The Cold War was a war with no battles, no monuments, only casualties. So said Captain Ramius in the classic film “The Hunt for Red October“. C.O.U.N.T.E.R. SPY is a game that is part stealth spy game and part spoof, and it does an excellent job of reminding people of a threat that still very much exists. That threat of course being mankind’s desire to launch nuclear weapons at the moon to knock it out of orbit and destroy the planet.
OK so the plot of the game is based on a goofy premise. You are an agent of C.O.U.N.T.E.R., an independent spy agency in the mold of S.M.E.R.S.H. or M.A.S.K. (Or Agent Archer’s ISIS) that works to keep the worlds opposing forces from killing everybody. Those opposing forces are pretty obviously the USSR and the United States if you go by what you see on the map but in the storyline they are just referred to as Socialists and Imperialists.
The object of the game is to gain control of the nuclear arsenals of both nations so that they cannot launch and destroy the moon. Destroying the Moon seems like a stupid idea for a national defense strategy until you realize that the actual nuclear defense strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction was just as stupid, and you begin to realize that maybe this isn’t just a silly little game about spying after all. This is done by going on missions on either side of the Iron Curtain to infiltrate secret military installations and raid them for info. Both sides know of C.O.U.N.T.E.R.’s existence, and so it is taken for granted that when somebody starts rampaging through a base killing every guard they see that it’s not an agent of the enemy but instead an agent of C.O.U.N.T.E.R.
Of course it’s not as simple as that. If guards see you they can raise the alarm, which will instantly raise the DEFCON (Defense Condition) level. There are five DEFCON levels, counting down from 5 to 1. After DEFCON 1 is exceeded a launch counter is triggered, which can only be stopped (before you unlock a way to do it at least) by getting to a computer console at the end of the level before the countdown expires. Sometimes this is not a problem, as maybe you were a few feet away from the computer when the alarm is triggered, and sometimes its just barely possible if you make a mad dash for the end. And other times its completely hopeless. This is actually one of the things that disappoints me about the game, as quitting and resetting the level takes longer than I feel it should. Not absurdly long, but a game like this is dying for a quick level restart option.
The higher the DEFCON alert level is the more difficult it is to finish a mission quietly. At DEFCON 5 you might be able to sneak through a level without killing anyone, while at DEFCON 1 you might have to eliminate everything you see in order to finish the mission, and this becomes more of an issue the longer you play the game. You must collect a certain number of secret plans to complete the game, and the more missions it takes you to accomplish this feat the harder the levels become. I had to abandon my first play through of the game because I simply could not finish the final mission before triggering the launch, and while you can go on other missions to collect more weapon plans and make more money, lowering the DEFCON becomes strangely difficult. Fortunately anything you unlock in previous games carries over to latter ones, though you still have to buy them.
There are two kinds of enemies in the game, Soldiers and Officers. You can feel free to take out soldiers before they take you out, but officers are useful, so don’t kill them. You can force officers to surrender and this will immediately lower the DEFCON level for that nation. As you might imagine this can be extremely useful. At the beginning of every mission you are informed of how many Officers are in the map, and this can be quite handy information. The final mission will take place in whichever nation has a worse DEFCON level, so it pays to keep them fairly evenly paranoid.
The game is vaguely set during the 1950s/60s, and the presentation is styled to match. If you picture the early Bond films that’s what you should be looking forward to in terms of levels. Your character is mysteriously always in shadow, even if he’s standing right under a light. Even the screen is styled to feel like a older Cathode Ray Tube Television, with rounded corners looking just like the old TVs used too, minus the scan lines and blurry resolution. I will say the menu music quickly becomes tiring, but that might be due to my intolerance of Jazz more than anything.
The gameplay itself is mostly a 2.5D Platformer of sorts, with the addition of some over the shoulder third person shooter moments that allow you to attack guards who might be down hallway you cannot enter. In some ways the game reminded me of Metal Gear. It is a stealth action game involving a spy during the cold war after all. Guards who hear you will instantly go on alert and start prowling around to find you, until they eventually give up. The Metal Gear memories kept coming back when I unlocked the Dart Gun can be used to knock enemies out instead of killing them.
Scattered around the rooms of the installations you are infiltrating are different types of intel. Of course part of this intelligence is your primary mission, the codes and frequencies for launching both sides nuclear arsenals. Besides this though are some other types of intel that could come in handy. This includes weapon designs and ammunition, special formulas which enable you to run more quietly or sustain more damage. Even more useful at times is the formula that instantly lowers the DEFCON level at the start of a map by one level. You can use three formulas per mission, and they act like buffs in an RPG to give you an advantage that isn’t normally there. These buffs only last one mission, and they cost you money to buy, so it pays to think things out before you go and spend your money on some gun you won’t be using.
The gameplay is entertaining but at times it seems like it’s missing something. That something is grenades. You do unlock a grenade launcher later on in the game, but it takes a while to get that. It’s true you’re a secret agent and you’re not supposed to be going to war when you go on these missions but the way the game is played you might as well be playing Contra at times. And dammit sometimes you need to blow people up with a grenade. There are plenty of explosive barrels sitting around, so it’s not too terrible, but sometimes you just need a grenade.
There are also times when the game doesn’t feel as responsive as it should. Entering a room usually means immediately looking for the first place you can hide behind before anyone can see you. Because you’re going in blind you don’t know if the guards are going to be staring at the door or not. You can roll towards cover but you won’t roll into cover. This feels counter productive to me, as early in the game I would often hit the roll button to dive into cover only to stand up and get blasted by guards. As well there are times with the button prompt will appear for you to enter cover but the response is a little slow.
Short Attention Span Summary:
You shouldn’t need to spy on me to see that I enjoyed the game. It was a little bit campy, while at the same time managing to still be serious about itself. Austin Powers this is not, but nor is it Jason Bourne. I will admit to being a little disappointed in the ending of the story. I thought for sure they were going in a different direction right until the very end, and I was saddened to find that they chose not to. Worth your time if you like cloak and dagger stuff.