There’s no mistaking what Escape Plan wants you thinking about when you crack open its box. It quotes its influences right there in the rulebook. Heist, Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, Reservoir Dogs, the old Italian Job, the even older Ocean’s 11. This is a heist gone wrong, it tells you. This is a nobody can trust nobody else type of situation. The police are on your tail and they have an order to shoot on sight.
Then, without irony, it hands you a list of errands. “Swing by the Stop-N-Go for baby Tylenol. Make sure you grab a card and some colorful balloons for Fat Moe’s birthday. Then return this book on money laundering to the library for me. But be at the party by five or it’s lights out for you. Oh, and make sure you don’t turn left too often; the car’s tie rod is out of alignment.”
Welcome to Vital Lacerda’s Escape Plan.
I want to explain the level of disconnect in Escape Plan by way of comparison: first, by describing what your fleeing bank robber does, and second, by describing how you score points.
First, the action. In a single game, your bank robber will take somewhere between nine and a dozen turns. In a single turn, you’ll move to a new location, dodge the cops on your tail, and then resolve the effects of wherever you’ve arrived at. It’s as easy as a heist in the planning stages. Get in, get out, get rich.
The second description is closer to a heist after complications have arisen. The rent-a-cop turns out to be a hard-ass; a pedestrian calls 911; Jimmy is a two-timing thug. In Escape Plan’s case, your goal is to escape the city with as much cash as possible. That means cash in pocket, yes, but also severance checks from the businesses where you’ve invested your ill-gotten money, stashes in convenience store lockers and safe-houses and buried on the edge of town, the various friends you’ve made along the way (aww), and deducting any medical bills or police payoffs. In fact, you have to look mighty closely to find anything that doesn’t somehow rate a mention in your pocketbook. Your medical kit’s gauze, pretty much.
In other words, Escape Plan stands astride two worlds. One is streamlined to an aerodynamic edge, the other is weirdly dense and difficult to explain.
The titular escape plan is a list of errands. Everybody has their own unique list of opportunities, although they’re similar in that each category adds up to $150,000 and features a spot where you’ll get walking-around money rather than a cashier’s check. In practice you’ll need both: checks for end-game scoring and cash for, well, a whole bunch of stuff.
Over the course of three days, the city doubles and then triples in size, adding new tiles and allowing you to swing by new areas. At first there are only a few locales, which tend to be crowded with ne’er-do-wells scraping together some funding. By the third day the city is sprawling, all escape routes have been cordoned off but one, and your fleeing criminals converge once again upon the exit. Somewhere along the way, you’ll stop by as many money-making destinations as possible.
A goodly portion of the game’s complication is found in the way each location operates, with some being straightforward one-and-done destinations and others more reliant on where they fall in the order of what you’re visiting that day. On the simpler end of the spectrum you can find hot-spots like businesses or safe houses, which provide income or end-of-game checks, clinics and hospitals for healing your injuries, gangs willing to distract the police for a wad of moolah, and subways and heliports for getting around the city with haste. There are still some niggling details to keep straight. For example, clinics offer limited healing but allow you to unlock shady contact cards and asset tiles, whereas the hospital will patch you up good as new, but are obligated to report gunshots wounds, resulting in increased notoriety for your troubles. These are small details, but flavorful ones.
But not every destination is so easily explained or understood. Convenience stores seem unassuming at first, letting you purchase black market police uniforms, bullet-proof vests, and gas masks to elude the local constabulary, plus a jerrycan of gasoline for getting around a bit faster. Under the surface, though, stores are also where you’ll exchange keys — gathered in limited quantity at safe-houses — to open lockers filled with variable amounts of cash. This depends on which key you have, whether you have enough notoriety plus contact cards to open the right locker, and then a random draw to determine whether you’ve found a duffel stuffed with Benjamins or a moth-bitten IOU.
Speaking of notoriety, this is one more thing to parse in a game crammed with awkward accounting. Essentially, certain actions raise your heat — having a boxer slug a cop in the nose, blowing past a barricade in a stunt car, showing up at a safe-house with three other wanted criminals — while others decrease it. Higher heat means you get to act sooner, although it’s only adjusted daily, there are only three days, and the first day is randomized, so the advantages of having your face plastered across every newspaper and screen are somewhat muted. The penalties are more considerable, sporadically nudging cops in your direction and requiring you to pay off your warrants once you’ve escaped the city. Or something. I don’t actually know what the cash penalty represents. A fake ID with associated social security number, maybe.
Actually, there are a number of systems in Escape Plan that don’t quite earn their place or that could’ve been toned down. At any given time you’re juggling contact cards, item tiles, and asset tiles, some of which might “squish” other cards or tiles and therefore generate notoriety. Why? No idea. Because it’s something else to track. Something similar happens when you accumulate enough wounds that one of your contacts gets arrested. Not that I ever saw this happen, since wounds are easily avoided or repaired.
The point is, all this cruft is a distraction. Escape Plan’s core experience is sleek and enjoyable. It’s the sort of game where you might take as few as nine brisk turns — maybe fewer, if you refresh your equipment by resting or escape the city early on the third day — but most of those turns are joyous exercises in careful movement and short-range planning.
Movement is especially clever. Blocks of terrain, whether waterways, residential, industrial, or downtown, can be traversed as a single space, letting the layout of the map dictate bottlenecks or highways at unexpected junctures. The trick is that you’re always required to account for the cops on every tile you exit, forcing you to use equipment, gangs, and contacts to evade harm, or simply accept a bullet in your buttock. Clever planning, both in terms of route and courtesy of bonus cards, can result in unexpected solutions, bypassing entire squadrons of coppers at a time.
This is the best part of Escape Plan, and it’s hard to overstate the coolness of the map or how great it feels when both caution and boldness are properly rewarded. It’s the one way the game genuinely feels like you’re a criminal slinking or sprinting from one underground hiding place to the next, rather than an accountant checking off action items from this quarter’s finance report.
That dichotomy cuts to the quick of why Escape Plan is so underwhelming. Despite its sky-high production values, complicated rules, and constant need to evaluate a variety of nitpicky financial options, the best parts of the game are the simplest ones. Sadly, neither feels properly tuned in proportion to the other. Evading the police is disappointingly easy, while charting your course to a retirement on the Amalfi Coast is disappointingly convoluted. Glimmers of a game about actual escape occasionally peek from beneath its budget MapQuest, only to recede as you once again examine your laundry list of nearby businesses, stash houses, and convenience store lockers.
I’ll put it this way. Whenever I’ve taught Escape Plan, I’ve had a bad time. Too many variables, too many deposits and withdrawals on the balance sheet, too many fiddly little problems for a game that ultimately comes down to move your dude to another space. Too much flex, not enough muscle.
When I play with a smaller group — three players, no more — and everybody already knows the rules, Escape Plan comes to life. It takes an hour. Our decisions and moves adopt the rapid staccato of machine gun fire. We have a great time, and all escape, no problem. And in the final tally, the winner is still determined by whoever lucked into drawing the best tiles from a locker room behind a Texaco.
There are some great things about Escape Plan. I wish it had done more with them and less with the distractions. To quote Al Pacino in Heat, “It keeps me sharp” — snap — “on the edge” — snap — “where I gotta be.” The wisdom of a heist film, distilled into its rawest form. Too bad Escape Plan didn’t care to more carefully emulate its source material.
A complimentary copy was provided.