At one point during a presentation of Crookz, a tactical heist game, Skilltree Studios' Lead Game Designer Sebastian Merkel mentioned the Commandos series as an influence. The heist genre that makes for so many great films is woefully underused in games, so I've been interested in Crookz since it was first announced, but the reference to Commandos quadrupled my interest.
Crookz, like Commandos, shares a top-down perspective and squad management elements with tactical strategy games, but unfolds in real-time. Rather than make a move, watch the results, and respond, you can pause the game at any time, give your group of burglars orders by drawing series of waypoints and actions, then watch those actions unfold.
Merkel said that he wants players to sit back, think, and plan carefully, but if something unexpected happens as your squad carries out your orders, you can pause the game again and adjust.
You pick four out of a total of six characters to take on each mission, though some missions will assign one mandatory character. There's Cleopatra, an acrobat who's clearly inspired by a Coffy-era Pam Grier, who can sneak through laser traps, or Bruiser, a burly redneck who can knock out guards. I like that characters were personalities rather than customizable blank slates, though the personality mostly comes through their abilities and a crude portrait in the corner of the screen.
As the superfluous Z at the end of its name implies, Crookz is a cheesy game, and it has a less than AAA look. The graphics and writing are simplistic, to put it kindly, but I didn't mind because it matches the '70s B movies it's riffing on.
What's really going to matter is the level design, and what I saw and was told seemed promising. In the first level I saw, the player had to sneak into a mobster's mansion, steal a few items, and escape undetected. In another level, he had to steal a container from a shipping yard. There were laser traps, patrolling guards, security cameras, and other obstacles. Like Commandos, the level is much bigger than the direct line between you and the objective, but that's never the path you want to take. The fun, I hope, is in exploring different routes, poking this complex system from different directions, and discovering which strategy is best for you and your crew. It's like the best parts of the old Hitman games, minus the awkward third person controls.
Merkel described one level where the group has to sneak into a police station to plant evidence, and another where you start as inmates at a prison, and break out. Later on, he said, Crookz crosses the line into the absurd, when your crew has to infiltrate a secret underwater area via submarine, with the help of a new character, a robot that can sneak by heat detectors.
While levels never change in layouts or objectives, there are enough ways to complete each so you can try different strategies with different crews. Do you bust through a door quickly with a crowbar, or do you take the time to pick the lock silently? Do you try to time it so your character moves through the security camera's dead zones, or do you take a different route and disable them with the electrician character?
Crookz could still end up like a complete mess. We won't know for sure until we get our hands on it in the second quarter of next year, but I like those type of questions, and I like the plan, execute, and adjust approach it's taking from Commandos. At the very least, I'm glad that there's a small studio carrying the torch for a type of PC game we don't see often.