It’s natural that, once a game comes out to great critical and financial success, other games will try to follow that formula down to the numbers.
In any case, it depends on the new variables brought in by a similar title to set it apart from both the archetype and the other imitators – in that regard, True Crime: Streets of L.A. has plenty to differentiate it from the GTA formula and all the other titles that borrow from it. The story tells of Nick Kang, a rowdy cop trying to both piece together the mystery surrounding his father’s disappearance and uncover a Triad and Russian Mafia plot.
Many elements of this game – the gritty, expletive-heavy storyline, the celebrity voice cast, and the freedom of movement around the city, for example – will feel familiar to those who’ve already accustomed themselves to the Grand Theft Auto games. But developers Luxoflux weren’t satisfied creating a clone, and threw in a great deal of gameplay features to give True Crime an unmistakable feel of its own. And although it doesn’t all come together as it might, the game is still a solid offering that’s one of the more enjoyable releases as of late.
Gameplay – Although it won’t make a difference to those who’ve never been to L.A., one of True Crime’s chief features is that it features an incredibly accurate rendition of the city of Los Angeles, including the city’s massive bulk. This is truly impressive, but a bit unfair to gamers who’ve never been to the city – if you’ve memorized the street layout in any part of the city, that’ll come to your advantage in the game. Thankfully, players are given the opportunity (and should seize them) to drive around and get accustomed to the city’s layout almost as soon as the game begins. But familiar with the city or not, it’s still impressive to not see the same location twice until playing through almost halfway through the game.
What you do in the city isn’t quite as impressive, unfortunately. Unlike the more free-forming structure of GTA, True Crime is a game driven by its story progression – Nick Kang is a cop, and he solves crimes, simple as that. Granted, players are given the opportunity to do so by shooting, fighting, driving and the occasional stealth sequence, but the only sidequest-like opportunities like in GTA consist of…solving more crimes. It’s not really a flaw to speak of, but this isn’t the only disappointment for those looking for another GTA in True Crime.
As a cop, Nick is theoretically bound to the “protect and serve” ideal that real-life police officers are theoretically bound to, but herein lies one of the central aspects of the gameplay structure. By choosing to be as non-lethal as possible – arresting rather than killing, trying to disable a criminal or his vehicle rather than utterly annihilate it – Nick is considered a good cop. But causing mayhem, in addition to upping the “Civil Unrest” meter, brands Nick as a bad cop – and the outcome of the game is made different by which path you choose. The game is distinctly harder if you try to wreak havoc – go on too many rampages, and the aforementioned Civil Unrest meter will let you know that cops and pedestrians alike will be heading to stop you. You also receive fewer Reward points that way, which are essential to healing yourself, upgrading Nick with new abilities and weapons, and generally progressing in the game.
The game is proportionately divided between shooting, martial arts and driving sequences, with some clearly receiving more attention then others. Developers Luxoflux have the Vigilante 8 series to their credit, and as a result the driving portion of the game can be fast-paced and tense. While you don’t notice it as much simply cruising around the city, stopping speeding criminals can be an utter blast. Speeding through traffic on its own is fun, but many chases inevitably turn into shooting matches, in which you can either rely on the game’s auto-targeting system while you drive, or enter precision targeting mode (once you get the required upgrade) and target specific parts of the car – say, the tires if you’re feeling good, or the gas tank if you’re listening to the devil on your shoulder. At any rate, the development team’s experience here makes this one of the more notable aspects of True Crime.
The on-foot sequences are a little less polished, and are strongly reminiscent of Namco’s Dead to Rights, but with a bit more complexity. Nick becomes a classic Hong Kong action hero on foot, either diving around in slow motion with guns akimbo, or trading fisticuffs with the best of them. The shooting sequences are fairly straightforward, and while they are solidly designed, there’s a certain repetition to them that begins to drag down as the game progresses. The fighting sequences are a bit better off – with a button to punch and separate buttons for low and jumping kicks, you can mix it up a bit more in hand to hand combat. But these portions often feel more like contests of luck then of skill – you can play the exact same fight several times over, fighting the exact same way, and the outcome has an extremely good chance of being different from the time before.
