Midnight Heist, developed and published by MediaTale, promises to deliver a Heist meets Horror game, sadly I felt neither. Monotonous looting meets Tag would be a better description.
As a thief, you break into an office and start opening drawers to collect
junkloot, or plugging into computers to get “data”. At some point the security guard, strangely a zombie-like entity, decides it is time to work and patrols around. The game ends when you leave or are tagged by the zombie. Rinse and repeat, à la Sisyphus, to unlock cosmetics with your rewards.
You play this 3D game in the first person, using a mouse and keyboard to aim your tools, move around and interact with objects. You point to drawers and press E to open, if there is junk inside you can pick, after a few dozen drawers you start to think why someone would make this annoying repetitive task the core mechanic, it is beyond my understanding.
The other core loop is tapping into computers to download “data” with one of your gadgets, a phone, to start a hacking minigame after some loading. They are simple puzzles like connecting dots, solving single digits sum or pressing a button at the right time. There are many computers per level, it just feels like I bought a crossword magazine to pass the time.
Currently, there are two levels to choose from, both are offices with different layout. The level design is weak, with only a couple of tasks to execute there is not much to work with, and I would be sorry for anyone that would have to work on those places given the arrangement of furniture, hard to access bathrooms, dead ends and under scaled power panel.
Because of the weak power wiring, the panel will trip if you use too much energy, as in turning on a few light bulbs, forcing you to find and reset the panel. To prevent that, you will rely on another gadget, a flashlight, to save power in the office. You can also use a dark light as a second function to find hidden code for a safe.
There is no thrill or build up to horror, once the zombie is out you will hear some footsteps and have some flickering lights, you just have to work around it. Because of the repetitive tasks of opening drawers and tapping into computers, the zombie is more of a nuisance than anything else.
This security zombie does that same weird thing of other stealth-like games guards where they lose interest in you if they lose contact, like you were never there in the first place. You can try to sprint straight to a bathroom stall or loop around closing doors behind you Dead by Daylight style.
There are some security cameras, I am still not sure what they do, but you can use your phone, to hack them, allowing you to see the video fee on your last gadget, a tablet. That will help you investigate areas to avoid the zombie.
You might find some doors closed, to open them it is either a phone hacking or a Fallout 3 style lock picking without the pin breaking, where you find the right-angle pin, and force the tool in the bottom of the key-way to rotate the plug.
At the end of each level, you will be rewarded money based on your performance. If you leave without looting enough junk and data or get tagged by the zombie, you will suffer a penalty on your rewards.
Each level also holds a couple of special items you can sell at market value later, the market prices change daily, so it works as a tool to get you to open the game again and again looking for the best day to sell it. You can find the marketplace on the computer in your hideout.
The hideout works as a hub to start your “heist”, where people connect, select their cosmetics, play with the gadgets and other mechanics you can find in the match, you can select the level you want to play and the challenge level.
There is a lot of redundancy, you can change some of those things in the main menu, in the pause menu in the hideout and on the hideout computer, but all with slightly different information available.
Some information was very hidden, I checked the Steam discussions and learned that some of the information I needed could be found by using the in game tablet. It was there, but not before one of the worst user design experiences. You change your active gadget to your tablet. You hold a button to bring the tablet to your face, use your mouse to click on a small icon, then click on a small bar to scroll the text. If you release the tablet button, or accidentally use other buttons to navigate, like the scroll of the mouse, you will have to start again. This info could be easily part of any menu of the game instead of this maze of a tablet.
Tablets and flashlights overlaps functions with a phone in real life, like illuminating a room or watching an IP camera stream. But I think I only got annoyed with that because of the terrible experience changing and operating the gadgets.
I was curious to learn more about the story, why a place would not ring an alarm when you get caught in the camera, and why the only guard is a monster. But the “story part” is not “in game”, there is a page with challenges like “hack 90 computers” or “steal tons of cash” that promises to tell you the story.
“I wonder if those over-reacting gameplay videos are still a thing” constantly invaded my thoughts while playing this game. It feels like the game was made to cash in on those live streamers playing lukewarm games, fake-screaming at every slightly change in the scene.
