Quick -- what's the difference between a robbery and a burglary? A robbery usually involves violence, while a burglary doesn't. That difference is at the heart of The Sting!, the latest offering from Austrian-based Neo Software. The Sting! is a burglary simulation, and while it allows you to sneak around, avoid guards, and steal everything not nailed down, there isn't any violence at all. In fact, if the authorities even sense your presence you'll lose the game, and so The Sting! is more thoughtful than action-oriented, and it'll test your planning and organizational skills rather than your trigger finger. It'll also sometimes test your patience, because while The Sting! is often lots of fun to play, it has some serious technical problems that prevent it from being the sort of sparkling gem you might steal while playing the game itself.
In The Sting! you play Matt Tucker, a one-time thief who wants to get into the business again after spending some quality time in jail. Consequently, he decides to visit his old mentor Sinclair in the city of Fortune Hills. Sinclair sets him up with a room and a car, but then he tries to break into the Ministry of Light and gets arrested. (Are you paying attention, kids? That's two thieves and two arrests. Just say no to burglary.) From then on you'll get to guide Tucker through a series of burglaries so he can brush up on his skills, get himself noticed by the right people in town, and eventually discover what Sinclair's interest was in the Ministry of Light.
Just in case the story was sounding intriguing at this point -- it's not. The Ministry of Light has a deep dark secret, of course, but the secret is bizarrely silly (not to mention implausible), and it's pulled completely out of left field. I mean, part of the secret should have been obvious to anyone living and breathing in Fortune Hills, but instead it's revealed as a “surprise.” Plus, the story leading up to the secret is brief and weak, none of the characters have any depth, and Neo Software didn’t try very hard to integrate the story with the burglaries (less than a third of the burglaries are related to the story). Games that consist of a series of scenarios (like The Sting!) don’t always need a story, and I think Neo did more harm than good here with the token effort they provided.
But the story is just one example of a more telling problem. Neo Software basically screwed up every aspect of the game not involved in the actual burglaries. The city of Fortune Hills is advertised as the “largest virtual town found in a computer game” but it has almost no other reason for existing. While it might have played more of a role during the development of the game (for example, getaway cars are rated for acceleration and speed, but you can’t drive them in the final release), all you can do in it now is buy things, sell things, and meet potential accomplices for your crimes. Neo could have streamlined those three areas and avoided the endless (and tedious) walks through town that they require now. Another problem area is in the accomplices you’ll meet. There are way too many of them (I found 17 and wasn’t really looking), and so there isn’t any real strategy about who to bring with you on your burglary missions. Plus, the accomplices all have lame names like “Santa Claws” and “Bingo the Clown” and “Dan Dumbhole,” and the conversations you’ll have with them are inane and then some. Lastly, Neo didn’t do a good job of providing an interesting mix of burglary tools for the jobs. There are a dozen tools in all, but most are heavy or noisy or both, and so you’ll use the same basic tools in just about every mission, and you won’t get to play with anything even remotely high tech.
Fortunately, while the areas outside of the burglaries have problems, the burglaries themselves are a lot of fun. Each burglary puts you in a situation where you have to break into a building, steal some stuff, and then escape back outside. Plus, you have to do the job while avoiding the “vision cones” of the guards (like in Commandos), and you have to work quietly enough so that the guards can’t hear you, either. In some games that might require a lot of saving and restoring to get through the missions (like in Commandos again), but for The Sting! Neo Software created a slick VCR-like system to help avoid all that. The system lets you “plan” a job before you do it, and if you accidentally perform an action that would get you noticed, you can “rewind” and try again. Also, since the interface allows you to create the plan at your own pace, and since it allows you to move back and forth through time, it’s easy to coordinate the actions of multiple burglars -- which is good because many of the jobs require the burglars to work closely together (one might pull a lever to disable a sensor to allow another to go through a door), and that sort of precision just isn’t possible in a more real-time game. Lastly, Neo had some fun while creating the burglary scenarios -- in one you have to avoid angry mummies and in another you have to steal a carnivorous asparagus plant -- and they did a good job of mixing up the objectives and making the locations interesting to look at.
Since the burglaries take up about 95% of the playing time, that they’re good and the rest of the game isn’t would still make The Sting! into a pretty good experience -- except for the technical problems. The game crashed about a dozen times during the 40 hours I played it, but that’s not even the bad part. The bad part is that the planning phase for the burglaries is both finicky and buggy. If you get your burglars too close to each other, the game seems to reset the plan of one of the burglars but doesn’t tell you about it, and you’ll only discover the problem when you try to do the job. Plus, the plan sometimes “drops” an action, which is particularly bad if the action is, say, opening a door, and again you won’t discover the problem until trying to do the job. The crashes and the planning problems (plus ordinary things like getting caught) mean you’ll have to plan and re-plan burglaries a lot, and it can get tedious as well as frustrating. On the brighter side, the version of The Sting! I played had a May timestamp. Since the game still hasn’t hit stores as of late July, maybe the retail version will feature a more recent (and more bug free) build, or maybe Neo Software will have used the time to create a patch to fix the problems.
The graphics for The Sting! do the job, but they’re not anything special. The Sting! uses a 3D engine and a third-person perspective, but the objects aren’t very detailed and they’re a little shy on the polygon count. However, the people and places are colorful and varied, Neo Software did a good job in creating a 1930’s feel to the game, and there are some nice touches, like the movements the burglars make when they’re idle and the fact that the burglars’ backpacks get bulkier as they put more loot into them. Meanwhile, the sound has its ups and downs as well. The background music is great (upbeat and jazzy), but there is almost no voice acting, and the sound effects, while fine, get a little repetitive. For some reason Neo was able to make all of the burglary locations look different, but then they got lazy with the sounds and let them all sound the same.
Games that do new things are few and far between, but The Sting! has that quality in spades (or maybe crowbars). The burglary premise is unique so far as I know, and Neo Software had a good idea with the VCR-like interface. The result is a game that is both fun and friendly to play, and while the technical problems spoil the effect somewhat, they only damage the game rather than kill it (like the bugs did to Age of Sail 2). So if the idea of sneaking around and stealing objects appeals to you, then The Sting! might be right up your (dark) alley.