I’m a big believer that as far as concepts for games go, the big heist has been wildly underutilized. You can’t tell me that you can watch something like Ocean’s Eleven and not think “boy, that’d be cool to pull off something like that in a video game”. And yeah, there’s been some big robberies in games (the casino robbery quest in GTA: San Andreas comes to mind), but you really don’t see entire games dedicated to the big caper. Well, as it turns out, there kinda is one, 1999’s Traitors Gate, by Dreamcatcher Interactive and Daydream Software.
Now, before we go any further, I should explain this isn’t exactly a game where you pull off the big score so you and your buddies can retire to Tahiti and live the dream. OH NO. That would make entirely too much sense. Rather, you’re here because of one of the most ass-backwards, logic-defying plotlines I have ever witnessed.
A U.S. military officer has gone rogue and concocted a plan to lift the British Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Now, you would think that, in a situation like this, you would, y’know, tell the British what was going to happen so they can nab the guy in the act. Welp, apparently we can’t tell the British, because despite the U.S. and Great Britain being super best friends, one nutjob going off the reservation is enough to jeopardize our relationship. Nor can we just kind of track the guy ourselves, because, again, we know exactly who he is and what he’s planning to do, but that would make entirely too much sense. Instead, you’re being sent in with the mission to steal the jewels yourself and swap them out for replicas fitted with tracking devices, all the while leaving minimal evidence behind. And to top it off, your super special agent gains entry to the tower not by sneaking in at night or assuming the identity of a guard or anything, he goes in with a tour group and hides in a broom closet for several hours. Genius.
Okay, my bitching about the plot aside, when you get down to business, you’ll notice that the game itself plays a lot like Myst or Mansion of Hidden Souls, you move from one spot to another and can look about your surroundings in a full 360 degree angle. You’ll be doing quite a lot of puzzle solving along the way as well, mostly to defeat the myriad security systems and unlocking new paths through the complex. To that end, you’re given (insofar as you have to find it in the sewers) a pretty nifty bag of gadgets to help outfox Her Majesty’s Loyal Subjects, items like a remote controlled key-turning device, a crossbow that can fire a grappling hook or take down guards with tranq darts, a multitool with wire-cutters and screwdrivers, and a digital video looper that can be used to show guards an empty hallway when you’re actually in that hallway (think of how Keanu snookered Dennis Hopper in Speed and you’ll have an idea of what we’re working with here). You can also procure items scattered about the buildings, but again, you’re also trying to not leave any evidence that you were there.
One of TG’s other constraints is the time limit you’re given: you have roughly nine hours of real time to complete the mission, which, if you know what the hell you’re actually doing, is more than enough time. But, in keeping with the extremely amateurish nature of this operation, you have no guidelines, no objectives, no nothing to even suggest where to begin. I hate to keep harping on the Ocean’s comparison, but imagine a movie where Brad Pitt asks George Clooney how they’re gonna rob the casino and Clooney just answering with “I dunno, we’ll just figure it out when we get there”, and that’s the level of intel you have going in.
You have a map, in theory, although it does next to no good, and in the one area of the game you’ll really wish you had a map, the sewers that connect various buildings together, your map doesn’t work because you’re underground, which of course means you’ll get to participate in the time-honored tradition of playing Amateur Cartographer. Yes, you would think by 1999, we’d have gotten past the point you have to draw your own maps, but here we are. Now, you do get one lifeline of sorts that can be helpful; you can take a picture of what you’re looking at and email it to a team of analysts stateside, who might be able to glean some useful information from it. However, their response isn’t exactly instant, and there’s no guarantee that you’ve taken a picture of anything the game recognizes, so having to burn a few minutes of your nine-hour window just to be told you’ve taken a picture of a nondescript wall is a bit of a gut punch.
Needless to say, this is not the kind of game where someone can just use reason and some critical thinking skills and beat the game in one or two attempts. You’re going to get caught very, VERY frequently, sometimes for something as innocuous as going to far up a staircase and walking into a security camera you didn’t expect to be present. For example, in the Old Hospital Block, you’ll happen upon a man sleeping in a chair with a keyring in his lap that you need. You can take the keyring, no problem. But, if you try to move to another spot immediately after lifting them, which, you would think you should do, he’ll wake up and catch you. Instead, you have to grab the keys, and then wait as he makes some grunts (that sound like someone waking up, by the way) and then falls back asleep. There’s no visual clues to this, you just have to know that the best way to not wake someone up isto stand directly in front of him like a pud for a bit.
I do want to give the developers some credit, though, the game itself looks fairly good, and you can tell there was serious effort put into making a faithful recreation of the Tower of London. Off-limits areas generally look forboding, tourist areas are complete with display cases and placards describing the items within, and security areas do provide the anaesthetic quality that stands out from the old dingy towers. Now, some liberties were taken of course, unless the British are waaaay more trusting of having folks with cameras poking about high-security areas, but overall, I could imagine the real-life Tower being laid out very similarly to how it is here. Your in-game PDA also features an extensive list of articles about the various buildings and their history, as well as the Crown Jewels themselves, which is nice, but I did get the impression the game originally started as a sort of virtual tour of the Tower that someone decided to graft an adventure game onto.
Before we wrap things up here, there are two more niggling issues that need to be pointed out if you’re inclined to give Traitors Gate a go. First of all, it stretches across four discs, and it’s not a linear progression where the first quarter of the game is on Disc 1 and so on; the sewer area is on Disc 4 here, meaning that to go from one building to another through the sewers, you’ll have to take out whatever disc your present location is on, put in Disc 4, go to whatever your next destination is, and put in that disc, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds like. The other logistical problem is that Traitors Gate utilizes QuickTime, so assuming you can even get it to install and run properly, there are going to be a couple of graphical issues that crop up during gameplay.
Altogether, Traitors Gate is a great concept muddled by bizarre logic and some fairly unforgiving gameplay at times. It might be worth playing through if you’re interested in Big Heist: The Computer Game, but aside from occupying its own little niche in the gaming world, there’s not a lot here for me to recommend it, assuming you can manage to get it to run properly in the first place. It’s not the worst game I’ve played through, by any stretch, but I can’t shake the feeling the developers would’ve been better off either being less ambitious in design or holding off until the technology had caught up a bit (i.e., you could cram this all onto one or two discs). Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pop in Ocean’s Eleven and get my big caper fix done properly.
Really cool concept, what I’d imagine is a fairly solid recreation of the Tower of London, and chock-full of puzzles, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Four discs is not a recipe for success, you’ll probably have to draw your own maps at some point, and can be hazy about what you’re supposed to do in a lot of situations. Also, QuickTime is still a thing here.