Sunday, April 06, 2008

Heist! Review

Heist!, developed and published by D. U. Software.
The Good: Tense gameplay, straightforward controls, low system requirements
The Not So Good: Little mission variety, characters get stuck near walls, no minimap or zoom makes it hard to gauge level dimensions, opened doors disappear and cannot be closed again, no scoring since beating a level requires you to collect all the money, no map editor, sub-par presentation
What say you? An interesting idea that’s light in the features department: 4/8

A large number of movies have glorified the act of burglary. I guess there is something romantic about breaking in to a high-security building and stealing things. There haven’t been many (or any that I have heard of ) computer games to tackle the act, so Heist! is somewhat unique. The game presents a number of targets in which you have to sneak around collecting money while avoiding those pesky guards. Will this non-violent approach prove to be entertaining?

Even when compared against other independent games, Heist! is lacking in the graphics and sound departments. The game is presented through an overhead perspective, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with that, the level of detail is weak. Each of the environments (whether they are a bank or shopping center) look the same; they are also very tile-based and do not invoke much in the way of realism. The character animations are repetitive and the doors simply disappear when opened instead of swinging. There are no special effects other than the timers when actions are performed. Nobody will be overwhelmed by the graphics of Heist! The sound is even worse off: the game has jaunty background music and no sound effects whatsoever. The music doesn’t really fit a stealthy theme and the lack of appropriate sound effects ruins whatever setting the game was trying to convey. The presentation of Heist! is certainly disappointing, but that, of course, means the game has very low system requirements.

Heist! contains a handful of levels where you unlock doors, disable alarm systems, and avoid patrolling guards while you collect money. There is very little mission variety, as each level has the same objective: collect all of the money without being detected. There are no scores being kept, since each level requires you to collect everything before exiting. It would have been nice to allow for partial completion of each level and to put high-risk money in very difficult places in order to differentiate between “good” and “bad” players. As it stands, everyone will play Heist! on the same difficulty level, and that’s never a good thing. There is also no map editor to expand upon the game, so you are stuck with the maps that are contained in the 11.5 MB game file.

Heist! is easy to learn: just use the arrow keys to move and the spacebar to interact with objects (opening doors, disabling alarms, and collecting money). However, the controls have a distinct problem as your character will get stuck if you move near walls. Objects such as money or alarms require you to move straight towards them, waiting until you hit the wall, and then press spacebar to interact. However, if you move sideways immediately after that, your character will not move: you have to back up first and then move laterally. I cannot express how frustrating this is. This also becomes a major problem when you are timing your moves and a bend in the hallway comes up: you must be positioned almost exactly in the middle of the path or you will get stuck and subsequently lose the mission. The character should not be allowed to move through walls (obviously), but more forgiveness when you are walking next to them would be most appreciated.

The basic gameplay of Heist! is very simplistic: avoid the guards. Each of the actions you can do (all three of them) take a specified amount of time. Opening doors is quick, disabling alarms on doors takes a while, and collecting money takes varied amounts of time. All the while, you have to avoid guards by observing their scripted paths and moving when appropriate. There is no “fog of war” in the game, so you can watch guards even if you don’t have line-of-sight to them. When Heist! is good, it is very tense as you must time your actions precisely to avoid being noticed by the guards. However, there are a number of limitations present in the game that encumber the overall experience. First, the lack of a minimap makes it hard to gauge level dimensions. Opened doors magically “disappear” and cannot be closed again; this not only looks bad but also removes a strategic element of the game (closing the door behind you). Guards don’t seem to notice that a door in their patrol zone has left. You can also walk directly behind guards; this isn’t a big issue as the game would be nearly impossible without this ability. Maybe I was using sneakers (for sneaking). Since you can only do three actions (open doors, disable alarms, collect money) other than moving, strategic options are quite limited. While having a non-violent game is nice (especially since robberies are typically violent), the lack of guns or other high-tech gadgets does limit Heist! quite significantly. Tripping an alarm or getting noticed by a guard means you have to start over from the very beginning of the level: quite annoying on the more advanced maps. You also can’t save your progress in the middle of a level, which has obvious ramifications.

Heist! can be fun: avoiding officers and watching their scripted paths and hoping your timing is correct. Its tense gameplay can offer a rewarding experience, but there are simply too many little issues that ultimately make Heist! less enjoyable. The game suffers from being too simplistic: only three actions to perform, simple AI, basic graphics and almost non-existent sound, disappearing doors. The game also doesn’t have difficulty levels and requires you to collect all of the money on each level, a tedious and time-consuming task. Assigning a score and letting users go to the next map without collecting everything would have been better; I mean, in how many robberies do the thieves get 100% of the cash? The controls are simple, but getting stuck on walls is downright annoying. Heist! could definitely benefit from more polish, more features, and a better overall presentation. The idea may be interesting, but the execution as a whole is lacking.