Reviews

The Swindle Review – Ocean’s Thirteen

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Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One and Wii U
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Size Five Games
Publisher: Curve Digital 
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

So,  The Swindle, the newest heist style game to arrive on Steam, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One and Wii U.  It’s Ocean’s Thirteen.

Okay, so I understand that calling The Swindle Ocean’s Thirteen probably requires some degree of explanation, although if you understood my refrence and its meaning straight away then congratulations sir, madam or creature of some sort that has figured out how to use the Internet and thereby become exactly like the rest of us – sad-looking, sort of human looking figures whacking a keyboard in the hopes that it will somehow make our lives better. And by Hades’ it will! Anyway, back on track. Ocean’s Eleven was the main reason why I came to love heist movies, and from that heist games. Featuring a brilliant cast of characters attempting to pull off a daring heist it’s incredibly fun and has an energetic style that immediately grabs you. It was followed up by the far less impressive but still solid Ocean’s Twelve, the ‘meh’ of the trilogy, before wrapping up with Ocean’s Thirteen, a great movie that still couldn’t match the original. The Swindle, then, is Ocean’s Thirteen; great, but lacking that certain something which propels it into the realms of being a classic.

You have 100-days in which you and your infinite supply of thieving avatars must amass enough cash through daring heists to purchase a raft of abilities and equipment, while ensuring you’ve got enough money left over to buy the highest level of security clearance available in order to tackle the Basilisk,  a device Scotland Yard intends on unleashing that will essentially bring a halt to crime entirely and that you must therefore steal at all costs. Every heist you undertake is procedurally generated with difficulty based on which of the five areas you’ve selected to hit, and will take one day to complete, regardless of whether you succeed gloriously or fail miserably.

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In short, then, it’s another rogue-like where you can reasonably expect to fail on your first attempt at getting to the Basilisk. There’s no real tutorial here, barring some basic boxes that pop up to tell you how your newest upgrade is used, and thus learning the ins and outs of the game comes down to playing it, which I always find refreshing next to the modern trend of holding your hand the entire way through. The very first playthrough is essentially just training for the second one, letting you get to grips with the basic controls, platforming and tactics that you’ll need. Meanwhile the randomly generated levels will often toss out layouts that can leave you stuck down in a room because you don’t have the double-jump upgrade or cursing because a vault (well, computer) is encased in walls that can only be gotten through via explosives or teleportation, which is an actual upgrade you can acquire. Should these things happen it’s a wasted day, essentially, although in later levels there’s usually several computers so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to grab at least some cash. Sadly such things can also occur in the opening couple of heists when both you and the game know damn well you could never have afforded those upgrades, and a run of bad luck can pretty much screw up the entire campaign. There’s nothing to be learned from these situations, either; you just have to sigh, and restart.

Happily you do have to be pretty damn unlucky for the game to really bugger you up. Provided you just get a couple of duff heists you’ll usually be able to muddle through provided you play well and smartly afterward. Of course that doesn’t take out the sting when you’re most of the way through a campaign and hit some bad luck again involving the one upgrade you hadn’t gotten and can no longer afford since you really need the cash to make a run for the Basilisk. Such is the nature of randomly generated games, though.

But I’m doing a lot of vague rambling, so let’s talk details. The Swindle is a side-scrolling stealth platformer with some light action thrown in should you manage to get spotted and need to make a rush for the exit before the cops arrive. In every heist you’re given an inexplicably designed and secured property to rob, containing enough patrolling robots and traps to make Fort Knox look like a stroll through a quiet little suburban town. Little bits of cash are everywhere, but the big hauls are located within computers that need to be hacked into. To bank the cash you must get back to your drop-pod outside of the property. The key is being able to control your own greed and realise that some situations are too risky to tackle, and that it’s better to take home some money than none so that you can purchase things like smoke screens, EMPs and bugs which can constantly siphon money. If you die on a mission you’ll lose any of the green stuff you’ve grabbed, and while a new, randomly generated thief is spawned for the next mission you’ll lose the XP bonus which nets you bonus money on completion of a heist. Greed is arguably your biggest enemy, and it needs to be held at knifepoint lest it screw you up royally.

