Th3 Plan Review
When you really think about it, crime dramas include perfect concepts for a video game. This is why a crime caper like Ocean's Eleven, The Score, or The Italian Job should - theoretically - provide more than enough great ideas for any game developer. Capitalizing on the inherent strengths wouldn't be too difficult, and if you utilize the stealth and action elements from franchises like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell, you should have a winning combination. Unfortunately, while Th3 Plan attempts to achieve that can't-lose formula, it falls flat due to a lackluster presentation, somewhat bizarre controls, and a plot that tries to be intelligent but ends up looking like Swiss cheese. Seriously, why do such great ideas continue to fall so far short? We blame low game budgets and not enough talent on the developing side of things, but is it really worth the sacrifice for that $15 price tag?
The graphics are very similar to what we've been seeing in recent low-budget PS2 games, like Raw Danger. They tend to feature a mostly bland palette of washed-out colors, some decent detail, and minor anti-aliasing issues. Due to this mostly uninspired environment, the player loses a great deal of interest in the game's proceedings, primarily because everything looks too similar. Whether you're in a prison, a train, or a museum, there isn't anywhere near enough diversity, as seemingly every visual scrap gets repeated constantly. But at the same time, we have to give the graphics points for being consistent, and for not bogging us down with major structural problems. There's some clipping and questionable level design decisions, but it's not enough to distract us from our entertainment...the gameplay kinda does that on its own.
The sound isn't any better. The effects constantly seem understated and muted, which only serves to hamper our interaction, and the soundtrack is painfully repetitive and never once makes an impact. The voice acting is uneven at best, with glimpses of solid performances often overridden by mediocrity throughout the storytelling cut-scenes. And considering the number and length of those cut-scenes, the latter drawback is amplified even more. The music does fit the atmosphere, though; as many times as the same theme is recycled throughout the game, it's still a fitting theme. When you realize that this particular title is designed to be more about tense stealth than all-out action, you start to appreciate the soundtrack - and even the effects - just a little more. But that doesn't absolve the developers from skimping on the overall effort in this category, because that skimping is painfully obvious.
The premise: a team of master thieves are attempting to steal two priceless Rembrandt paintings from a super-secure museum. They nab one, but in a startling act of betrayal, a team member is left behind to face the authorities, and eventually, jail. Later, the betrayer realizes he can't sell just one of the paintings to his client - the deal was for both - so now he's got a hot piece of art he can't sell. At the same time, the betrayed sits behind bars...but the friends who didn't stab him in the back are devising a plan to break him out. Once he's free and the gang is back together (for the most part), it's time to track down that betrayer, score the goods, and in general, make things right. Now, after reading this, doesn't it sound intriguing? Doesn't this concept simply shine with potential? Well, that's what we thought, too. But the gameplay, despite sporting some surprisingly original ideas, doesn't hold up under the high expectations.
As usual, we'll start with the good news (it's just so depressing to kick things off with the negatives, isn't it?). Each character has their own unique abilities and skills, and this directly affects how you play the game. For example, Valerie can't move while crouching (we're not sure why; perhaps that short dress of hers would ride up), and the guys have more stamina for hanging and climbing. But to make up for a lack of physical ability, Valerie has the pickpocket skill, which is cleverly implemented...to a point. You have to select a target, then the game tells you where to stand to start the "picking" process. Once you've started, you must follow a "ghost hand" as closely as possible; it's like moving her disembodied hand to the target with the help of a barely visible guide. It's not too difficult, but it happens very slowly, and in terms of realism, it doesn't make much sense. Still, an original idea is an original idea.
Moving on, while you've heard of cooperative gameplay amongst multiple characters in video games, you probably haven't seen anything like this. Much of the time, the screen is split into three screens; one for each character, with the largest screen on the top focusing on the primary team member. You can gain control of any of the three characters at any time: the primary character will be the default, but you can take hold of the person on the bottom left with L1 and the person on the bottom right with R1. The only problem is, you have to actually hold down L1 or R1 while using that character, and there didn't seem to be any way to switch to the larger perspective when controlling a secondary team member. This poses all kinds of issues as the tiny view boxes for the other two characters greatly restrict your field of vision. But even so, this is a very cool way to approach the gameplay, and it's another appreciated attempt at fresh mechanics.
Speaking of field of vision, we'll now address the enemy AI, which is, for all intents and purposes, mostly non-existent. Other stealth-oriented games have pioneered the "scope of vision" seen on the map, and Th3 Plan uses this same approach, but it's the only thing you have to avoid. They can't hear very well, they very rarely pursue suspicious sounds or activity, and if Valerie has a guard distracted, Alan can easily render four guards directly behind them unconscious. Bodies can't be noticed (you can just leave a telltale trail of bodies in your wake; no worries), and alarms aren't really an issue, either. If the alarm sounds or you're detected in any way, the game is over. You would think this adds to the realism, but in fact, it takes away from it. Just because I'm spotted means there's nothing I can do? It doesn't help that you won't see a single weapon until at least halfway through the game, and when you get your pistol - with unlimited ammo, by the way - everything gets crazy easy.
So the AI is totally lame-brained, but at least the story is skillfully presented with an atmospheric Max Payne-like set of storyboards shown in graphic novel style. Unfortunately, the plot isn't nearly as clever as it should be, despite the solid concept...like we said before: Swiss cheese. When you encounter new plot points, you almost start to wonder where the holes are, and before long, you'll spot them. The atrocious enemy AI only adds to the lack of realism, and while hunting for important evidence and outwitting the best security systems appears fun on the surface, the player quickly loses interest. Why? The control is fine, the camera is fine, but the device interface is poorly constructed, and not being able to see nearly enough with the other two characters is crippling.
The entire experience is actually quite unique. One minute, you're counting up all the shortcomings of the game, which are both numerous and quite visible. But at the same time, every few minutes or so, you come upon something interesting that keeps you playing for a bit longer. It's like a virtual tug-of-war; the second you're ready to throw away the controller in disgust, the story gets just the teensiest bit absorbing, or the gameplay situation suddenly gets slightly more engaging. It's always just enough to keep you playing, but never enough to impress you. The premise is great, but the very below-average technicals, odd mechanics, and terrible AI drags everything down. Th3 Plan seeks to be something special, which is admirable, but somehow, it fails to deliver in just about every facet of the game. It might be worth the budget price tag, but with all the fantastic games out there now, there are plenty of better options, especially if you like stealth-oriented titles.
We'll finish with a bad pun- it was a good "plan," but it lacked execution, and ultimately got caught in its own web of poorly implemented - yet crafty - techniques.
7/19/2007 Ben Dutka