"You shouldn't be sat inside on a day like this. You ought to be outside playing with your friends." Fortunately, we didn't take our parents' advice, which is why we were (still) sat inside this time last week, on a lovely summery afternoon, playing a game about stealing valuable artefacts - and not peering out from behind bars because we'd given our youth over to trying to do the same thing for real.
Stolen, as the name suggests, is about robbing people. But we're not talking about sneaking a couple of chocolate bars into a rucksack after school here (nor we would ever condone that sort of thing, kids), but rather we're stealing things with more of a Hollywood mentality - in a game that developer Blue52 tells us is aiming for the same feel as films like The Thomas Crown Affair and Entrapment; at least in terms of the complexity and finesse of the overall heist.
Atmospherically, the setting of Forge City is riffing more on Ridley Scott's Blade Runner; a vast, rain and lightning swept industrial pickpocket's playground, with plenty of convenient ledges to clamber onto, and crate and machine-peppered courtyards and darkened corridors to navigate, whilst dodging the attentions of numerous portly patrolmen.
You'll be navigating this shady near-future setting in third-person with a young lass called Anya, whose motives are somewhat ambiguous at the moment. All we know for now is that she's rather keen on pinching other people's priceless possessions from right under their noses, that she'll have various organisations to crack across her 10-hour-or-so adventure, and that she's equipped with the agility of Lara Croft and the evasion skills and gadgetry of Sam Fisher (complete with an electronics expert on the end of the phone). She's not, however, equipped with the typically gung-ho attitude of the average Hollywood uber-crim. In fact, Anya won't be killing anybody at all.
Cold In, Hot Out
The idea, then, is to break into whichever organisation she's set on victimising, nab the prize whilst attracting the minimum of attention, and then get out as quickly as possible as the goons wise up to her presence and things start heating up. "Cold in, hot out," says our Blue52 rep, which is a nice way of putting it. On the way, Anya crawls along ledges, sneaks past guards, swoops along ziplines and makes careful use of her mini-map radar to monitor the guards - assuming, that is, that she's put a tracker dart into their backside beforehand.
Once she's done that, guards show up on the radar with a trio of alert states - green means they haven't a clue, yellow means they've heard or seen enough to arouse their suspicions, and red means they're onto you. Given that Anya is unable to kill anybody, red is a state to avoid. Fortunately she can incapacitate enemies, Solid Snake style, take out security cameras for a little while using an EMP gun, clamber up onto higher ground or hang from ledges until they've given up, or fire a sound emitting dart into a wall nearby to distract them. And, if all else fails, she can always choke them into unconsciousness, but Anya's more of a cat burglar than a bruiser, so we get the impression that ought to be a last resort.
It needn't get to that stage at all, though, if the player can keep her out of sight, and Blue52 has come up with lots of ways to do that. The aforementioned sonic emitter dart is a good method of turning guards the other way so she can sneak past, and she's also tooled up with a visibility meter that measures, surprisingly, how well she can be seen - a reading influenced not only by any shadows she happens to be lurking in, but whether she's pressed up against a wall, hanging from the rafters, and so on.
Nerves Of Steal
Anya also has a night vision visor so she can pick her way through the dark, and she can take out lights with her dart gun to help keep her out of view. And, should she come up against a door she hasn't been through, she can also make use of a sonic vision mode, which lets her see roughly what's happening on the other side by tracing an outline using sound waves. Not unlike Ben Affleck's perspective in Daredevil. She can knock out the lights by breaking into generators and shutting them down.
Should the doors themselves put up a fight, meanwhile, she can also pick the locks. In fact, there will be four different sub-games that help Anya crack through doors (using the left analogue stick to align pins in a lock), crack safes, hack computers (by copying a pattern on a little nine-square grid) and cut through steel to break into ventilation shafts and other areas which are off-limits.
All of which should give us plenty to think about when we actually get to play Stolen for ourselves. The build we saw was far from complete - cut-scenes were indicated by "Cut-scene here" style pop-ups, and the developer is hoping to squeeze 60 frames per second out of the hardware rather than the 30 they're managing at the moment - but on the whole it's an idea with potential. In such a crowded genre though, Stolen will have to put on quite a show to impress.
Visually it's looking very nice indeed already, and it has some clever ideas - like rifling through drawers and stealing secondary items to gain bonus points, all of which go to a Thief-style completion rating at the end of a level - but it'll be the variety of Anya's skills and the quality of the level design that make the difference here. Encouragingly, then, Blue52 is already talking about giving us several ways to cut through each level. We look forward to trying it out for ourselves. Until then, we're going to dig out Entrapment and marvel at Sean Connery's ability to snap photographs of Zeta Jones under his arm whilst riding an escalator in a funny hat. And we're not going outside. Not ever.
Stolen is due out on PS2 and Xbox in March 2005, with a PC version due out shortly afterward.