If we were to point to a single flaw in the shoot ’em up genre, it would be their staying power. As much as we love chucking smart-bombs around, it’s not a long-term activity. We tend to treat them as an adrenaline boost, which is no bad thing. But it does tend to mean that we cycle through them pretty quickly.
CounterAttack feels like it’s been built to address that flaw. It’s a skyscraper of RPG systems, divergent routes and reasons to replay, all interlocking to make a shoot ’em up super-structure. It’s something to behold, actually: we rarely find this much replayability in any genre, let alone shmups.
We didn’t expect CounterAttack to be this, well, good. It’s entirely a book-judged-by-its-cover scenario: something about the generic title, mixed with the bland graphics that could have been ripped from an old Babylon 5 episode, made us lowball our expectations. This was going to be a yawnsome R-Type clone, and we’d hopefully get back to reviewing bigger and better games quickly.
We couldn’t have been more wrong. CounterAttack is borderline essential for any player whose ears prick up when they hear the words ‘Treasure’, ‘Cave’ and ‘Psikyo’. Don’t read any further. Slap down twelve quid.
Actually, perhaps you should wait for the caveat: CounterAttack’s art really is painfully generic. Sure, it’s crisp and clean, and it’s rarely hard to see what’s going on, but we couldn’t draw a single spaceship or boss for you. Give us a post-it note to sketch down a single entity in the game and we couldn’t. It’s like an AI pumped out a sprite sheet, and the developer’s thought it was just about good enough. We apologise to the artists on CounterAttack: the execution on the art is lovely; it’s the designs that make us fall asleep. If you can get over that hurdle, then we can only toss out superlatives.
CounterAttack steals a trick from Lylat Wars in its level selection. There’s a honeycomb of different levels to progress through, and you can only move to a level that you’re connected to. Actually, hold that thought: you can only move to a level if you’ve completed the sub-objectives on the previous level, defeating it in a certain timeframe or killing a specific mob perhaps. With dozens of levels waiting to be unlocked, and various parameters for unlocking them, you already have a reason to stick around. There are some levels that we still find painful to access, even though we’ve unlocked several new starting points.
There’s so much choice in the selection of ship and its upgrades that we can be utterly paralysed. Custom ships are available, or you can select a prefab ship with its own characterful pilot (CounterAttack actually has a fine line in 2D, visual-novel-like characters that appear on your screen in level intros) and associated stat boosts. Then it’s onto the upgrades, and you can pick six.
Choosing an upgrade could be a game by itself. You unlock upgrades for a whole host of actions in the game. Find a level for the first time? Have an upgrade. Complete it? Have another. Perform some connected feat, or just randomly roll on a drop table? Yep, have two upgrades. These shower down on you, but they’re so powerful and ripe for synergising that you have to pay attention. Which is where the paralysis comes in.
We’re still not sure what our favourite build is. We always lock in a Co-Pilot upgrade, as they purchase all of our in-game upgrades for us (more on that in a moment), as we find the process to be a headache. But it’s a free-for-all in terms of the other five. Sometimes we run a flamethrower build with extra-wide spread on the flames, engulfing the arena and letting nothing through. Other times, we slap a laser on the front of the ship and widen it as far as it will go. There will be thousands, millions of other permutations. And we haven’t even gotten into the game yet.
There are various shoot ’em up flavours: the bullet-hell, where moving between bullets is a dance; the glass-cannon, where there are fewer bullets, but a single graze will get you killed; and the ‘silly-bastard’, as we like to call it, where a game likes to overpower you to a ridiculous degree, and let you fill the screen with pyrotechnics. The last is a massage to the eyeballs, and the greatest threat is spotting a ship or torpedo that manages to get through your Fantavision of artillery.
CounterAttack is a silly-bastard. Thanks to the upgrades you have, and the in-game upgrades you begin to unlock, you are a peacock of death. Enemies barely get on the screen before they pop. It might sound like it’s benign and easy, and there’s some truth to that. The game tends to ebb and flow, with minutes of gameplay where nothing can touch you and likely never will. But the enemies can begin to creep through the defences, forcing you into corners so that more and more enemies appear on-screen. Then you’re on a downward spiral to death, unless you can push everything back.
We quite enjoy that pacing. Shoot ’em up purists might balk at the periodic moments with no challenge whatsoever, but there was always the threat of things escalating, and we rather relished it. And there’s always a boss – graphically terrible, designed rather wonderfully – who will shrug at your volleys of bullets and fill the screen with their own.
We should probably hover a magnifying glass over the in-game upgrade system. Collect enough green lightning bolts and a bar fills up. This bar soon starts to span purchasable upgrades, which you can buy mid-flight, or you can do what we did and just unlock an upgrade that chooses them for you. These upgrades reset the bar, and socket the upgrade onto your ship, with a limited number of sockets at one time. Drones, vertical bullets, extra lives and more are all on the bar, with the better stuff being on the end. When you consider that the pre-game upgrades can overlay and improve these purchasable improvements, well, the options are truly endless. Almost too endless, in fact, and we’d argue that it can verge on the impenetrable.
CounterAttack begins to take the form of a roguelite. You won’t make your way to the end of the game on the first run: your lack of upgrades will make sure of that. But you will have ended the run with enough upgrades in your library to make the next interesting. And more levels – and starting levels on the honeycomb – will be available, offering a different path and a wonderful medicine for repetition. Truly, no run will feel the same.
If only. If only CounterAttack had a bit of budget behind it; a lucrative Kickstarter, for example, then it could have afforded a lavish makeover that would have reflected the quality of the game within. Because although it’s a bit of an ugly potato, CounterAttack is also an essential shmup that lovers of the genre will fall madly, deeply in love with. If you’ve ever wondered what a shoot ’em up might look like with RPG trimmings and reasons to replay, then look no further than CounterAttack.
You can buy CounterAttack from the Xbox Store