But there are physical foes, too, in the shape of roving robotic guards, cameras, drones and much, much more, including mines. Your basic moveset is composed of jumping, sliding down walls, jumping up walls and hitting things with your truncheon. One of the most basic things you pick up early on is the fine art of waiting for a robot enemy to patrol up to the other side of a door, and as soon as it turns round open the door and smack it on the noggin’. Happily for your robotic adversaries are morons of the highest caliber that will ignore absolutely everything, including pieces of other robots and broken windows. The only thing they won’t ignore is the actual thief. Cones of vision are clearly shown, so there’s never any confusion as to how close you can get before the alarm is sounded. As the game goes on and you manage to gather enough cash to advance to more potentially lucrative areas new enemies and challenges are brought into play, including robots that can detect sound and others that unleash poisonous gas that obscures your vision. Mines become frequent, too, and you’ll see other things like weird wheelchair bound robots (no, I have no idea why) and sniper-rifle wielding baddies, plus bloody loads of cameras.

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The selection of skills and equipment is impressively varied, and every purchase feels like it makes an important difference by opening up new ways to tackle something. The acquisition of something like bombs let’s you open up whole new avenues of attack by simply blowing through the roof or the wall, while the benefits of something like teleportation is pretty obvious. You can grab yourself a smokescreen for when you need a few seconds of breathing room, which is often since The Swindle’s levels can become a bit too crowded for their own good at times. And that’s not even mentioning the increased agility and speed you can purchase, as well as the amazing, magical ability to look up and down. Yup, you heard me right, the camera is completely fixed until you buy an upgrade. There is one small hiccup in the balance, though; bugs. No, not the glitchy kind. The mechanical kind. Stick one of them near a computer instead of hacking it and the bug will siphon a bit of money every second, and will continue doing so even when you’ve moved on to a new heist, only stopping when it’s “discovered”, although exactly how the game decides when this happens is a mystery. Anyway, the point is bugs can amass vast amounts of money very quickly as you play, and can also be abused by players who simply choose to sit outside the building on their next heist and watch the money roll on. I can see these being nerfed pretty quickly.  Actually, just after I wrote this sentence an update was released that did indeed nerf them, although they still seem to be incredibly effective.

Ultimately most of the games big flaws stem from its random generation. Repetition proves to be a problem as the level generation isn’t varied enough to stop heists from blurring together, especially since the confined nature of the levels often means you solve problems much the same way each time you play. For all the upgrades and enemy types available there’s not much room for emergent gameplay or interesting and unpredictable chain-reactions to occur, which is both a blessing as it removes a degree of luck and helps keep the game more focused on pure skill, and a curse since it does mean that heists can become… I don’t want to say stale as that’s unfair; the heists are still generally fun and exciting. Perhaps predictable would be the best word. There’s a sense that by time you’ve reached the fourth environment, The Banks, which might take a couple of hours, that you’ve seen everything the game has to offer.

There are some other problems, too. The controls are generally quite responsive, but being very precise can sometimes feel just a little awkward, and the game has a nasty habit of not registering the jump button when you’re right on the edge of something. The random generation of levels also means that heists tend to be either pretty decent, or kind of crappy with awkward design or insane enemy layouts. Both these things could be sorted with updates in the future.

