The Swindle Review: Time Thief
Ben Sheene / Sep 16th, 2015 No Comments
Going in guns blazing has always been one of the greatest thrills in gaming. Staring in your own Michael Bay-style film has been a massive draw for the Call of Duty franchise. Using a rocket launcher to cover the streets of San Andreas in twisted metal never gets old in GTA 5. Whether in space, a militarized zone or a fictional fantasy world, there is an undeniable appeal to action games. But then there’s Metal Gear, Deus Ex, Dishonored, Assassin’s Creed; games that emphasize stealth. Sure, players have the option to go in loud and dumb but they can also sneak through heavily fortified cities and complete a mission without a scratch.
Rather than tackling stealth in the broad, open world sense, indie games like Mark of the Ninja, Gunpoint and Monaco tinker with the concept, working to try something new. In playing with the formula, there can be just as many failures as successes. Many great ideas exist in The Swindle but a number of technical issues and a few design choices cause this steampunk heist game to stumble out the door.
The Set Up
It’s 1849 in London and in 100 days Scotland Yard will activate The Devil’s Basilisk, an artificial intelligence capable of turning the city into a massive surveillance state. Being a professional thief, The Basilisk would ruin any chances of living a profitable life of crime. So of course it needs to be stolen. Over the course of 100 days, players will rob from establishments big and small, take down robotic security guards and try not to die before escaping with all the loot.
Players start The Swindle with no money in their bank account, a billy club to defend themselves and the ability to wall jump. The only way to unlock more skills and tools is to rob from the poor and slowly sneak up the path of wealth. On paper, this system is full of potential. Death means losing all your money, one less day to stop The Basilisk, and a lesson on what to do right next time. This punishment urges players to be careful and take the time to study enemy patterns. It also ticks off one of the bullet points of any roguelike, which The Swindle does brand itself as.
Roguelikes have a tendency to be difficult. Fast deaths and tricky enemies are often countered by simpler gameplay mechanics and difficulty spikes that encourage repetition and familiarity. Another popular aspect of roguelikes is randomness. Similar to The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky, The Swindle randomly generates its levels from guards to map design. In most cases it wouldn’t be an issue, but because of the game’s progression system, problems arise on the first day of heisting.
Whether it is the downtrodden slums or the wealthy casinos and banks, levels in The Swindle are littered with cash piles to grab. It’s the quickest way to earn money, but the real profit is tucked inside hackable computers. Unfortunately, the ability to hack a computer is locked at the start of every run and costs £100 to purchase. Seems simple enough, right?
Well, because levels in the game are randomly generated, nearly every first day of every new run won’t generate enough money to unlock the hacking ability. This means two days are already used up before players can actually unlock the ability used to earn the currency to unlock abilities. It cripples players right out of the gate.
A logical solution would be to offer day 101 as a tutorial that guarantees players start the actual mission with the tools to have fun. If your thief was born with the ability to wall jump, why can’t he perform a simple hack? Soon enough, it becomes clear that this issue stems from problems with whatever metric randomly generates levels. In Spelunky, levels are generated in such a way that players could make it from beginning to end without the need of items; they would never get stuck but could use bombs or ropes to find shortcuts and treasure.
Such leniency does not exist in the early parts of The Swindle. Players can climb the roof of a building, hop to the other side and hit a wall that requires the £5,000 purchase of dynamite to blast through. Several times I dropped down to a floor only to realize I lacked the double jump or the ability to wall climb.
One of the many hints at the beginning of levels tells players that some “situations” are inescapable and the only option is to pause the game and kill their thief by frying their brain with electricity. It’s this kind of logic that can severely hinder the experience. The only situations where killing yourself should be an option is when players trap themselves through poor planning, not because a random number generator decided it should be so.
The game also likes to tease players with caches of money tucked away in rooms several feet deep when they are several days away from having enough money to afford dynamite. These unwinnable situations are made even worse because death means losing any money not going directly to the bank. It also means resetting the bonus multiplier rewarded on subsequent successful heists, which rapidly grows the bank. Because of this, a good part of The Swindle’s challenge is based on factors completely out of players’ control.
As a budding master thief, players must dodge the sightlines of robotic guards indicated by yellow shafts of light. The same goes for security cameras, spike pits, turrets and mines. Planning the right moment to strike an enemy while its back is turned or using a steam tool to completely obscure yourself from view is fun. Getting caught instantly sounds the alarm and players must escape before police arrive.
In later levels, barricades block escape, the police bring in more reinforcements and things get frantic. Do you stay a few seconds longer and hack into a computer before the alarm wipes out all its money? As heartbreaking as failure is, it was nice that escaping provided a fun alternative to the more methodical theft sections.
It should be obvious that The Swindle requires precise gameplay, especially when tiptoeing around particularly hairy situations. The game is more or less a stealth platformer considering all the jumping being done. But in many ways, the controls do not live up to the tight standards set by heroes like Mario and Super Meat Boy.
I started catching on to the flawed jumping mechanics after I kept unceremoniously dying to spike pits. Once or twice was understandable and probably my fault, but it persisted. A perfectly timed jump over a spike pit wouldn’t be a jump at all, instead I just fell in. Convinced I wasn’t at fault, I tried figuring out what the issue was. Turns out, if half of your thief’s body isn’t on solid ground, he won’t jump. Since you’re not falling, it makes sense that jumping is still an option because your thief is still technically standing. But you can mash the jump button all day and you will never go vertical. It makes jumping over hazards at the last minute a death sentence.
Other random issues persist over the course of the game. Sometimes the thief won’t scramble up a wall when you make contact with a corner. Sometimes jumps send them high up into the air or not far enough. Several times I started hacking a computer but had to abandon the task before I was seen by a guard. Going back to the computer would cause my thief to be teleported into the floor or through a door several steps away. Purchasing an expensive mobility upgrade seemed like a solution for some of these woes, but all it seems to do is make the thief run slightly faster. In short, too many technical issues mar an experience that relies on certainty and tight controls.
Diamond in the Rough
Despite the numerous flaws in The Swindle, there are still some parts of the game that can be enjoyed. While planning out your mini-heists are in no way on the scale of GTA 5, initial reconnaissance of levels makes you think before acting. It’s clear that a good deal of thought went into creating a cohesive alternate take on London. The steampunk aesthetic works great with the exhausting amount of robot guards. From the cute to the menacing, most are simple to figure out but a few have interesting patterns. It’s just a shame that most guards stick to moving left and right on a flat plane.
Locking out levels until you can “afford” them ensures you don’t go into a heist completely unprepared. But there are moments where players will feel incredibly powerful going into previous areas with new gear and cleaning the place out. Players should especially enjoy the final heist on The Basilisk. This level abandons the grab for cash and forces you to disable security stations while taking on or avoiding strong police robots.
Overlooking some of the poor controls and flawed mechanics is not easy, especially on a game that puts a deadline on success. A few of the interesting upgrades may be underutilized in the game, but could be fun if levels were created specifically to show their benefit. In the end it might be the struggle found in the opening hours of The Swindle that turns many players away. Trying to jump the progression gap and actually trying to jump aren’t easy things to do in a game that absolutely requires them. But after a bit of familiarization, players may be racking up the dough and finding their own ways to challenge themselves in The Swindle’s randomness.
The Swindle was reviewed on PS4 using a code for the game provided by the publisher.
tags: ps4 , Size Five Games , The Swindle , The Swindle Review