In the world of Crookz, pulling off the perfect heist doesn’t require meticulous planning or, it seems, a tightly co-ordinated group of skilled individuals. Rather, it’s more about flying by the seat of your pants.
Crookz is essentially the video game equivalent of a heist movie, of the sort that was so prevalent in the 70s and early 80’s (and has since been resurrected via the success of the inexplicably popular Ocean’s Eleven series and, to a lesser extent, the even more inexplicably popular The Fast and the Furious series). So, we have afros. We have flared jeans. And we have an awful lot of bass-heavy jazz funk.
It works, for the most part. Presented as a series of robberies, each stage sees you utilizing the specialties of your pre-determined characters to reach the loot at the heart of each level and escape safely. Similarly to Commandos and other team-based tactical puzzle games, each member of your crew has their own specialty. A locksmith can open a door to a corridor manned by a security camera; you’ll then send your contortionist crawling through some air ducts into the security room to open that door so that your hacker can get in and shut down the security system, enabling you to progress.
There are six characters in total, though you can only ever have four with you on a single mission. Occasionally, Crookz prescribes one or more of the crew you take with you, but for the most part you have some flexibility when it comes to deciding how to tackle each robbery. Thankfully, the level design is good enough to be able to accommodate multiple approaches (for the most part), meaning that Crookz has some potential to gather a loyal following of speed runners dedicated to finding the most efficient route through the generous story campaign.
Your crew members chatter with each other throughout, providing plenty of light-hearted banter that amuses and occasionally even provokes a wry smile. Crookz is never laugh-out-loud funny, and many of its jokes are either too cliché or too predictable to hit the mark, but the voicover cast deliver their lines with enthusiasm at least.
The characters in your crew aren’t there because they like each other; they’re thrust together by a common purpose: the desire to get revenge against someone who betrayed them. As such, much of the dialogue consists of squabbling and plenty of bitching about petty rivalries, and while the individual personalities of each crew member do shine through, they never truly develop into rounded characters outside of their primary motivation.
Over the course of the campaign there are plenty of twists and turns to the story, and plenty of McGuffins to keep things moving; but the lively performances of your crew helps to keep things moving at a decent clip, and some of the later levels display some truly devious puzzle design.
It’s a shame then that Crookz takes a little too long before it lets go of your hand. Early levels take the form of the worst kind of tutorial, telling you exactly where to go and what to do, and preventing you from progressing until you’ve performed such mundane actions as demonstrating you have mental faculties to use the arrow keys to move the camera around the map, or left click to select a character.
These tutorials could have easily been made skippable, as anyone who has played a PC game in the last decade or so is unlikely to benefit from their existence; but Crookz forces you to endure them, and they go on a little too long for comfort. It isn’t until around the fourth level that the game starts to ease up on the hand holding and let the level design come to the fore, but when it does the game becomes far more enjoyable.
As previously mentioned, each character has their own skills. These can also be levelled up, unlocking new abilities. Unfortunately, levels don’t always account for the fact that you may not have unlocked the skills required to complete your objective; pick the wrong crew for a stage, and it can be easy to find yourself unable to complete it simply because your chosen robbers aren’t advanced enough. It’s a frustrating flaw in the game’s design; a player should never be placed into a situation that they can’t get out of, but Crookz falls into that trap too often for comfort.
It doesn’t help that some unlockable skills are merely improved versions of existing ones. As well as obstructing a feeling of meaningful progress, some of these new and improved skills feel rather redundant, and sooner or later you’ll find yourself ignoring some characters entirely simply because they are no longer a viable option.
Take Rufus for example. Rufus’ primary role is to act as the muscle of the group. He can take down the guards patrolling each level, clearing the way for your other crew members to unlock doors or shut down security systems without the need to worry about being detected. But when the game hits the midway mark, guards suddenly become all but immune to Rufus’ choke holds, or patrol in pairs so that you can’t possibly incapacitate one without alerting the other.
You can use the cash looted from each mission to purchase a few items to help you out on the next – chloroform is probably the most useful, even if it is only a temporary way to get a guard out of your hair – but far from feeling like optional extras, they soon start to feel all but essential.
Despite these flaws, Crookz can easily become something of an obsession, and once you’ve finished the main story campaign there are a number of challenges to master.
It’s a shame that it doesn’t ship with a level editor, as it’s exactly the sort of the game that would benefit from an active community of player-made levels; hopefully Kalypso sees sense and releases some mod tools. There’s leaderboard support, and outside of the flaws mentioned above the level design is flexible enough to accommodate different strategies; but as it stands the majority of players are likely to complete it and move on with nary a second thought.
When it comes to the graphics, Crookz is a little hit and miss. The art style is enough to cover up the fact that models and level geometry isn’t particularly detailed, but character portraits have a horrible waxy sheen about them, not to mention the fact that they suffer from a bad case of the jaggies despite the fact that they are static portraits. Zooming in close will expose the fact that some textures aren’t quite as sharp as they could be, but on the whole the game gets the job done. It’s functional and stylized, but not exactly attractive.
The funk soundtrack is a highlight – and I would gladly listen to it while on the tube or going for a walk – and the voicover cast never sound bored, even if sometimes the dialogue can feel a little too obtrusive. Yes, the crew members don’t like each other. We get it. Hearing them sniping at each other every other second can become a little tiring, and Crookz could have done with a script editor who understood that less is sometimes more.
Crookz: The Big Heist is a neat, but flawed, puzzle game. It has plenty of personality, and a lot of good ideas, though those ideas are sometimes overshadowed by some irritating design flaws. If you have fond memories of games like Commandos then Crookz is likely to be right up your street.
It’s the sort of game that you can happily spend a lazy Sunday afternoon playing, and it’s easy to find yourself losing track of time as you attempt to work out the ideal way to approach each robbery. A level editor would certainly help its long term prospects, and Kalypso really should consider releasing one to the community; but even without one, Crookz is a decent slice of strategic puzzling, and worth considering if you’re interested in the genre.