Most isometric strategy games tend to feature guns, tanks, a combination of both guns and tanks, or some kind of apocalyptic alien invasion in which all my soldiers are horribly slaughtered, so it’s nice to take a bit of break from all that with a nice spot of 1970’s crime capering. Skilltree Studios’ tactical strategy game Crookz is a light-hearted heist romp that offers a more relaxed, less punishing challenge than some of its peers.
Crookz: The Big Heist
There's nothing 'groovy' about crime, kids. Except heists. Those are cool.
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You control a group of up to four different thieves from a roster of six, each based on a particular period archetype (squat, Bronx mechanic, straggly-haired stoner, afro disco goddess), and each of whom has their own list of skills to put to use; there’s the pugilist who specialises in bashing guards over the head and keeping them out of the game (he’s my favourite), a runner who’s much faster than the others and as such useful for legging it to switches just in time, a locksmith, an engineer and a couple of others I haven’t bumped into yet. Each level, even the initial ones in which you’re restricted to only a couple of the classes, contains various areas where each character class can shine; if you’re the high score type there’s plenty of scope for replaying early levels with a new class to see if you can net a few extra points.
When your gold-laced disco boots hit the ground, you’ll use a real-time with pause system to manoeuvre your team around various 70’s heist movie staple locations; mobster houses, bank vaults, luxury pads with giant swimming pools, that kind of thing. Crookz wears its setting on its sleeve, but it doesn’t quite roll with the retro camp as gleefully as something like No One Lives Forever or Evil Genius. The tone’s very silly, but it feels an homage the to era rather than a parody. There’s a very simple plot setup where your band of rogues is trying to loot a space-crystal of some kind, and thanks to a double-cross they end up disbanding. A few years later, they get the opportunity for revenge, and it’s down to you to get the team back together, and build up the tools and cash for some increasingly tricky jobs.
At its core, Crookz is actually a very simple game to get the hang of. You issue commands as a series of linear waypoints, then hit play and watch your thief carry them out. If you misjudge a move at any point, a tap of the space bar freezes the action again, and you can either order your character to wait – at which point he or she will stop until you give them the all clear – or cancel the orders completely. It’s a neat system that works well, encouraging on-the-fly improvisation and quick-thinking, but also giving you some time to breath and a bit of a get-out clause if you make a really stupid mistake.
Each heist throws you into an arena filled with patrolling guards, security cameras, laser beam grids and so on, challenging you to avoid attention and fulfil an objective before the guards cotton on to your presence. You get some time before each run to case the joint, note guard paths, camera trails, security gates and so on, and grab any tools you need. These include various items that let you brute-force certain obstacles in the world. Crowbars make noise but let you break open locked doors, chloroform lets the non-combat types efficiently take out guards, while camera jammers…. do pretty much what you’d expect. Some of these you can grab within the levels themselves, should you run out. I’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of the number of different one-shot items in the game, so I’m hoping there are some more esoteric and interesting options once the missions start getting more ambitious and tricky.
At least in the early stages Crookz isn’t a particularly difficult game – guards revive quickly but have a very limited patrol path, and they don’t seem that fussed about getting punched in the face multiple times – but I can already tell by the fourth mission that the game’s slowly escalating the challenge. Obstacles become more clustered and trickier to bypass, and levels start lobbing some admittedly fairly simple switch puzzles in my direction. I hope the game has enough challenges down the line to offer aside from the initial jumble of locked doors, laser-beams and crawl-spaces; it’s fun to pick my way through these systems at first, but if the game’s eighteen missions rely too much on the same formula it risks becoming a bit tired. Right now though I’m enjoying the level design, which does a good job of avoiding the trap of forcing you down one particular route – you still have to tag the same objectives, but there’s room to manoeuvre and try out different approaches in each level.
Despite the ease of the first few missions, I enjoyed my time with Crookz a lot. The real-time pause gameplay takes a while to get the hang of, but once it clicks you realise it’s actually a smart way to handle multi-character movement. The fact that I can ditch an entire backlog of orders in one click and send my agent scurrying for cover avoids the kind of niggling frustration that often marks out these kind of stealth strategy games. Crookz isn’t going to reach the depth and complexity of something like Invisible Inc, but it’s not really trying to. It plays to its strengths as a simple, fun heist caper, with a more friendly and approachable take on strategy, and it’s enjoyably competent at it. Whether it can hold the player’s attention in the long-term remains to be seen, but so far I’m digging it daddy-o. Groovy, far out, etcetera.
Most Anticipated Moment: I’m looking forward to seeing if the game can really ramp up the challenge. What I’ve played has been easy to navigate so far.