantic incentive to play again.
At the end of the day, though, this is one highly entertaining and satisfying stealth adventure. The control is simple and responsive, enemy AI feels just about right, and the level design is great. You have the freedom to approach various sections and objectives with different tactics, but the game never suffers from a lack of identity. It just empowers the player regardless of how the player chooses to experience the quest. Not enough games manage to do this, in my estimation. If you want to be all stealthy, you’ll be properly rewarded; if you need to throw down and do a little wet work, you can do that as well. You’re one cool spy!
CounterSpy is a nicely designed and presented game with a lot of appeal. You’ll have a lot of fun sneaking through these challenging military installations, and you’ll appreciate the character customization and relative depth. It’s clear the designers spent a great deal of time crafting a cohesive, highly enjoyable stealth/action game, and for the most part, they succeeded. I never like any time-based features in such adventures and the procedurally generated environment thing feels too much like a smokescreen for a too-short quest. But other than that, it’s really a blast, and well worth playing.
The Good: Excellent, unique presentation and style. Responsive, solid control. Very well balanced between stealth and action. Character modifiers increase the depth. Dynamic and engaging; getting spotted isn’t catastrophic. Rewarding and satisfying.
The Bad: Getting spotted decreases the amount of time available. A little too short. Randomly generated levels aren’t the be-all, end-all.
The Ugly: "Hard to find 'ugly' in a cel-shaded world."
8/29/2014 Ben Dutka