I usually do not mention or compare prices or time to beat, as it can be very subjective, but while looking for information about the game I noticed that in my region this game costs more than Phasmaphobia, an older and a bit more developed earlier access title Midnight Heist seems to draw a lot of inspiration from, even the janky gameplay. But I blame this on Valve’s suggested prices.
Gamepad / controller support is partial and very limited, you still need a keyboard and mouse for most things. And given the jankyness of the game, I do not recommend using those, or you might have a hard time executing simple tasks like properly targeting the drawer you want to open.
How to improve
Midnight heist has some good mechanics ideas here and there, like finding safe code, photographing crimes and some loot depending on market prices. But the bulk of it felt uninspired and monotonous.
It reminded me of the reviews of MediaTale’s previous game, Psych where they started well the game, but it seemed to lose inspiration after chapter 2.
I think a good next step is to find and define the game identity, as I find it hard to believe any developer wants to make a clone of something else. From there you can build it up for anything. There are many examples of good heist games, good horror games, and mixes of both.
For example, it is fun to sneak in a map to steal an artifact while avoiding a supernatural being. But you need to build it up to it, from previous levels and current, why should I be afraid? Horror is built. The moment you make people to repetitive tasks 20+ times, the monster is now secondary to the show.
There are many horror mechanics you can explore, from jump scare, blood galore, thrilling activities, and release. Mix match them and remember it needs to be a nice flow, too much blood and you just get used to it, if you release too soon it might make it difficult to build it up again.
I remember a long time ago a friend lent me the game F.E.A.R, they did such a good job building the tension that my first scare was when a rat trashed some bags next to me. And they build the tension again later, before introducing the supernatural elements to the game.
Just putting an ugly dude promenading around the office will not make anyone scared, unless you are afraid of a long court process for burglary.
And that gives us a segue to the heist aspect - besides the fear of getting caught, killed, or being penalized by a fair justice system. What part of the heist elements are you trying to highlight? Diablo has a lot of looting and it is not a heist game.
Are there goals we are trying to achieve? It is an Ocean’s Eleven revenge plot, or it is just a get rich fast scheme. Give them a main goal on the map, and maybe throw in some extra loot, or something that helps tell a story, like Nazi gold or voodoo artifacts. Not even crackheads go around looting everything, they know what they can sell or exchange for drugs.
I played some games with similar mechanics, but finding loot around was a bonus rather than core gameplay. For example Payday 2, you are looking for a keycard to open a door for the main vault, and sometimes you would find cash or other useful collectibles on your path, but you don’t need to get every junk on a map.
What is the focus of the heist aspect, do you want people to drop in and figure it out during the action, or a long planning phase scouting and preparing equipment? Just dial to find the right balance.
Now, as an exercise, imagine you break into an office and there are still some people working overtime. You scout around while avoiding getting caught, you see some decorations on the wall, maybe a picture of the company’s founder or worker of the month, you check and discover the main safe is right behind it, but you need to bring the tools hidden in the ventilation to open it. There are some audio clues of people if you cannot directly see them, like a flush coming from the bathroom, or water “glubs” from the cooler.
As you bring your tools, it gets late, and the workers start leaving, clocking out, turning lights off. But not everyone left by the main exit. Two of them just vanished. The lights that are still on slightly change hue, a misty takes over the place, blurring your vision and fooling your ears. The walls look rusty and the water “glubs” sounds like growls.
The picture hiding the safe barely reminds you of a human, you hear a scream. When you investigate, you see one of the missing workers getting quartered by an aberration.
This example of sprinkling some Silent Hill on Payday is a small part of what is missing. It does not need to be exactly that, but you need tailored levels with main goals. You can still randomize the places where the main tasks are to add replayability, some extra elements or goals depending on which faction gave you the task. And you need to build up the horror and mix with moments of release.
Midnight Heist is available on Steam as earlier access, but it still needs some gameplay refactoring and level tailoring before I can revisit the game.