Stolen Updated Impressions

We meet with Blue 52 and check out the latest PS2 and Xbox builds of this stealth action game.

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During a recent meeting with British developer Blue 52 we had the opportunity to check out the latest PlayStation 2 and Xbox builds of Stolen, a stealth-based action game currently scheduled for release in March. In Stolen, you'll assume the role of an acrobatic female thief named Anya Romanov whose vast array of moves is matched only by the number of high-tech gadgets at her disposal. The game's storyline, which we were mostly getting a taste for via cutscenes that take the form of TV news broadcasts, revolves around an upcoming mayoral election in a city that is plagued by crime and corruption. How Anya and her helpful colleague Louie (who regularly gives her hints via a voice communicator) become embroiled in events surrounding the election isn't clear at this point, but we definitely get the feeling that, at least at the start of the game, they are somewhat reluctant pawns in a political game.

With Anya's gymnastic skills at your disposal, every locale becomes a playground.
With Anya's gymnastic skills at your disposal, every locale becomes a playground.

For the first portion of our demo, we were taken through the PS2 game's tutorial mode. In addition to requisite moves, such us leaping across gaps, forward rolling, hanging onto ledges, flattening against walls, and leaning around corners, Anya is able to run up walls and interact with environmental objects, such as poles and girders, by swinging on them or by crouching and walking along them. For the purposes of the tutorial, most of these objects were highlighted with what Blue 52 referred to as "spangly bits." However, when these objects become a little harder to spot in the regular third-person view, you'll be able to switch to Anya's first-person mode in which all objects that can be interacted with (including health pickups and such) are clearly labeled. The tutorial also introduces Stolen's visibility meter, which works a little differently from those that you might have encountered in other stealth action games. In addition to shadows, the meter will take into account Anya's location in relation to guards, and it will change color so that any change in Anya's visibility level is easy for you to pick up on. When the meter appears in green you'll know that Anya is practically invisible; if it changes to yellow it means that she'll most likely be noticed by anyone close by; and if it turns to red she might as well be wearing an illuminated sign that reads: "Here I am."

Like many of her stealth action game counterparts, Anya has access to a GPS system that serves as a map and highlights key objectives. What Anya's system doesn't do, though, is plot the positions of guards and security cameras--at least not until she has tagged them with a tracking device, which can be fired from a silent air pistol. Like most of Anya's gadgets in the game, tracking devices will be in short supply, but if you feel the need to tag a particularly persistent guard or well-positioned security camera, doing so will add both its position and its vision cone to your map. We should point out, incidentally, that Stolen borrows more than a few ideas from the Metal Gear Solid series. For example, the menu system that you'll use to access different gadgets looks (and even sounds) like that in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and, like Snake, Anya can knock on walls (she can also whistle) if she wishes to attract a guard's attention. Some of Anya's gadgets are also reminiscent of those employed by Sam Fisher in the Splinter Cell games, including sonic-emitter darts that, once they've been fired at a wall or object, can be made to emit a sound (you'll have control over its volume and range) that, like whistling, will peak any nearby guards' interest.

Picking guards' pockets is as risky as it is rewarding.
Picking guards' pockets is as risky as it is rewarding.

Anya is a female thief, of course, so she actually has very little in common with Snake or Sam Fisher as far as her personality and some of her methods are concerned. Anya really isn't cut out for hand-to-hand fighting, for example, so if she's forced to engage an opponent you'll find that there's no way for her to take him out permanently. You'll be able to knock guards out for a while, of course, and while they're out cold you'll have the option to search them for wallets and such--which will count toward your "loot" rating at the end of the mission. Like most of the actions that you'll perform with inanimate objects in Stolen, searching bodies takes a little time and is accompanied by a bar graphic that fills up to 100 percent once the action is complete. You'll also be able to pick the pockets of guards who are walking around on patrol, although doing so is made much more difficult and requires you to stop a moving bar as close as possible to a certain point so that you don't get noticed. It's a mechanic not unlike the swingometer systems found in many golf games.

Take Your Pick

Picking the pockets of guards could almost be described as a minigame, actually, and you'll be playing plenty of those as you progress through the game. Stolen features four distinct minigames that, while simplistic, can definitely prove tricky if you're under pressure to beat them before a nearby guard wakes up or moves back into the immediate area, for example. The four minigames are used for picking locks (select the correct picks for a number of barrels and then align the block within the chamber using the analog stick), hacking into computers (play a Simon Says-style memory game), cracking safes (slowly rotate a dial while paying attention to ultrasound readings), and steel-cutting (trace the line of an irregular shape without deviating and causing your laser cutter to overheat). All four of the minigames will get progressively more difficult as you advance through the game, and will likely have to be completed under much more stressful conditions because of the more numerous and persistent guards that you'll be up against later on.

Safecracking is one of four activities in Stolen that takes the form of a minigame.
Safecracking is one of four activities in Stolen that takes the form of a minigame.

Of course, no self-respecting stealth action game hero leaves home without a pair of night vision goggles, and Anya is no exception. Anya's night vision goggles, like those worn by many of her counterparts, bathe the entire screen in a luminescent green, and it looks really neat. Anya's second vision mode employs a sonic visor that allows her to see sound waves, even if they're originating from the other side of a wall. The sonic visor is useless if the area is silent, of course, so Anya might occasionally need to whistle to get an idea of what is waiting for her on the other side of a closed door--risking alerting nearby guards in the process. The visual effect used for the sonic visor is actually even more impressive than the night vision, as blue versions of all objects are pulsating in and out of your vision against a black background. Once we'd seen everything that the tutorial had to offer, we switched to the Xbox version of the game, to a level set inside an abandoned asylum that was in the process of being transformed into a high-tech prison.

The challenge in the first few areas of the prison level wasn't to sneak past guards, but to put Anya's gymnastic abilities to good use in an attempt to negotiate a less than obvious route to a network of tunnels beneath the prison. Preliminary security systems had already been installed beneath the building, and anytime Anya was caught by a searchlight she'd get a nasty shock from a laser emplacement. Once Anya was inside the prison we got to see her gymnastic skills being put to the test again (she was in a room where, after she hit a switch at one end, she only had 45 seconds to reach a door on the other side).

Guards won't show up on Anya's GPS system until you've tagged them.
Guards won't show up on Anya's GPS system until you've tagged them.

As guards became a problem later in the level, we were introduced to another of Anya's gadgets--a laser trip wire that would knock out any guards who got too close to it with an electric shock. As the demonstration came to an end, the Blue 52 representative deliberately alerted a guard, and we watched as other guards from nearby areas (additional guards won't spawn to respond to alerts) abandoned their patrols to investigate the disturbance. It wasn't long before fists (and bullets) started flying, and we got to see the game's "Mission Failed. Retry?" screen in action.

We unfortunately weren't able to get hands-on with Stolen on this occasion, but we're assured that we'll be receiving a copy of the game in the near future. Expect more on Stolen as its March release date closes in.

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jakeboudville

looks impressive