We get hands-on with PS2 and Xbox versions of Blue 52's upcoming stealth action game.
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Playable versions of Stolen have proved to be every bit as elusive as the game's catsuit-wearing central character since we first saw the game in London last year. We finally managed to get our hands on work-in-progress builds of both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox games this week, and we're pleased to report that we've enjoyed every minute that we've spent playing them thus far.
If you've been following our previous coverage of Stolen, you'll know that the game slips you into the catsuit of an agile character named Anya Romanov, who makes her living as a thief in the fictional Forge City. Anya isn't nearly as proficient in combat situations as characters like Metal Gear Solid's Snake or Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher; as a result, there is more of an emphasis on stealth in Stolen than in either of those series. The high-tech gadgets you'll have at your disposal are comparable to those employed by the aforementioned stealth-action-game heroes, but since Anya is a thief rather than a killer, you'll notice a distinct lack of lethal weapons in her arsenal.
When you play Stolen for the first time, you'll find that there's no tutorial level. Instead, brief instructions for each of Anya's moves and gadgets appear on the screen the first time you need to use them. Requisite moves such as jumping, crouching, rolling, climbing, flattening against walls, and leaning around corners are easy to perform on both the PS2 and Xbox controllers, and Anya's trademark acrobatics are actually far less challenging than we expected them to be. In fact, some of Anya's acrobatics are almost a little too easy to use, since swinging around and jumping between poles and such require no timing on your part--just a single press of the jump button. Locating objects that Anya can interact with is also less challenging than it could be, because taking a moment to look around any locale using the first-person view will highlight everything from ammo pickups and items that can be stolen to environmental objects, such as doors, switches, and poles, that have a role to play in your progression through the area. Being able to identify important objects using the first-person view isn't a bad thing, but it would be nice if there were an option to disable the feature, since doing so would go some way toward making the exploration and navigation aspects of the game as challenging as the stealth.
Although to date we've only played through some of Stolen's early stages, the guards that we've been doing our best to avoid have proved to be worthy (and believable) adversaries for the most part. The guards invariably follow quite predictable patrol patterns when you arrive in an area, but the different ways that they react if they become suspicious feel far less scripted. When you use a sonic emitter device to try to draw a guard to a particular area, for example, there's a good chance that he'll do exactly what you want him to, but there's also a chance that he might just mumble to himself and not budge an inch or that he might get paranoid and radio for backup. If you do end up having to fight a guard, you'll often find that they're not too difficult to knock out just by repeatedly pressing your attack button. You can't take any of your adversaries out of the game permanently, though, and when they come around after a short time, they'll often reach for their radio and ask for assistance from any guards who happen to be nearby. Even in the early stages of the game, you'll find that guards in this situation can be quite persistent, although avoiding them (and their flashlights) is often just a case of finding the correct dark corner to hide in until they're told to return to their posts. The fact that the guards carry flashlights is significant, by the way, because whereas Sam Fisher has often been able to get out of tight spots simply by shooting out every lightbulb in sight, that strategy is a lot less effective in Stolen.
The security cameras that we've encountered in Stolen become useless when the lights go out. Taking shots at lightbulbs is rarely an option, though, and like the guards, any cameras that you take out of commission with the appropriate ammo will be up and running again in no time. Cameras can be tracked in the same way that guards can, so their positions and vision cones appear on your map. You'll rarely have to get past the same camera multiple times, so this can feel like a waste of your limited ammo. All of the gadgets in Stolen can be carried around in very limited quantities, which is good since it will encourage you to attempt to deal with situations without using gadgets. The gadgets we've employed to date, and which are accessed via an inventory system that's taken straight from the Metal Gear Solid series, include nullifiers, which can stun guards, disable security systems, or knock out lights; motion trip wires, which stun the first guard to break his infrared beam, make a warning sound, and can be recovered after use; a grand tracker device that can be attached to a hacking point to add all trackable items and doors in the area to your map; and the aforementioned trackers and sonic emitters. We've also had plenty of opportunities to try out Anya's night vision and sonic radar vision modes, the latter of which lets you see through doors and walls, provided there are sounds such as footsteps (or Anya's own whistling, which can be heard by guards) making sound waves.
When your sonic vision's findings (or a lock) mean that going through a door isn't a viable (or at least appealing) option, you'll occasionally be able to find another route to your next objective. Predictably this will involve crawling through an air vent more often than not (imagine a stealth action game without air vents--unthinkable), for which you'll automatically switch to a first-person viewpoint. When you reach your destination at the end of an air vent you'll be able to switch to the same first-person perspective that you use during the rest of the game, affording you a powerful zoom function as well as the aforementioned labeling of interactive objects. You won't be able to use any weapons or gadgets until you're clear of the vent, though, which is a good thing since the ability to do so would make certain portions of the game far less challenging.
If we had to make one criticism of Stolen at this point, it would be that our progress has often felt more linear than we'd like. It's not so much that many areas can be negotiated only by taking one specific route but rather that many of the nicely detailed locations we've found ourselves in look like they'd be a lot of fun to explore using Anya's acrobatic skills. Right at the start of the game, for example, you'll be required to move between rooftops by swinging from a horizontal pole. The pole in question is attached to a couple of large pipes that actually run straight from one building to the next, and the only reason Anya isn't able to just climb onto the pipes and walk along them seems to be that the developers don't want you to. Granted, this particular example is taken from a portion of the game where you're being encouraged to experiment with specific abilities, but it's typical of a number of situations that we've found ourselves in. With that said, there are plenty of times when taking a few moments to explore and perhaps to outwit an additional guard has yielded medical supplies and ammo.
We're basically feeling good about Stolen right now. Although the game clearly borrows ideas from other stealth action games, its gameplay is sufficiently different to make it interesting. The visuals in the game are quite stylish and striking, the sound effects are good enough that they help to keep you aware of your surroundings, and the controls (which leave no button unused) never feel overcomplicated. Because the Xbox version is behind the PS2 version in development, it's a little difficult for us to comment on the differences between the two. The Xbox game looks a little better, but it's also way too bright in places right now, to the point that it makes Anya's night vision totally unnecessary. Regardless, we've really enjoyed our time with both versions of Stolen to date, and we look forward to bringing you more information on the game ahead of its March release.