Heist to meet you: the compulsive thieves of gaming

Phil Hartup asks what makes a heist game truly great.

Ever since the Bonanza Brothers sneaked onto my Megadrive in the early nineties, bought on budget rather than at release in the mistaken belief that a game in which the main characters look like dustbins couldn’t be great, I have been waiting for a perfect heist game. Bonanza Brothers was great, but some twenty years later and counting, it’s about time it was bettered. With Payday 2 rolling out this week maybe now is the finally the time for this to happen.

Theft occupies a curious place in the moral pantheon of video games in that it isn’t really considered wrong to steal in most games. Theft will get you into trouble in many games, no doubt about that, but for the majority of games, whether you’re playing as Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom, the Dragonborn in Skyrim, or the hero of a point and click adventure it is a given that if something is there, in the game world, and you can pick it up, you’re generally entitled, even encouraged to have it. In Skyrim maybe the guards will be called if you get caught, but you don’t see anybody getting thrown out on the street because you pinched the money in the chest to pay their rent, or starving to death because you munched all the food in their home like a cross between Beowulf and the Very Hungry Caterpillar.

That player characters are so often compulsive thieves, wolfing packets of snack food out of desk drawers as soon as look at them in the Bioshock series or walking up to any car like they own it in GTA, Saints Row or Sleeping Dogs, often makes game worlds feel a little strange and unrealistic. Is that what sets the hero apart from the masses, his willingness to steal everything that crosses his path? Some of my earliest gaming memories are of playing a text adventure called Juxtaposition: Barons of Ceti V on a venerable Dragon 32, I recall that if there was an item in a room I could have it, it was in fact important to success in the game that no object went un-stolen.

It is only the recent Fallout games that have really acknowledged that stealing is wrong by attaching a karma penalty to it. Steal enough from people and you are considered a rotter by all and sundry, at least until you’ve murdered a few outlaws to balance it out. The karma penalty applies even if you are not caught, which is fair enough, the characters presumably aware that wherever you go, scarcity and want are not far behind.

Perhaps the only other sin that games encourage within their worlds more than theft is imperialism, which is arguably just theft on a larger scale. Chances are if a game sets you up as being in charge of a country one of the first things they’ll want you to do with it is steal the land next door.

But if thievery is par for the course in gaming where does that leave the heist game? In a medium where every hero and his daughter is on the rob near constantly, is there a place for the game dedicated to the art of pinching things? Apparently yes.

There are specific elements that set a proper heist game apart from the casual larceny of ordinary games. First among these is the level design. Any given level in a heist game should be almost completely self-contained, you start on the map at the start, you exit the map at the end, and somewhere in the middle you steal something. Stealth games like the early Hitman, Tenchu, or Splinter Cell titles shared many qualities with the heist game in the early days, but lost their way over the years to become more linear and less thoughtful.

The second defining quality of the heist game is the freedom. A heist game is not defined by its point of view, nor it is played on rails like a traditional linear game, rather it is a small sandbox with a treasure in it. Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine is as much as heist game as Thief: The Dark Project or Bonanza Brothers, regardless of perspective.

Lastly and most importantly a heist game must react to player decisions and actions. If you play it sneaky the game must respect that, if you go in guns blazing the game must deal with that. Not every approach is as valid as the next, there can be a right way and a wrong way, but the game should roll with it and react accordingly.

The original Payday game, Payday: The Heist attempted to modernise the heist game in an era where co-op shooters were really starting to show their potential. Left 4 Dead and the zombie mode from Call of Duty: World At War had proved that a team focussed game in which you tried to achieve objectives while under waves of attacks could be better than merely shooting your way through a linear level or a simple arena horde mode. By combining that proven game style with the inherent excitement of armed robberies and criminal escapes Overkill, the developers of Payday: The Heist, almost pulled off something amazing. Almost.

The problem with Payday: The Heist is that though you can take the zombies out of the zombie-game and replace them with cops, you can’t really take the zombie-game out of the zombie-game. The overriding impression with Payday is that you’re playing Left 4 Dead against the police. The various law enforcement officials stop short of demanding to eat your brains, but as they sweep down on you in their hordes it’s impossible to shake the feeling you’re caught up in the middle of a brilliant idea that really isn’t working, and not just because you tripped one of the alarms. You get to a point, right after you’ve killed your thirtieth SWAT team member in the midst of a hold up, that the sublime becomes the ridiculous.

Enter Payday 2, and it’s clear that we’re dealing with an entirely different, much more highly evolved animal. This is not a surprise; Starbreeze Studios who acquired the Overkill studios that made the original Payday have form for good co-op shooters. The eminently forgettable Syndicate remake might have lacked most of the character of the original games but what it did manage to provide is an excellent mission based co-op mode.

Even just playing the beta the improvements over the original Payday stand out, the visuals, sounds, animations, everything is a solid order of magnitude better. Mission design, even in the limited selection of the beta, is hugely improved. There is a certain amount of randomness to every mission too which improves longevity, safes will be moved, amounts of valuables and their locations will change, alleyways can be blocked off, drop off points moved, little things that ensure a shift in the challenge.

The most important difference in terms of how the game plays is that the police hordes are now much more sensible. Gone is the human wave of SWAT officers pouring across the map towards you, replaced by more reasonable numbers of enemies in more intelligent groups and patterns. Teams of officers will flank you, working together, stacking up to ambush you in rooms you thought were clear and generally being a menace to ordinary decent criminals at every turn.

The rush at the end of a heist, getting your team to the van, weighed down with loot, having to battle the temptation to go back for that one more bag of cash is immense. So often the game will tease you with the promise of greater riches, so that knowing when to say enough is enough becomes a survival skill.

Where Payday 2 is weakest however is with the characters and their development. The game offers an improved array of equipment customisation and skill diversity to the original, but it remains married to the surly mob of villains from the first game, with the only notable change being that token British villain Hoxton has been replaced with generic American villain with odd name Hoxton. None of the characters has any personality to speak of or any defining traits deeper than their skin colour or country of origin, and this only extends as far as one character being black and one character being Swedish. Nothing of value would have been lost by allowing players to build their own criminal characters from scratch. You don’t have to play the game long to really get into the spirit of it and it is perhaps one of the best examples of a game where extensive customisation would really feel apt.

It should also go without saying that for a bank robbery game not to feature a female character is a shocking omission. Did Bonnie Parker die for nothing?

The final point that feels off is the punishment for killing innocent bystanders. You shoot a civilian, you get a penalty on your eventual cut of the robbery. There is no explanation for this, there is no rationale why the life of an innocent patron of a bank or jewellery story should have a dollar value attached to it, in the context of a pitched battle where your characters are pretty much required to shoot dozens of policemen in the head. It feels like an attempt to give the bank robbers some sort of a heroic outlaw quality, but to be honest, if I was interested in a heroic outlaw character I wouldn’t be taking hostages in a savings and loan company to hide behind during a shootout. 

Such criticisms might feel churlish given that the actual business of storming into a bank, robbing the place and getting away with it in Payday 2 is such a great slice of gaming action, but there is more to advancing a creative medium than just doing the same thing as last time but better. Some more thought and some more freedom for the players and Payday 2 could be a real classic.

Even with these flaws the game is well worth a look for those who like their cooperative games zombie free, or those whose idea of a fun evening in is stealing money from banks and shooting lots of policemen.

Payday 2.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism