[one_third]Part Thief, part Metal Gear, Part Splinter Cell, Stolen is not a very good game. But its heart is in the right place…[/one_third]
A nimble, acrobatic master thief skulks through the dark recesses of Forge City’s museums, prisons and other somewhat-too-familiar locations, stealing priceless artefacts and MP3 players alike. She is equipped with the latest and greatest gadgets, has a communications specialist with a masters in being very serious barking in her ear, and is given ample opportunity to demonstrate her memorisation of One-Liners For Strong Female Leads 101 (5th Ed.) whenever danger arises.
Despite all of this, 2005’s British-developed stealth title “Stolen” is not a very good game. It pays homage to every single one of its more successful predecessors — be that the Thief, the Metal Gear Solid or the Splinter Cell series — by taking over every aspect — rudimentary game concepts, inventory screens, character paradigms — and combining them into a game that feels so familiar that one might begin asking whether they’ve not already climbed this exact poorly-lit stairwell before. With corny voice acting and an equally uninspired plot, there are very few redeeming factors in a game that snuck past its audience as skillfully as protagonist Anya Romanov sneaks past mindless security personnel. One that does redeem, however, is the long-lost sensation of actually being a thief.
Still, the Metal Gear Solid inspiration is undeniable. Shadow Moses Island’s grey corridors appear throughout the entire game, with patrolling guards and the ever-so-watchful security cameras just waiting to flush your minimap with gradients of red and yellow, followed by the prompt arrival of an alarmed stormtrooper squad. These goons will then slowly scour the area for intruders and, once the timer ticks out, disappear behind a nearby door, only to re-emerge once our protagonist trips over yet another security system. Should the guards become too much for Anya, who shamelessly refuses to admit having attained the rank of junior ninja at Sniper Wolf’s Applied School of Low-Cut Garments, she can immediately pause the action to apply a health kit from a familiar single-column inventory screen. Here, however, the similarities with Metal Gear Solid end, either deliberately or through the development team’s inability to replicate its finer mechanics.
Yes, Stolen does include some very interesting ideas, but not all of them have been executed particularly well. The quality of the enemy AI is what differentiates a good sneaking game from a make-believe one. Of course, there is always the option of suspending one’s disbelief and refusing to exploit the enemies’ obvious flaws, however, in the case of Stolen, even this is problematic.
Guards will rather cleverly turn on their torches in darker areas, yet fail miserably to spot Anya even when she is in the very middle of their light cone and her visibility meter is already faxing her testament to her next of kin. The security cameras suffer from the same problem, to the point where it makes more sense to ignore them altogether. In other situations, however, the guards become uncannily attentive and will ring the alarm upon discovering a disabled laser grid or a sizzling hole in the wall. Common sense? That’s hardly fair, is it? These spurs of insight are unfortunately overshadowed by the simple fact that you can just run away from any number of enemies into the next area without them ever being able to follow. Sound familiar?
Anya, however, does not make a living from destroying giant mechs or punching holes through floating gentlemen in gimp masks. In fact, she doesn’t punch holes through anyone or anything (walls excluded) and takes the Thief’s mild tendency toward pacifism to another level by refusing to carry any type of lethal weaponry. The objective of the game is — surprise! — to steal, not to murder. Arguably, this is also one of its most redeeming qualities. Anya can search lockers, desks and a myriad of other containers for anything worth selling, as well as pick the pockets of unsuspecting guards and, of course, grab an occasional golden platter to cover her expenses. One might wonder why a museum guard would carry an ancient relic in his back pocket, or whether Anya really needs his MP3 player after successfully nicking a gem the size of her torso, but that would be nitpicking. The stealing mechanics are as fun and intense as they are rare across the entire stealth genre.
That intensity comes from the fact that everything, inventory screens excluded, unfolds in real-time. Want to pick the lock over there, search that locker or hack a nearby computer terminal? Go for it — but make sure that the friendly guard doesn’t bump into you while you’re busy with the minigame. While this adds another level of planning, Anya is more than capable of compensating for it with a wide array of gadgets if caught. There are the usual EMP bullets for cameras, tranquilliser rounds and shocker trip wires for guards, but also some more original additions. Our personal favourite: a Tracker round that, once fired at an unsuspecting opponent, adds his otherwise hidden vision cone to the minimap. Coming in close second is a sonic scanner for doors that requires Anya to whistle, thus risking her exposure. See all of it in action below.
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Stolen is not a very good game. But it is a very unique game, catering to a very unique audience. While it might be lacking in more than a few departments, it allows us to once again slip into the shoes of a sneaky bastardess, whose interest in saving the world lies only a few silent steps away from the next golden goblet.