Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Shark Punch
Publisher: Shark Punch
Somehow this week I’ve managed to acquire three different games for review that focus on criminal activities and daring heists, which is just fine by me because there’s something brilliantly compelling about busting into a location and making off with all the loot, preferably tucked neatly into a burlap sack with a large dollar sign printed on it. Last week it was the brilliant Invisible Inc. from Klei, later it will be the newly re-released version of Payday 2 for Xbox One and PS4, but for now it’s The Masterplan from the fantastically named Shark-Punch.
The game begins in the Nixon era where a man loses his job due to the failing economy. Down on his luck and blaming the President for it he decides to enter the world of crime, but eventually gets caught and locked up, something ironically due to the increased police presence that Nixon has ordained. Helpfully, though, his brother delivers a cake containing a plastic gun, which is enough to fool the guard into unlocking the cell, and thus the two brothers begin executing a series of daring heists. Unfortunately the story is partially curtailed right there because the game includes permadeath, meaning even the two brothers can get killed off very quickly if you aren’t careful. There’s nobody with personality on your team, then, because the ever present threat of death and replacement means none can be built, but there is a storyline of sorts to follow as you work through the impressively varied heist locations. including arcades, pubs, museums and more. If you’re looking for something heavy on plot, this really isn’t it, and what is here is…well, kind of boring, but it does at least serve to give the game a little extra flavor in much the same that Invisible Inc’s meagre tale did, too.
The idea of the gameplay is simple; from a top-down perspective you must execute a series of heists in real-time, slowly building up your gang of crooks so that you can move from robbing mini-marts to jewelry stores to government buildings and eventually Fort Knox itself. Death is permanent so if a gang member falls afoul of a security guard or the police then he or she ain’t coming back. This can make the rest of the game pretty challenging if one of your initial two members gets killed in the first few heists unless you opt to replay the very first mission or two over and over with a single gang member for cash so you can hire a new goon or five. You can always restart a mission should you feel that you really can’t afford to lose that particular member of the gang, but there’s no mid-level saves to fall back on, and personally, like I do with other games that follow this style of gameplay formula, I recommend you don’t restart and live with the consequences of your actions. In your way stands irritable barkeepers with shotguns, security guards and camera systems. In many instances you can at least enter the target building freely and explore so long as you don’t enter any “staff only” areas or such, letting you examine patrols and come up with a plan of attack. You can always see the full layout of the map and where cameras are, but guards can only be seen if you have a line of sight on them, although if you’re close enough you can “hear” them through walls, represented by a dashed green circle moving around the area. As expected there’s also clearly defined cones of vision, and good use of light to further indicate what you can and cannot see.
From your wonderful view high in the sky you can carefully plan how to execute the heist and then generally watch it all go terribly wrong because the controls make the simple act of trying to edge a door open to see where a guard is patrolling a bit tricky, but we’ll come back to that later. At the most basic level you can sneak your way around, using the heavily shadowed areas as hiding spots since security guards have seemingly never heard of torches. If you manage to locate a circuit box you can cut power to the lights to aid you, and likewise camera switches let you knock out some surveillance in the area. Stealth isn’t always an option, though, which is where one of your most common tactics comes into play; pointing a gun at an unsuspecting guard or civilian’s face and taking them hostage, at which point you’re able to command them as you would one of your own gang, letting you force them to unlock doors or walk to a certain point. In a nice twist ordinary citizens only need one character to keep them in check, but security guards and other types of NPC require two, otherwise after a short amount of time they’ll try to fight back, potentially forcing you to open fire. Having one of your character hold a target up also provides a perfect opportunity for a second goon to smack the victim unconscious. This neatly feeds into another tactic which soon became a staple of my playthrough; locking victims in rooms. Color-coded keys can be found on guards, sitting on tables etc. and obviously can be used to lock and unlock doors so that you can get to the tasty loot, but by either commanding your hostage or carrying their limp body/corpse into a room and then locking the door you can stop them calling the police or other security finding them, no matter how much they scream. Or don’t scream if they are dead. Obviously. Just make sure there isn’t a phone in the room, otherwise you’ll face the sheer embarassment of having somebody wake up from being smacked in the face and calling the cops. Yes I did that. Yes it was embarrassing. Yes you should shut up now.
Generally speaking, though, killing isn’t the answer in The Masterplan. Not only are gunshots loud and thereby liable to attract attention, which will likely result in the police being called and a huge shootout ensuing, but dead bodies also cost money. For every dead guard, cashier or civilian you have to pay a clean up fee, encouraging you to keep your heists as blood free as possible. But if things to escalate quickly then managing to pull off an escape even with the cops making life difficult is possible, but not very fun since combat is incredibly simple; characters just stand there and fire until either side is dead. The basic stats of the gang member and those of the weapon are what account for deciding who wins. There’s no taking cover or strategic thinking, really, other than basic flanking moves.