Target characters have a certain amount of health that has to be worn down, and once that is down, Nick can perform a more powerful attack or a grapple move. But with many enemies blocking constantly, many of the fighting sequences can turn into mere button-mashing fests where the victor is the one that sneaks in an attack just before the other does. This is often needlessly frustrating, although victories are that much more satisfying. There are also a few stealth sequences that require Nick to stick to cover and attack either using close range attacks (again, non-lethal and lethal varieties are available based on how good a cop you are), or a tranquilizer gun with limited ammo and range. All of the on-foot sections suffer from an obtuse camera that can make it hard to accomplish whatever goal you have to complete, either by not allowing you to move the camera or having it get hung up on certain objects in the scenery. In most cases the effect on the gameplay isn’t too great, but there are points in which just a bit more camera control would prevent you from failing the mission outright, which can be frustrating if you want to stick a path all the way through.
With the badges you gain from accumulating Reward Points, you can visit locations around the city that give you upgrades in your driving, fighting and shooting abilities, respectively. This is one of the better aspects of the game, in that it keeps you from using the exact same maneuvers each time you attempt to stop a crime, whether it be the opportunity to jackknife your car into a 180 degree turn, or stomp on an enemy’s chest while they’re down. With 10 upgrades per category, only a few of which are useful in practice, one almost wishes that there were a few more options in this area. Completing a chapter of the game to 100% will allow you to get one of four bonus upgrades in each category – in driving, it’s a new car, in shooting, a new pistol, and in fighting a new grapple maneuver. It’s a nice effort for the developers to include these upgrades, especially as the game does get progressively harder if you decide not to employ certain of them. But one almost wishes that there was more to upgrade in this area, as many of the existing upgrades are so minor that their impact isn’t felt.
The final of True Crime’s potential innovations is the way the game is structured – instead of a mostly non-linear structure, the game follows one of a few particular paths out through to the end. Early previews promised a story that would persist through to the end no matter how you did in a mission, and that you’d basically be able to see something new each time through. This isn’t entirely false, but the way this feature is implemented is slightly disappointing.
As the gameplay structure does proceed in chapters, in most cases failing a mission during the chapter will prematurely end the chapter and take you to the streets where you have to solve a certain amount of random crimes in order to make up the missed missions. In a few cases, the game will offer an entirely different mission depending on how you performed in the one before, but in most cases, you’re taken to the patrol screen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing on its own right, but those expecting a Choose-your-own-Adventure structure to the game will be disappointed.
Graphics - While not of tech demo quality, there’s a lot to like about True Crime’s graphical presentation. Animations are generally quite fluid, from the various fighting maneuvers to the fanciful slow-motion actions Nick does when he shoots. The character models themselves are slightly dull, but this is made up for partially by some incredible facial textures – Nick seems stoic enough that his expression wouldn’t change too much, but we’re treated to quite a range of emotion from him and the rest of the cast, which is quite refreshing. There are a few scattered details that are quite nice, from the way a car catches fire when you shoot the gas tank to the way almost everything in the surrounding areas (tables, park benches, concrete walls) is impacted by what you’re doing. Although it’s a little unrealistic, it’s still immensely satisfying to see a Matrix-like dent in the wall after sending an enemy flying towards it.
Sound – Between the well-used (and not flaunted) celebrity voice cast that includes Russell Wong, Michelle Rodriguez, Christopher Walken, and Gary Oldman, to the immense soundtrack, the audio presentation was definitely not an afterthought to True Crime. The dialogue may be a bit cheesy at times, but the cast makes the most of it – something that’s quite a feat considering that a good deal of Nick Kang’s snappy comments are no better then most stereotypical action movie one-liners. The soundtrack won’t convince anyone that isn’t already a fan of mainstream hip-hop to like the music, but it is a solid offering of the genre, plus there are a few action sequence-cued metal tracks to be heard across the soundtrack to mix it up a bit. One of the only problems with the soundtrack comes when repeating a mission, trying to pull it off as flawlessly as possible; the music cued up for certain sequences is not random, so perfectionists may end up hearing the same track again and again. But this is a fairly minor flaw that doesn’t bring down the whole of the game too greatly.
Overall Value - Ambition is something that’s rarely as rewarding as it should be in terms of video games – although more recent attempts have delivered the goods with a bit more success, it’s typical to assume the worst when a game tries to blend more than two styles in equal proportion. True Crime is, thankfully, not a total failure, although one does get the impression that with more development time and more polish to individual aspects (aside from the impressive driving sections), the game could’ve been a masterwork. As it is, True Crime is an enjoyable romp, perhaps made even more so if you’re familiar with the city of L.A. and are able to appreciate the scope of the city that Luxoflux rendered. The inevitable sequel will likely give the developers the opportunity to polish off every area that needs it, and we’re looking forward to that a great deal – even still, True Crime offers a mature (if somewhat far-fetched) storyline and a good deal of gameplay variety with competence, and that alone makes it something worth experiencing.