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Premature Evaluation: The Masterplan

Safe bet

Each week Marsh Davies saunters nonchalantly into the forbidden vault that is Early Access and then, after a few muffled shrieks and thuds, saunters back out again with any stories and/or incautiously guarded diamond tiaras he can find. This week he steeples his fingers and prepares to execute The Masterplan - a top-down realtime heist-em-up.

Remember Subversion? It was the project that almost brought down Introversion Software: a five-year dev-slog that resulted in a whole load of cool systems and breathless column inches, but, by Introversion’s own estimation, only a void where the core game was meant to be. Subversion was reluctantly put on ice while Introversion pulled money-hats from the jaws of financial oblivion with Prison Architect - pioneering Early Access in the process. So it’s oddly fitting that Early Access should now birth a project that is notionally similar to Subversion, wherein you assemble a crew of specialised goons, case a joint and then rip it off, all in top-down real-time.

It’s not quite as complex as Subversion promised to be - there’s no bespoke hacking interaction or procedurally generated city meta-level. But its small-scale top-down heists offer security cameras and electrics to futz with, guards to dodge, disguises to don, vault doors to detonate and a lively AI populace who can tell when you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be and will dash off to call the cops if, for example, you shoot a man wearing a horse mask in the lobby of a museum. Even a masterplan has a few wrinkles like that.

It’s already extremely entertaining. The Early Access build now has nine levels following the "Banksgiving" update and I’ve played most of them multiple times in an effort to devise new strategies, squeeze out every dollar and try to escape without dousing myself in the blood of innocents.

Well, at least it wasn't carpeted.

I would say I have had mixed success on that last point.

The Horse Museum is meant to be a simple job. In, out, don’t shake anything about, and definitely don’t do the hokey cokey amid a pile of bleeding cashiers and security guards. That’s not what it’s all about. It’s about cold hard cash and the undetected, illicit acquisition thereof. And how hard can it be? I’m not knocking over Fort Knox here but a museum. I’m not sure whether it’s a museum for horses or just about them, but in either case it explains why it has such a modest turnover and fittingly modest security: a few guards, only two cameras. The goal: a single safe in a backroom off the main show floor, locked behind a number of red doors.

The plan - the masterliness of which will be judged at a later time - has two simple stages. Stage one: access the security rooms, via the series of snaking corridors adjoining the front entrance, and filch the keys. Stage two: use said keys to access the safe, via the red doors from the show floor, and then slip back out again, preferably while no one is looking, or indeed screaming, or indeed bleeding. Simple? Simple.

He who dares, whinnies.

Problem one is that the security rooms are locked behind an orange door. The guard patrolling the show floor might have an orange key, but it’ll be hard to extract it from him without turning the place into an abattoir. I send my man Cramer into the museum’s show floor to give me line of sight on the guard, while fellow goons Joey and Gregory skirt round the side of the building to peer in a ground floor window. It’s daytime and Cramer is in civilian territory, so he won’t arouse suspicion, but smashing a window will - I’ll have to time it so that the museum-floor guard is out of earshot.

Just to make things more complicated, there’s another guard inside the room we’re breaking into. But I have a plan for that. Still peering ominously through the window, I get Gregory to draw his pistol and the guard immediately freezes, throwing his arms in the air. His intimidation won’t last however - pretty soon a meter will tick down and he’ll launch a foolhardy assault or just pelt off and call the cops from a landline. I need to act quickly: Joey smashes the window and barrels through the opening to gently punch the cop to sleep. It takes a fair few swings, but eventually he goes down.

You can’t pistol whip people in The Masterplan, so the only option for a clean (ish) non-lethal takedown is to have a duo: one for the stick up job, one for the put down job. It feels slightly odd, but it makes split-second coordination of your team the meat of the game - aided by a slow-motion button which lets you queue up orders.

Look, a dollar! Who says crime doesn't pay?