From the start you’re mostly left to your own devices past some basic explanations. From your tiny hideout you can order up new weapons and embark on new heists, but both of those things must first be discovered by gathering fliers and other intel out in the field, thus the game carefully controls what weapons and missions are available to the player at any given time. From your hideout new gang members can also be hired with a maximum of four being available on any given mission. Disguises can be found on occasion, too, which shield you completely from being spotted by whomever is sitting in the security room watching the camera feeds, but won’t save you from other guards who will grow suspicious, although at a slower rate than normal, giving you a chance to quickly round a corner. A safecracker is pretty much mandatory since without it you’ll be left unable to access a lot of potential cash during your heists, but after that gadgets are a bit short; there’s no cameras for peeking round corners, decoys, EMPs or anything cool like that, which is a bit of a shame. It seems I’m still waiting for that perfect Ocean’s 11 heist game where I can do all manner of things. If you play well then purchasing new weapons isn’t actually a very big deal, but naturally they come in handy if a shootout occurs between you and the guards, or worse the cops. The economy appears to be well-balanced, though, with new weapons and gang members costing quite a bit, although the fact that missions can be replayed as much as you want does mean that money can be acquired a little too easily by players all too willing to grind away on the first batch of heists.
The game never truly actually lives up to its own moniker, strangely. The Masterplan is far more about reactions than any sort of grand plan, at least not at first. There’s no way of gathering intel about an upcoming heist, so each mission is really about adjusting to guard patterns and other things on the fly as you carefully try to inch round corners while hoping you don’t just come face to face with a guard. A real masterplan can only form once you’ve actually failed a few times, and therefore been able to commit most of the level to memory so that you can clearly and competently come up with a plan of attack before you even step foot inside the target building, deciding firstly whether to go in all guns blazing or whether stealth is the better and then plotting the details, like what guards may need to be killed, who can be locked up and things like that. If you don’t fail, though, it’s more just about reacting to whatever situation you find yourself. Oddly enough this strikes me as being a weaker version of Door Kickers, a tactical game where you play as a SWAT team. In that you could cue up numerous commands, including when to use grenades, when to peer through doors using a snake cam, where to point guns, when to reload and much more, all before entering the building. Once your initial plan was set it was a case of hitting the pause button and adjusting the fine details as you went, based on any unexpected surprises. In contrast The Masterplan doesn’t really allow for this, and is far more reactive despite its name sake and ability to cue up basic commands. I’d hazard that the developers could have learned a lot from Door Kickers.
But that isn’t to say that The Master is somehow bad. The moment to moment gameplay is a lot of fun. Tension is somewhat diminished because even if a guard does spot a member of your gang whipping out a gun will generally force them into raising their hands, and from their you can usually figure something out, but there’s plenty of satisfaction to be had from pulling off a tricky heist with no bloodshed involved, and battling through a robbery gone wrong with the police busting down the doors is equally enjoyable. Perhaps you should smash a window here and then quietly take the guard hostage when he comes to check the situation out. Or maybe you’ll slip through just as the cashier is looking the opposite way. Perhaps you’ll wait until all the civilians have left and then lock the front door using the key you found so that nobody else will get involved. Truthfully there’s not actually very much you can do, but it’s just enough to keep you playing. Tapping the spacebar sends things into slow-motion, although why it doesn’t just stop the action entirely is a bit baffling, so that you can quickly issue commands to different gang members. Co-ordinating them as you dodge guards feels pretty cool. Meanwhile the level design is consistently solid, with a pleasing difficulty curve that kept me on my toes.
The controls do cause some irritations, however. A major problem is that you can’t command characters to keep their weapons trained on a hostage or area when moving around, making it physically impossible to back slowly away from a guard, for instance, while keeping your weapon trained on him. Indeed, to do such a thing you have to command your minion to head toward the door, and then stop every few seconds to remind the gentlemen that you’ve got a gun. There’s other examples too, including the simple act of closing a door, a chore made problematic when the damn thing bounces off your character back into the open position. I can’t count how many times I was left looking like a bumbling idiot because I couldn’t get the door to close correctly, or how many times a member of my gang died because. Another weird problem is that if you move to the side of the screen part of your inventory will dissapear over the edge. Oops. And forget trying to inch around corners or through doors in order to get a view of the room.
There’s a few other little design flaws that indicate the lack experience the developers have. You can’t simply trade items from one character to another, for example, so if you want to hand over a gun to a different goon or have a hostage give up his keys you have to first select them and then drop the desired item on the floor before swapping characters and picking it up. Fliers for new weapons and documents also take up space in your very limited inventory for no reason that I can think of, which meant in a lot of instances I’d send a goon out on recon and end up juggling an inventory full of keys and fliers and guns and ammo. If a member of your gang gets knocked out during a fistfight he or she is out of the game entirely – You can’t simply pick them up and carry them back to the hideout to wait for them to wake up like guards usually do, which feels counter intuitive. There’s nothing to do with old guns or ammo, so before long there was weapons littering the floor of my hideout. Why isn’t there a way to sell them on the black market? There’s even the case of the mysterious solitary lock picks that I found in one level which were capable of unlocking gray doors. Oddly enough lockpicks never showed up again in any other level, nor could they be bought. Perhaps they were the remnants of a game mechanic that was abandoned? If so I’d like to see them brought back as they introduced a nice bit of tension since they
These problems really do tarnish the game’s overall quality. There’s not a whole lot going on during heists, so its down to the levels to keep things feeling interesting which they usually manage to do. Despite the fact that you’re repeating the same few tactics over and over the different layouts manage to keep things fun, but those control problems really need to be sorted out. Any game which wants to use stealth needs to be able to let its players feel like they have precise control, rather than making it a challenge just to locate a guard round a corner. Not being able to close a door correctly or slowly open one is just poor design. Pushing these flaws aside for a moment, though, The Masterplan is an enjoyable little title. It didn’t exactly amaze me, but I had fun with it. And that’s all that can be said. It’s a middle of the road game, worth playing if you’re a bit fan of criminal capers.