The Masterplan is about a heist gone right.
There have been a fair number of heist games released in the past year or so -- from the neon-noir chaos of Monaco to the war-in-the-streets battlegrounds of Payday 2 to the grand spectacle of GTA V's bank jobs. Then there’s The Masterplan, an Early Access Game currently on Steam. Normally I'd say that it has a lot of competition, but it stands apart by offering a kind of heist those other games purposefully avoid. While all those other games revolve around the moment when a heist goes wrong, The Masterplan is all about a heist gone right.
Monaco is about surviving the chaos of a heist, Payday 2 is about combating that chaos, and GTA V is about embracing that chaos. By contrast, The Masterplan is about controlling that chaos. This is a game designed to help you stay in control. It's essentially a strategy game. You play from a top-down perspective, giving orders to your units to scout an environment, take out enemies, or complete objectives. It all happens in real-time, but at any moment, you can slap the spacebar to slow down time.
This is the key to maintaining control. Time slows by a considerable amount, almost stops, and there's no limit to how many times that you can use this power. If you're holding up a convenience store and a customer walks in, slowing time allows you to catch your breath and readjust your plans. There's no need to panic.
It’s important that a customer can still walk through the door. This power over time doesn’t prevent you from being surprised or prevent any of the emergent chaos that drives those other games. Things can -- and will -- go horribly wrong, but the success of The Masterplan is that you remain in control even as your heist careens off course in super slow motion.
The best example of this balance is the game’s “hold up” mechanic. If you point a gun at a civilian or guard, you automatically hold them up, turning them into a controllable unit that can be ordered around just like one of your own guys... but only as long as the gun remains pointed at them. You can command your hostage to open a door or walk across the store, but that also requires you to command one of your thieves to follow that person.
This gets complicated when dealing with large groups, like in the jewelry store level. You have to corral a mob of customers while never letting one out of your sight. You have to constantly be aware your thieves’ positions within the environment and the direction that they’re facing because the moment that you look away from a hostage you start losing control of the situation. They’ll notice your distraction, and if you look away too long, one of them might get the bright idea to act like a hero.
Sometimes a hostage will disobey you. A store manager might have a gun pointed at his head, yet he won’t stop dialing the police. Your threats of violence have failed.
This is usually the moment when everything goes to hell. This is the moment when your threats of violence must become action, and once that happens an alarm usually goes off or other guards are alerted and even the best plans fall apart. In The Masterplan, however, because you can control time, you can also control precisely how much violence you commit.
In short, you can shoot to wound. It takes several shots to kill anyone, be they guard or civilian, and if time is slowed, it’s easy to interrupt one command with another. You can give the order to shoot, waiting until your thief has shot one time, thus, scaring our brave hypothetical store manager and knocking him off the phone. You can then overwrite that order with some other command. The manager lives, the cops remain oblivious, and you stay in control. For now, anyways. Except that while you were concentrating on keeping the manager in check, two customers made a run for the door.
This is what makes The Masterplan stand out in the sub-genre of heist games. It gives you every advantage that it can, enough so that a plan will go off without a hitch just as often as it goes to hell, but when it does go to hell, it’s always your fault. When something goes wrong, it’s because you weren’t paying attention, because you skimmed over the scene and didn’t notice that civilian in the corner who wasn’t a hostage. It might be too late to salvage the heist, or you might catch your mistake just in time. The systems are rigid enough to encourage and reward meticulous planning, but still flexible enough to allow for surprises. They also remain predictable enough that those surprises are never an excuse for failure.
In The Masterplan, you're always in control. Even when you think you’re not.