I instruct my character to walk into a late night kiosk, a toy gun in his pocket and the vaguest plan fluttering around his mind (TAKE ALL OF THE MONEY). The door that leads to the stockroom is locked. There's only one staff member on duty and no guards whatsoever. Outside, on the street, there's a payphone that could be used to call the police but there are no alarm buttons or security cameras.
A customer arrives and I point the fake gun at him, backing into a corner so that I can cover the cashier as well. They both raise their arms in surrender. I instruct the customer to bludgeon the cashier until he's unconscious and then take his key. With the stockroom open, I take everything I can carry and lock the customer inside, next to the slumbering clerk. The simplest of The Masterplan's [official site] heists executed to perfection.
It's a stirring game, The Masterplan. Despite Marsh's glowing appraisal of the Early Access version, I'd held back, slightly put off by the busy cartoonish graphics (I prefer my heists minimalist and clean), so I didn't play until I had release code. The tutorial level, which holds your hand through the world's easiest jailbreak, is a little clunky. It asks you to do very little but still managed to confuse me, although I'll put that down to the text prompts that detail the instructions appearing so slowly that I rushed ahead and called the police to the site of my own jailbreak because I didn't know how to punch a window.
While my own ineptitude and desire to hurry through the opening might be party to blame, I don't think it's a strong opening. As much as anything else, it combined with the graphics to convince me that the game was going to be a lighthearted series of romps rather than the cleverly constructed series of capers that unfold. There is a buoyancy to the ventricles but The Masterplan is a game in which you'll frequently coerce civilians into violent acts and the threat of extreme violence and murder is your greatest weapon.
The ability to threaten people with a gun - real or fake - is what I'm going to concentrate on here. It's my favourite aspect of the game and underpins a great deal of the other systems.
Basically, if one of your characters is in possession of a gun, you can drag a line from them to a point on the level to make them wave their gun in that direction. They'll hold it in position, covering the area, and AI characters who are both in the area and have line of sight of the threat will surrender. At this point, they can be controlled by the player but if the line of sight or the cover-cone of the gun are removed, a circle around the threatened character starts to shrink and if it vanishes, they'll run for the exit/nearest phone.
All of that can lead to situations in which you have one of your crew trying to cover a foyer full of people, the shrinking timers on each one becoming the plates that he must spin. The tension and desperation of crowd control is communicated instantly. Passing control of the potential victims to the player is a superb choice, converting them from annoyance to resource. I've created situations where two members of my gang are just far enough apart, across corridors and rooms, that I can just about force a civilian to dash between them before he regains composure and flees. I use him to ferry items between one and the other and as a distraction.
When civilians are used as distractions or shields, there is always the possibility of an accidental shooting. I don't feel good about myself when somebody gets caught in the crossfire between my felons and the fuzz. In fact, I'm never happy when anyone has to resort to violence. My Masterplan doesn't rely on murder or even violence. There's always a Masterplan B though, and that occasionally involves a tripped alarm, a shootout in the guardroom and a death-dealing dash to the escape vehicle.
The Masterplan has more in common with SWAT 4 than with Monaco's rhythmic arcade of colour and coin-pills. It's a game built around cleverly designed maps and credible NPCs. The locations for your heists (unlocked by discovering flyers and plans in earlier levels) are convincingly real. NPCs arrive and leave, nip out of their office to go for a piss, and generally make you feel a bit guilty when you interrupt their lovable routines with the ugly promise of violence and death.
Thankfully, the game never becomes grim. That light-hearted cartoon style shows its worth, allowing the game to lean heavily on the cruelty of crime in its mechanics without ever tipping into grotesque displays of violence or pain. This would not be the place for such things - the game asks you to experiment and play with life so often that it has to retain the feel of a toybox. And it does so, handsomely. The panic of real-time control is countered slightly by the ability to slow the game down (practically pausing the action) but even in full flow, the game provides plenty of time to plan and think. Until an alarm is tripped or the police are called, most situations can be calmed while improvised escape routes are formulated.
This isn't a Wot I Think because I haven't played through most of the missions yet, but I've been enjoying myself a great deal. Even with The Witcher 3 sitting on my hardrive, unfinished and calling to me, I'll be devoting at least part of my weekend to The Masterplan.
The Masterplan is out now.