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Grace Under Pressure: On the Thrilling Heist Mechanics of ‘The Swindle’

Size Five's summertime heist-sim has me recalling Robert De Niro's criminal code in "Heat"—be capable of dropping everything, or die.

by Carolyn Petit
Oct 5 2015, 7:05pm

A screenshot from 'The Swindle,' via Size Five

When I think about heists, I think about Michael Mann's classic crime film Heat, and when I think about Heat, I think about the code that has kept Robert De Niro's master criminal Neil McCauley alive and thriving throughout his career. As he explains to Al Pacino's relentless cop Vincent Hanna in one of the all-time great movie scenes, "Guy told me one time, don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." McCauley is mostly talking about maintaining a sense of detachment from people here, but it applies to the criminal craft as well. Better to walk away from a big score and live to pull off another job than to take foolish risks in pursuit of a hefty reward.

Grand Theft Auto V wore the influence of Heat on its sleeve—likewise GTA IV with its Three Leaf Clover bank robbery and subsequent escape—and I enjoyed the way that its single-player campaign evoked the narrative pleasures present in so many heist movies of watching a team come together, decide on a plan, and execute it. But with its limited, binary-choice approach to heists—do you want to go in smart or go in loud—came a tradeoff: You, the player, didn't actually get to determine the best approach to any situation.

GTA V's cinematic approach demanded a rigid narrative structure, so heists play out as choreographed sequences in which the actors need to hit their marks, little glowing circles in the environments just like the pieces of tape on a theatre stage that tell performers where to stand when delivering their monologue. In GTA V, executing a heist often means climbing up to this specific spot on the roof and tossing a gas grenade into the vent. It means standing right in this place and mopping the hallway so that you actually seem like the janitor you're pretending to be.

Screenshot by the author

One of my favorite games of 2015, Size Five's July release The Swindle, flips this balance between freedom and structure around in its approach to the craft of pulling off the perfect heist. You're provided with only as much story as is necessary to establish what's at stake, then left completely free to determine not only how to approach each situation, but also if and when you should walk away. In the game's 1849 steampunk London, Scotland Yard is preparing to launch the Devil's Basilisk, a surveillance system so effective that it will put burglars such as yourself out of work permanently. You have 100 days to acquire the gear you'll need to successfully infiltrate the fortress of police security where the Basilisk is being held and make off with the contraption. It's a classic pressure-cooker setup in which there are built-in limitations and everything is on the line.

I've managed to retrieve the Basilisk once so far, and it was one of the most satisfying gaming accomplishments I've pulled off in a long time.

The Swindle's steampunk setting is far more than just an excuse for a distinctive and delightful art style, complete with background cityscapes of massive clockwork gears and hovering airships. It also works to make both the technology you have at your disposal and the security devices that stand between you and a hefty score more believable. I always had a hard time buying that the elite genome soldiers of the original Metal Gear Solid could only see about ten feet in front of themselves, but jaunty steampunk robots who look like patrolling constables? I'll buy whatever limitations and predictable routines you want to build into the design of those.

'The Swindle,' launch trailer

You always start The Swindle as the same criminal, Henry Beresford, and as you venture into the residences, warehouses, and banks of London to hack their computers and make off with the money stored within, you have plenty of incentive to take whatever risks might be involved in scoring as much cash as possible. Money is, of course, how you purchase the gadgets, abilities, and security clearances that let you take on greater challenges and that ultimately give you a ghost of a chance of snagging the Devil's Basilisk. Any time you pull off a successful heist—that is, make off with 80 percent or more of the loot at a given location—your thief's XP increases, functioning as a multiplier on your total haul from each subsequent heist. And if you can clean a place out entirely and escape unseen, you score a hefty "ghost bonus" to your payout.