With the guard clobbered and his body sequestered away from prying eyes, Joey and Gregory move further in, ducking back and forth between rooms on either side of a corridor while a guard makes his patrols. I can’t always see him, but his footsteps are visually indicated when within range, and I manage to sneak into the security office while his back is turned. Wherein, I discover with alarm, I must lovingly anaesthetise another guard with my fists. Though I do so with some efficiency, the sound of knuckle on face is apparently loud enough to arouse the suspicion of the corridor guard, necessitating some split-second swivelling and further panicky punching.

One thing that currently snags The Masterplan is its cramped, hard-to-parse character interaction interface. When you get in a melee, it’s very easy for it to misinterpret your clicks, and if your pockets are full, the icons for specific interactions and inventory often stack over one another and obscure the characters you are trying to click instead. Punching someone also knocks them back, and it’s a little too easy to punch them back through a doorway, so that the swinging door momentarily obscures them from the line of sight of your gunman and switches the guard to a more aggressive state. I like it when plans unravel and force you to improvise, but neither of these things - the UI or the knockback behaviour - feel like good excuses for it to do so.

The closed-fist massage technique guarantees relaxation.

Luckily, in this instance, I manage to wedge the guard in the doorframe as I soothingly bludgeon him into the land of nod. Joey and Gregory need now only swipe the keys, pocket a few wads of cash and saunter back in the front entrance of the museum. From there, it’s a cinch - I have the guard’s movements down pat and it’ll be easy to unlock the red doors leading to the safe and slip through unnoticed. I’ll be like a ghost. A ghost who punches people in the face.

But something tempts me about an orange door just near the front entrance. Why is this door locked with a hard-to-find key when it merely leads to what appears to be a boxy storeroom? Perhaps there is more to this museum than meets the eye. Gregory has the orange key, and waiting for the right moment, he unlocks the door and zips within.

I’m so genuinely surprised by the man wearing the horse mask that he manages to charge Gregory before I’ve even thought to draw a gun. I hit slow-mo to give me more time to react, but the guy gets a few hooves in, and doesn’t seem to be deterred even when Gregory waves a pistol in his face. I panic-fire until the horseman lies in a pool of blood.

I have a sudden jonesing for lasagne. #jokesfrom2013

Oh dear. This is not what it’s meant to be all about.

Inevitably hearing the ruckus, the nearby guard makes a beeline for the room, swinging it wide to reveal a scene of carnage. Gregory still has his gun drawn, however, and the guard is suitably deterred, halting in the doorway with his hands up. I can still salvage this, I think. All I need to do is beat everyone in the museum unconscious. Joey steps up to clobber the guard, but just as he takes his first pop, the door swings shut, and the guard, now unperturbed by Gregory’s pistol, spins round and slaps Joey to the floor with his truncheon.

The guard opts not to tangle with Gregory too, and instead scoots off to call for back-up, which at least gives Gregory a chance to escape. Still not quite believing how quickly my plan has come apart, I cut my losses, bundling Gregory and Cramer into the getaway car. I’ve made it out with barely a couple of fistfuls of cash - and that is subdivided as a penalty for killing a man.

That was the simple job. You don’t even want to know how well the bank job went.

Whoa, hokey cokey, cokey. Whoa, hokey cokey, cokey. Whoa, hokey cokey, cokey. Knees bent arms stretched, ra, ra, ra!

But every plan has it kinks, and The Masterplan’s levels - especially the more complex, less linear ones - make ironing out those kinks a very repeatable, iterative pleasure. My bugbears about the UI aside, this already feels like a game worth selling, which can’t be said for that many Early Access titles. As for whether it’s worth buying: The Masterplan currently offers a solid core of experience that is fun, fulsome and stable enough to justify my £11, and the devs suggest future updates will include the introduction of a squad-nurturing metagame and a level editor. Even if those grander schemes don’t come together, the existing cut-down criminal caper contains riches aplenty.

The Masterplan is available from Steam for £11. I played version 5.1 available on 05/12/2014.

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Marsh Davies