December 27, 2015 1 Comment
SteamWorld Heist is the long-awaited fourth entry in the Ocean’s Eleven movie series. This time, George Clooney’s ragtag group of professional thieves break into Valve’s headquarters to steal Gabe Newell’s tankers full of bacon grease. Okay, so the actual story is a ragtag group of space robots looting other space robots, but really, the first idea needs to happen.
I’ll give this to Image & Form: they have balls. Big, huge, brass balls that go “clank clank clank” like you’re listening to James Harden practice 3-pointers. SteamWorld Heist is not a sequel to their critically acclaimed mining time sink SteamWorld Dig. It’s a completely different style of game, with a new set of characters and new gameplay mechanics. It’s set in the same universe and features a quirky cast of sassy robots, with the same graphics style and same smooth play controls. Once again, if I played the game in a vacuum with no knowledge of indie gaming and was asked “who made this?” I would have guessed Nintendo without hesitation. The guys at Image & Form are very, very good. And this time around, they took even more care (this from an indie developer who has imposed a strict “no releasing games needing patches” policy) to provide a longer, more layered and complex experience.
So why didn’t I like Heist as much as Dig?
Before I continue, I should note that SteamWorld Heist is one of the best indies of 2015 and goes far to stake SteamWorld’s claim to the most unsung awesome indie franchise award. Heist stands on its own as a good game, and if I had never played Dig, I wouldn’t be so weirded out by the radical departure Heist makes from the established formula.
But weirded out I am. Because SteamWorld Dig was a relatively fast-paced title that took the time sink formula of XBLIG top-seller Miner Dig Deep and gave it a point. SteamWorld Heist, on the other hand, is a turned-base real-time action strategy game, or TBRTASG for short. Which is both a crappy acronym and a mediocre opening rack to have in Scrabble, with GRABS, GARBS, and BRAGS being the best words you can make on your opening turn, none of which are really that good. Turn-based games are inherently slower and more methodical, so I wasn’t expecting the kind of thrills I got from Dig. Actually, I’m impressed that Heist lends itself so well to playing on 3DS. Turns go by relatively quickly and stages are short enough that if you only have 10 minutes to kill, you could probably knock out any stage in the game with time to spare. The action revolves around how you aim and fire weapons yourself, giving the game an almost Worms-like feel to it. In fact, I hope Image & From is planning a versus mode for Heist when it hits consoles. It would be like Transformers, only you can tell the robots apart.
Having said all that, being fast-paced for a turn-based game is still relatively slow. The more deliberate pace can be exhausting. Whereas I had trouble putting Dig down, I could only do one-hour sessions of Heist before pretty much any other activity seemed at least 10% more appealing, and I needed a break. Even the promise of opening up new characters, weapons, and upgrades wasn’t enough to give it that “just a little bit further” quality that makes some games so memorable and successful. Like Dig, the story didn’t really stick with me at all. In fact, taking the game from the old west setting and sending it into space comes dangerously close to jumping the shark, and the characters are all of the cookie-cutter “lowest common denominator” variety. Probably great for both little kids and their child brains and also Nintendo fans whose brains are merely stuck in child mode. I kid.
Actually, I don’t know if SteamWorld Heist would hold your average kid’s attention. I had a couple of kids who played Dig and liked it a lot give Heist a whirl. It didn’t hold their interest at all, with one outright calling it boring. He’s wrong (and got a lump of coal from me for Christmas, serves him right), it’s certainly not boring, but I can’t stress enough that fans of SteamWorld Dig are by no means certain to love Heist. Whereas I think Dig could have appealed even to gamers who are not fans of the mining genre (which is a rarity given the blind hatred directed at those), I don’t think Heist would be as welcome to people who shy away from turn-based games of any type. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what my gut tells me, and my gut never steers me wrong. It also never fails to remind me when I ignore it, especially when we eat Mexican.
From a gameplay perspective, Heist is a very solid game, and the shooting mechanics are hugely satisfying. Again, think Worms in terms of how damn good it feels to hit those last-chance desperation shots that ricochet a couple of times and manage to find their mark. Heist is full of moments like that, those “I can’t believe I made that shot!” moments that make games like this worth playing. There’s even an incentive to come close but miss, in the form of collectible hats you can shoot off enemy heads that I can already visualize the achievements attached to when this hits consoles. It kind of makes bitter that I played this on achievementless 3DS, since I shot more hats off than failed Abraham Lincoln assassins. And the huge variety of weapons and characters assures that the firefights themselves never become boring. As far as action gameplay in turn-based games go, Heist ranks near the top.