But as tempting as it is to venture into that one heavily guarded room and grab that last bit of cash that's just tantalizingly lying there on the ground, you also have plenty of incentive to play it safe and keep your thief alive. Perish, and while your current thief is immediately replaced, any experience bonus you've built up with your current criminal dies with him or her. So you're encouraged to actually play by McCauley's code. Stay alive. Walk away if you have to. You can abandon a heist at any time, provided you can make it back to your steam-powered drop pod in one piece. Because the risks and the rewards are so great, deciding whether to stay or go can be very difficult sometimes.

If you bite the dust on a job (and you will), the pain of losing your thief is slightly mitigated by the pleasure of meeting the next, a character whose race, gender, and name are randomly selected. You may end up playing as a woman mysteriously named Gertrude [REDACTED] or as a fierce-looking bloke with the equally fierce name of Lewis Q.S. Beardkiller. I appreciate that it's entirely out of your control. Don't like playing as little old ladies? Tough cookies, and here, they can get the job done as effectively as anyone else.

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The Swindle owes something to other great roguelikes such as Spelunky, but part of what sets The Swindle apart is the degree to which it demands caution, patience, and precision. In The Swindle, you're always just one false move away from death. Everything is a one-hit kill. Like the tiny drop of sweat that almost ended Ethan Hunt's CIA break-in in the first Mission: Impossible film, even the simplest things you have to deal with here are significant. Entering a sequence of inputs to hack a mine isn't difficult, but when the pressure's on and one slip-up makes that mine blow up in your face, you become deeply focused on getting it right. Each heist becomes a battle against your own nerves, a struggle to maintain grace under pressure.

So rather than recklessly busting into any of the homes, warehouses, banks, and casinos that hold the sweet cash you're trying to get your hands on, you case the joint. Getting up on the roof can give you a sense of what kinds of cameras, robots, and other security measures might be in place on the upper levels, and you can purchase gadgets that give you some idea of where the computers are located that hold the bulk of the site's cash, as well as where any security stations are located that you may need to hack to disable other safeguards.

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Another screenshot from 'The Swindle,' via Size Five

Casing the joint gives you a chance to assess the risks involved, and to devise a plan of action. Will you use your remote detonation device to blow up that mine when an unsuspecting enemy robot patrols past it? Will you use your temporary steam cover to try to get in and get out of a room unseen? It's a process of evaluating a situation and making high-stakes strategic decisions. The characters in most great heist movies do it. The characters in GTA V do it but you don't; you just go through the motions with them. Here, you get to do it, and once you've decided on an approach, you then need to execute it flawlessly or adapt it on the fly, because one slip-up brings your efforts to an end.

Personally, I am spectacularly bad at deciding that the risk outweighs the reward and walking away, and I often pay the price. On one venture, my pockets already bursting with pounds, a cash-containing computer just waiting to be hacked was guarded by a flying drone, a shortsighted robotic gendarme, and a guard robot that sped around on one wheel. Making my descent into the chamber, inching my way down the wall, I knocked out the drone unseen from above, feeling like the most skilled cat burglar who ever stole from London's rich and corrupt. Landing on the ground, I snuck up behind the robotic cop and whacked him with my baton from behind, only to realize that I'd slightly miscalculated the patrol speed and visual range of the wheeled robot, and in a flash, that bot zipped up to me and ended my criminal career, all the cash I'd collected exploding out of me like confetti. It was a painful visual reminder of what I could have had if I'd just walked away. I imagined De Niro's McCauley shaking his head at me in disappointment.

But when you do see a situation that seems nigh-impossible, and you still manage to use your wits and your tools to snag the cash, you feel like Ethan Hunt right after he broke into that CIA vault I mentioned before. And that, to me, is the real magic of The Swindle. Many games have tried to deliver the thrill of pulling off the perfect heist that you might vicariously experience when watching a great heist film. But it's precisely because The Swindle takes a much less cinematic approach, because every decision is yours and the stakes are so high, that it succeeds at capturing the feel of being in a heist film better than any other game I've played.

The Swindle is out now for various platforms.

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