In the early days of the App Store, endless randomized games were unbelievably popular. In a way, they were a reaction to the market’s demand for more content and longer play times. This was a difficult thing to offer, particularly at the typical 99 cent price point, when you’re creating all that content by hand… But, if you build a bunch of level assets, and come up with an algorithm to stitch them all together in a vaguely reasonable fashion, your game effectively has unlimited content. Games like Canabalt ($2.99) were early standouts in this arena, but the drawback of randomized games is it felt like it was difficult to get better at them because they weren’t as much about mastering any particular level as much as doing well just primarily involved your ability to react to whatever set piece was being thrown at you.
Leap Day (Free) was the first mass market, super popular game that cracked this problem. Instead of levels that were randomized every time you played, all players were given the exact same randomized level to play each day. This not only gave you the opportunity to learn the level and actively improve on the day’s challenge, but it also spurred a ton of social interaction as players could talk about how they beat particularly difficult segments of the daily level. It’s a super clever innovation, and one I feel like I almost always appreciate in new games that implement it.
This is definitely the case with Noodlecake’s Sneak Ops (Free) which hit the App Store this week, which plays (and looks) a lot like Leap Day, but instead of being a platformer you’re endlessly sneaking through different levels. The game is laids out on a grid with squares that (on the iPhone anyway) are a about the perfect size to hit with your finger. Any bigger and the levels would lose some of their granularity, any smaller and I think you’d really run the risk of fat-fingering. To move your character, you just tap on the grid square you want to move to, and the game does the rest. Your daily goal is to see how far you can make it in each daily level, which might have some kind of end, I wouldn’t know as I’m nowhere near good enough to see it.
On your quest to … wherever it is you’re sneaking to, you’ll face obstacles that lean heavily on Metal Gear Solid and other stealth game tropes. Guards patron on paths, cameras pan back and forth, sleeping guards listen for your presence, lasers are armed to fry you, and countless other obstacles need to be negotiated to do well. Like many other stealth games, the visual cone of guards and cameras is displayed and you more or less just need to stay out of it. Timing and strategy are the name of the game here, particularly once Sneak Ops starts throwing more complicated situations your way that involve knocking out guards, running across tiles that amplify the sound of your footsteps and much, much more.
Sneak Ops monetizes just like Leap Day, but if you haven’t experienced this style of freemium game, here’s the basic gist: Every day you log in to the game you unlock that day’s level. If you miss a day, you can go back and play it, but you’ll need to watch an ad. On each day’s level, if you die or are detected you’ll go back to the beginning of the level or the last checkpoint that you unlocked. Checkpoints are unlocked by either using the game’s floppy disk soft currency or by watching an ad. Like Leap Day, Sneak Ops is balanced in a way there isn’t enough floppy disks to unlock every checkpoint, but it almost always seems like you have enough to unlock every second, or at minimum, every third checkpoint- So there’s a bit of risk to proceeding without watching ads.
Alternatively, you can pay $2.99 to remove ads, which allows you to just save at every checkpoint. Weirdly enough, I think this is one of those situations where the game is actually better without paying for it, as it totally removes the risk of making the decision to not watch an ad and save your disks to see if you can make it to the next checkpoint which you can unlock for free. On top of this checkpoint system, there’s also a Crossy Road (Free) style cosmetic character unlocking system where you slowly unlock additional characters to play as, or you can just buy them individually for a buck a piece. Like Crossy Road, there’s not a whole lot of reason to do this either.
I’ve been having a lot of fun with Sneak Ops, which isn’t super surprising as we really liked it back at GDC as well. I guess if I have anything bad to say about the game, it’s that Sneak Ops is a little too on the nose of emulating a lot of the mechanics of Leap Day, and I’d love to see a bit of innovation on the whole daily level game format. Also, it’s weird that paying for the game seems to make it less fun, but your milage may vary on whether or not you feel the same. Either way, Sneak Ops is fun, free, and super easy to recommend.