360, PC, PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox One
The alternate London of high-drama thievery simulator The Swindle clearly has many maladies, but prison overcrowding can’t be one of them. Not with intricate home security systems that make a doberman and a shotgun under the bed seem like a welcome mat and a proclivity for brutality among the robotic officers of the law that ensures 100 per cent of caught felons skip the penitentiary and go straight to the morgue. Size Five doesn’t simulate blood when you slip up and baton cracks skull, bringing about the permanent end of one of your network of larcenous rogues, but if it did then ‘caught red-handed’ would quickly lose all metaphorical value in this take on 1849.
That’s not really your problem, however. While you do take control of each thief for their platforming-styled smash and grabs, as the detached puppet master behind the entire nefarious organisation, your problem is that soon there’ll come a day when there won’t be even this much room for naughty men like you to sneak around. In precisely 100 of them, Scotland Yard will be bringing online the Devil’s Basilisk and putting an end to your capering days for good.
It’s a high-stakes setup that means every time you launch a thief from your airship base into one of the five characterful districts, there’s friction. Each heist consumes a day, so steal too little and you’ll never be able to afford your passes through the zones to reach the final swindle in time, let alone upgrade your tools. Get slightly too greedy and your take will be nothing whatsoever, since your current meatsack avatar takes just one hit to send off into a dirt nap. Any experience, and thus money bonus, is gone with them – Size Five may offer an endless supply of ne’er-do-wells and bought technologies may transfer to your next thief, but permadeath can still sting.
You will feel that sting often. To say The Swindle is challenging is to understate it. At times, playing the game feels like hanging with Spelunky’s demanding younger brother. There’s the same focus on sweet loot, cash made here either by hoovering up the wads of folding money and contents of easy safes sequestered about these procedurally generated levels, or by hacking computer terminals for massive payouts. There’s the same need for precision platforming skill, with only accurate jumps and well-timed strikes of your cosh able to see you through these death traps safely. And there’s the same propensity for surprises and hilarious deaths, the game’s procedural algorithms spitting out fiendish addresses that combine with the devilishly complex security systems cooked up by Dan Marshall’s pernicious mind to deliver uncertainty and cascading chains of disaster. You will fail often, but the way these elements combine to deliver the transgressive thrill of pushing your luck becomes magnetic. If you stick at it.
You may initially wonder if it’s worth the bother. The Swindle goes too far in its demands at times, but never is that more exacerbated than in an opening that’s openly hostile to the uninitiated. Marshall’s procedural level algorithm will coldly serve you a flume into a room from which it’s impossible to escape without jumping upgrades long before you could possibly afford them, leaving self-termination your only recourse. While you have a wall jump with significantly better reach than your vertical hop, certain stacks of windows are likewise insurmountable until you can double-jump or stick to glass. All-important computers will be suspended in rooms with no doors, asking you to mine them out with bombs you have not yet bought, or materialise in with a teleport you do not have. Two or three bad shuffles close together can be ruinous to your enjoyment. Being screwed over by luck in a game demanding such levels of skill is doubly infuriating – you can’t learn from these hiccups, only endure them.
Of course, there’s always a solution waiting in the upgrade menu on your airship, but prices are steep and you don’t have the days to waste, especially when the fairer-feeling mix of deadly robot guards and cameras present a mighty challenge already. It’s not even as if the game is significantly easier on a second or third playthrough – you’ll still be rebuffed by impenetrable setups once you’ve developed the skill to parse the difference between a distance surmountable with pixel-perfect leaps and a flat-out killer of level geometry.
And yet, if you’re tenacious and patient, it assuredly is worth stealing some time for The Swindle, because it knows how to serve up a Hollywood heist like nothing else we’ve played. The robot guards are stupid in the best tradition of stealth game guards, programmed to ignore anything in their sight cones except a careless thief. The game’s best trick is that getting spotted is far from game over, filling levels with angry red and the blaring of sirens, but also starting an invisible timer until the fuzz arrive. So long as you can dodge traps such as closing shutters, mines, electricity arcs and a dastardly variety of robotic attacks – including, but not limited to, psychotic crow mobs, furnace-like blasts, metal fists and jumping mines – then you can keep pilfering or make good your escape. You haven’t got forever: eventually a police gunship will tear though the level and, shortly after, you. But the ratcheting stress of slowly unpicking each room is all the more satisfyingly relieved when it’s punctured by a scramble to the exit and you make it to your getaway pod just in time.
So despite its faults – its wilfully mean level generation, its tight-fisted approach to progression, its high barrier to entry – Size Five’s once-abandoned crime caper isn’t short on roguish charm. Rarely has something so uneven and intermittently frustrating stolen our hearts this brazenly.
It’s worth stealing some time for The Swindle: it knows how to serve up a Hollywood heist like nothing else