The steam-punk version of Victorian London comes to life in some lovely graphics that make me want to know more about the wider world, although such desires have to be curbed as there’s no storyline or anything of the sort to be found in The Swinde. Its Victorian steam-punk setting is merely there to inform the lovely visual style and let robots acts as guards so that you aren’t clobbering people over the head and thus don’t have to feel like a murderer on top of the fact that you begin by robbing poor slum-dwellers. It’s a shame that thanks to the level generation each heist in a location looks pretty much like the last one. If I wanted to be a jerk, and to be fair I am a jerk, I could argue that the visual style is somewhat…safe, in that it’s very much in keeping with the typical indie-dev look, but frankly that doesn’t stop it from looking nice. The animation doesn’t quite manage to stack up, I feel, with the main character in particular having a peculiar jerkiness that makes it look like he or she is stuttering. You don’t notice while playing too much, but every time I focused on my thief it irked me.  Meanwhile the backing music is nicely put together and while it doesn’t stick in the mind it does what it needs to, which isn’t to mention the really rather good main menu theme tune that uses a ticking clock to remind you that you’re on a time limit. The rest of the audio isn’t anything special, but its acceptable.

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Coming back to the upgrade and level generation system I appreciate the almost metroidvania aspect to it where things like encountering a ledge you can’t reach encourages you to upgrade your jumping abilities, or how seemingly inaccessible areas of the map nudge you toward grabbing either bombs so that you can blast through or the teleportation move. Enemies that can take a lot of damage make the increased strength seem tempting, and the inclusion of cameras makes you feel like you should maybe grab that hacking upgrade that lets you hack into security stations. And yet the obvious downfall to the level’s not caring about what upgrades you’ve purchased is the feeling that sometimes you’re being punished for not spending cash on certain things, especially if you encounter levels where three out of the four cash machines are hidden away in areas that are impossible or very nearly impossible without upgrades you don’t own. It’s an interesting contrast to something like Spelunky where every level is achievable without any of the upgrades which serve to simply expand on your options, whereas The Swindle absolutely demands that you purchase equipment and upgrades or else fail miserably. This can make the act of failure also feel annoying, because to advance you either need to get lucky with the level generation or purchase upgrades, which you can’t if you’re struggling to make money. You can always head back into the less secure areas of London to harvest smaller payouts, but later in the game when time is pressing you really do need to hit the hard heists. I have to admit that personally I’m more a fan of the free approach as I love being able to tackle a game without any upgrades, just to see if I can. Adding to this problem, although I confess that it isn’t likely to be a problem in many player’s eyes, are some brutal difficulty spikes, or at least brutal to me but possibly not so much to other players. It felt like I breezed through the first few areas with minimal fuss, and then would run into an iron wall of pain and failure. Then there’s the titular swindle itself, the final level of the entire game that is not only rock-hard in of itself, which is to be expected, but also demands that you pay the $400,000 security clearance fee each time you attempt it, which is no small amount of cash. It means that in an average run most players will probably only get one or maybe two runs at it, and at the same time the high price point encourages to forgo as many upgrades as possible in order to not only afford the fee but also afford subsequent attempts. Of course to complete the swindle you need a raft of upgrades. It makes for a pretty tricky balancing act, one which you have no way of knowing if you’re succeeding or not until the bitter end.

In short, The Swindle can be a brutal game, sometimes I’d say to the point of feeling unfair. That challenge, though, also proves to be its best feature, the randomly created levels, solid platforming and raft of upgrades making for a compelling game that’s hard to put down, at least until it manages to piss you off, that is, at which point a controller being hurled into a wall so hard that it literally brings the house down is possible. It’s a bit of a love/hate relationship that can swing back and forth dramatically fast. Despite its ability to infuriate, though, The Swindle is a great game that kept me coming back for just one more heist that would inevitably turn into an hour or two of solid playing. More than anything I’m curious to see if the developer will attempt a sequel as I see a lot of room for expansion and improvement here. Regardless, I reckon The Swindle is worth your time, providing you’re a patient player with a high tolerence for failure and frustration. This one gets a recommendation.

Recommended games may either be truly amazing all round, or possess some quality or qualities which make them worth playing, such as a stellar story, amazing graphics, superb gameplay etc. This also means it’s possible for a game that plays badly, looks terrible and sounds horrible to achieve a recommendation if it has, for instance, an amazing story.

Reco

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