When staying in LA for E3 this year, several friends who were there for the first time asked if there was always a high-speed car chase on the evening news. They were somewhat surprised to hear that the answer is, in fact, yes. Being one of the larger cities in the world, it's natural for LA to have a fair amount of crime; and being the media capital of the US (if not the world) means that said crime is usually treated as a spectacle (O.J. and Michael Jackson being two of the latest, greatest examples). Combine the amount of crime, the media-centric lifestyle, and a natural population of drivers who aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer and you've got a natural equation that equals the latest "action crime" videogame epic.
True Crime: Streets of LA follows the adventures of one Nick Kang, sometimes-suspended police officer and a new member of an Elite Forces Unit. True Crime resembles both Grand Theft Auto (GTA) and The Getaway in that the player spends most of their time driving around a giant city, splitting their time between being on foot and being in a car. It differs from its brethren in that the missions accessed through this hub world are more specialized, consisting of specific game mechanics that must be used in each mission. These mechanics are driving, fighting, shooting and sneaking, each with a different control set, essentially dividing True Crime into sections of specific mechanics, unlike GTA's simple split between driving and not-driving.
Unlike GTA, True Crime is fairly linear in terms of mission structure. Although there are alternate suites of missions that can lead to different plot paths and thus endings, there is never more than one story-based mission available at any one time. This design allows the user to play the game multiple times and get a different experience, but each individual play-through of the game will be completely straightforward. Aside from the missions, the player can also spend time cruising around LA dealing with random crime in the form of a dispatcher calling locations of various crimes which then appear on the player's radar. The pessimism of the game is actually a nice touch, as there's no way that the player can deal with all the crime taking place while still advancing the plot. Eventually, crimes will have to go unpunished as the player drives off to the next checkpoint, and the feeling of helplessness against a world full of criminal activity is a nice realistic touch.
To a certain extent, True Crime suffers from the range of its various gameplay mechanics, rather than benefiting from them. To give an example of how the width of the gameplay disrupts the depth of the game, two of the major gameplay sections are brawling and gunplay sequences. Each style of gameplay has its strengths and weaknesses, but the combination of having both in the game produces a bit of cognitive dissonance. If Nick has a gun, why is he beating the crap out of people rather than just shooting them, especially when he winds up stabbing them with a knife anyway? Sure, there are probably a few folks that he'd like to keep alive, but that explanation doesn't provide enough separation between the random thugs that get shot and the random thugs getting beat up. This is variety simply for the sake of the mechanics, rather than any logical goal, and the incoherency of this is just one of many that rubs the wrong way.
Another example would be the sometimes obtuse mission requirements. Several times, Nick is given the mission of escaping from pursuing motor vehicles. Should the player engage in the most likely scenario, shooting out their tires and then driving away, things turn out just fine. But if the player decides to go completely on the offensive and reduce the cars to flaming wrecks, the mission does not register as "over" until the player "escapes" the cars by driving a certain distance away from them.
But mainly, the mechanics suffer because the developers had to spend so much time making all of them work, and therefore didn't have the time to make any of them truly special. The sneaking missions are the most awkward and are particularly brain-dead in comparison to games that devote their entire gameplay to espionage-style tactics. The gameplay is simply too basic to be truly compelling and the lack of sophisticated controls or context-specific actions makes the experience feel dumbed-down. If Nick is going to vaingloriously proclaim that he is going to sneak into an art warehouse "ninja-style," he should really be able to get over a chest-high loading dock without having to run around like a gimp looking for ramps or stairs.
There are also simple, programming mistakes that can mar the experience. One situation I found myself in several times was attempting to pull a fleeing suspect out of an auto right as they were attempting to enter it. What then occurred was the criminal standing outside the car, but I could not target or interact with him in any way. Rather, the game acted as though the criminal was within the car, creating an odd tableau where Nick was shooting, punching and kicking the immobile car while the suspect stood zombie-like nearby. The only recourse was to give up and drive away, leaving the crime unresolved. There were plenty of other issues like this, leaving me to wonder how long the game underwent testing before being released.
