A perfectly-planned heist is a thing of beauty. It’s the appeal of the genre, really. Ocean’s Eleven, Heat, The Usual Suspects—sure, none of us support crime, but there’s a certain elegance to watching the world’s greatest crew/mastermind go up against the world’s most sophisticated security systems and somehow come out on top.
I am not the world’s greatest criminal mastermind, nor would anyone describe me as elegant. At best, I am a clock ticking half a second out of sync. At worst, I possess the subtlety of a crowbar to the back of the skull. This is a problem when playing Crookz.
I took a brief look at Crookz a few months back and—aside from the silly name—liked what I saw. Set in 1970s San Francisco, Crookz is an active-pause heist game where planning is just as important as execution. And that’s important, because it’s what sets it apart from other recent heist games like Monaco and The Masterplan, both of which are in real-time and are aggressively fast-paced.
Crookz is not fast-paced, but it is stressful as hell. You (as the disembodied, isometric camera) play mastermind to a crew of four other thieves. Since it’s active-pause, a good analog is the combat in the Infinity Engine games (Baldur’s Gate). You could play in real-time but it’s more likely you’ll pause, give a bunch of orders, and then watch them play out. Each order is a “Waypoint” and characters simply execute all waypoints in order until they run out.
Honestly, the waypoint system is so intuitive you could probably lay out orders for your entire heist ahead of time. There’s even a handy “Wait” command where characters will stand in place until you give them the go-ahead.
It’s a lot like programming, in a way. You give orders. They follow to the letter. The only major difference is you can amend those orders on the fly if you see everything going sideways. And that’s good, because your ultimate goal is to pull off the perfect heist i.e. one where you’re never even spotted. That’s a difficult proposition when there’s a playground of cameras, lasers, guards, faster guards, switches, locked doors, et al in between you and your loot.
Very difficult, it turns out. If there’s one thing I took away from dabbling with a Crookz preview build the past few days, it’s that this is not a game where you dabble. After an overlong tutorial, Crookz basically pushes you out of the proverbial nest and into your role as mastermind without any handholding.
It’s daunting. It’s refreshing. It’s paralyzing.
Daunting because the game expects you to fail, and expects you to learn from said failure. Refreshing because I wish more games were content with giving the player challenges so difficult it’s expected you’ll screw things up once (or a dozen times). Paralyzing because there are so many options from the get-go that you’re already convinced you’ve messed up.
Managing four crew members at once, trying to make sure everything goes down at the right time—that this guy hits a switch right as another crew member reaches the door, and that she then turns the cameras off before the first one hits the hallway—is intimidating.
Even the first level tosses multiple guards your way, one of which patrols back and forth between you and your immediate objective. Then the second level comes up and it looks like this:
I’ve come to think of levels in Crookz as massive knots. I’m slowly untangling one strand at a time—flip a switch here, pick a lock there, and somehow you start making progress. You take it one room at a time. You take it one guard at a time.
Except you’re also forced to pay attention to the entire map, too. Before you enter the level you’ll need to know exactly how many camera jammers to buy. Too many and you’re burning your profits. Too few and you’ll be left stranded in the middle of a high-security bank. And those guards you knocked out? They’re going to wake up, and they’re going to come looking for you.
It’s tough to unravel Crookz, and that’s not a bad thing. Call it high effort, high reward. As I watched my crew plod towards the exits post-heist, a bundle of cash in their jackets, I felt an absurd sense of pride. I felt like I really had pulled off the perfect crime. Or if not a perfect crime, at least one where nobody got thrown in jail. This is shaping up to be my favorite stealth game since Mark of the Ninja, and for much the same reasons—it gives you the tools, it gives you the information you need, and then it lets you figure out a plan and execute.
The full game’s out August 25. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like the least competent Keyser Soze, keep an eye out.