But, I had a lot of complaints. I don’t like how movement and moves are represented. Instead of using a grid, the game draws color-coated lines (which will probably earn Image & Form the ire of colorblind gamers) to show the maximum distance you can move on a turn, or the maximum distance you can move while still being able to fire a weapon. That works fine for the turn you’re currently on, but I never got a good enough feel for movement, even after 20+ hours, to be able to plan the next few turns out. Since movement stats can change depending on your characters and what you equip them with, stronger on-screen visuals showing spacing would have made the game so much smoother. I can’t help but wonder if Image & Form avoided having a grid because they didn’t want the slower, dorkier stigma grids bring with them. Heist is certainly aimed at all ages, but kids might associate grids with math class or something.
My biggest complaint by far is how bland the levels are. I’m guessing this is mostly due to the levels being procedurally generated. Yes, the system put in place sets limits on how the levels can be laid out, assuring that certain things are in certain spots no matter what, and it’s commendable when a developer creates a really good random generator. As opposed to when they don’t. But, when you rely on randomness, you lose an elegance of design. The action in Heist would lend itself beautifully to levels designed around combos and making the movements and the actions puzzle/logic based. But, because randomness determines a good portion of where enemies are located, where loot is located, etc, you lose that higher-intelligence that I still feel can only be done by human hands. Some games are simply more suited for randomness. Spelunky was. Downwell was. Hell, even SteamWorld Dig was. Heist I don’t feel is. The irony of procedural generation has always been that, because of the limits you need to impose on it to make it work, it ultimately makes all levels feel kind of samey. Which seems to go against the point of making levels random in the first place.
Oh, and by the way Image & Form, I respect the shit out of you guys but you can’t advertise a game as being randomly generated..
And then immediately back off that and say “no no, they’re really handmade! Sorta!” when someone like me complains that randomly generated stages are a detriment to a game’s potential.
Which didn’t really bother me. It just made me laugh, in the same way a desperate used-car salesman says “no no, you don’t understand, it’s supposed to make that horrible noise.”
Of course, the real reason for procedural generation is that with it, you can claim “endless gameplay” and “never the same game twice”, padding out a game’s “replay” and giving gamers “more value for their money.” Wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG!! Because Heist does no such thing. The story unfolds the same, and replay is tied directly to a game’s adjustable difficulty that rewards you for playing on hard, not whether the levels are the same each time you play them or not. Frankly, I didn’t realize the levels were changing during runs where I shot poorly, died, and had to restart. It’s not like Spelunky, where I can say “oh neat, the shop is right by the start of stage 2. That totally makes up for the fact that the damsel was behind seven fucking bombs worth of rock in stage 1!” I’ll take fifty amazing, intelligent levels over endless ones that are good at best, and bland at worst.
The problem is there’s an expectation on how much game a certain amount of money should get you. SteamWorld Heist is $20, and many gamers feel that for that price tag, you should get 40 hours worth of gameplay. But I paid $15 for Journey and got four hours out of it, and it was four of the best hours I had playing a video game. Strip out the random levels and SteamWorld Heist would have been good for 10 to 15 hours, easily. I put over twenty in it. As it is, it’s really fun, but I feel the ceiling was lowered because instead of giving us the best levels human beings can make, Image & Form took a lot of care and effort to create a system that can make the best levels a soulless computer can make. You can get away with that if you’re a fast-paced, white-knuckle score-a-thon, but not something like this. If not for the fact that the action is hugely satisfying, the variety of weapons are so fun, and the game has more charm than nearly any other indie franchise, I think people would remember this as a letdown. I loved SteamWorld Heist. It’s in my top-fifty as of this writing. I just know the potential was here to like it more, and I didn’t. Which is a shame. Then I could have ended this review with a cheesy line like “the only Heist involved stealing my heart.”
Which I just figured out a way to do anyway. HA!
$16.99 (Launch Price, normally $19.99) noted the irony that I negatively compared Heist’s attempt at doing random levels to better examples like Spelunky and Downwell, yet SteamWorld Heist outranks both of them on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard in the making of this review.
A review copy of SteamWorld Heist was provided to Indie Gamer Chick. All games reviewed at IndieGamerChick.com are paid for in full by Cathy. On December 11, 2016, a full copy was purchased. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ.
SteamWorld Heist is chick-approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.