Ethically, the game is a Pandora's Box. Nick is your classic rogue cop, as seen in movies like Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour, etc. The crucial difference is that in these movies the heroes manage to engage in all kinds of dangerous stunts while miraculously never harming an innocent soul. In True Crime, things are a little more realistic. Drive recklessly, people die. Shoot your guns without thought for your surroundings, people die. But True Crime doesn't treat these situations with any sort of gravity. The game does deal with rampant death and destruction, but at the same time treats it all with the attitude of a devil-may-care action movie. The result is a game that, unlike Grand Theft Auto or The Getaway, made me a little sick to my stomach and left me wondering why.
Primarily, it's because I was approaching the game from a different perspective, simply by stepping into the role of a police officer. Sure, it's entirely possible to play True Crime from the same perspective as GTA, and I have no doubt that some people played it that way. But I couldn't. There was no way that I couldn't react to the difference between a criminal avatar and an authority figure. When playing GTA, empathy was hard to come by. Cackles of glee are the usual user-supplied soundtrack when I'm playing, and some of the acts that I engage in with such glee are not much different than those that disturb me in True Crime. But in GTA, the role played is that of the criminal element. Responsibility to society is nil, or at least close to it. Although it is possible to play a relatively honorable criminal, there is still no implication of social responsibility at all.
In contrast, the figure of the police officer is one of the primary societal archetypes. The authority figure is one to be alternately trusted and feared due to the power granted to the position. Inherent to its existence is an assumption of greater responsibility to society in general and to citizens in specific. To play True Crime is to abuse this responsibility, in one form or another. I know that this won't bother some. But I can't pretend that it never bothered me. As proof of the ethical importance of the police figure, there is even a meter within True Crime that measures how "good" or "bad" you are. Prevent a crime with a minimum of violence; you get a "good" point. Kill a citizen; you get a "bad" point. Get enough "bad" points and the citizens and other cops start hunting you down. However, it's comically easy to prevent this from happening. All that's needed is to walk down the street, frisking anybody Nick might happen to run into. Such illegal searches will only run you the risk of getting into a fistfight that is easily run away from, with the reward being a "good" point if you find contraband on the accosted citizen, making it shamelessly easy to keep Nick on the good side of the law. With innovations like warning shots and flashing your badge in the game as ways to apprehend criminals peacefully, it's a shame that something this quick and dirty made it into the final design.
Although the writing is snappy from time to time, it mostly lounges in the safe genre of the forgettable action cop movie. Highlight: when I sarcastically referred to my character as a "loose cannon," only to have my suffocating superior officer refer to Nick as just that less than 5 seconds later. Also worth noting is a ridiculous brawl inside a strip club, in which strippers being kicked and punched by Nick respond with screams of "Hurts so good!" and orgasmic screams of joy. It's pretty sad that sequences like this still get ok'd for use in videogames, even ones as tongue-in-cheek as True Crime.
The two best things about the presentation are the inclusion of Christopher Walken (as well as some other quite talented voice actors) and the use of LA as a real city. Walken is, as usual, fantastic, with several classic "Walken-esque" lines. I can only imagine how much better the game could have been with him as the main character, rather than the painfully generic Kang. The use of LA is an inspired touch, as the maze of streets and freeways makes for interesting navigation. The only mistake is the complete and utter lack of traffic, which makes a certain amount of sense for a videogame, but still feels extremely odd, especially when Nick moans "Someone get me out of this traffic!" Considering this usually occurs when Kang is driving well over 100 on the freeway, it makes you wonder if the developers have actually been in LA during rush hour.True Crime: Streets of LA isn't a bad game. It's not particularly a good game, either. It's a tossed salad of good ideas and clich concepts that veers wildly between extremely polished and inexcusably sloppy. The action-movie tropes and inconsistent mechanics make True Crime more of a slightly stale take on an existing dynamic than a step forward for videogames, or even the action game genre in particular. Maybe it should have been called True Crime: Just Another Action Videogame.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.