Reviewed: November 20, 2003
Released: November 4, 2003
True Crime: Streets of LA has been a long time waiting. I have to admit, I was filled with giddy anticipation when the menu screen of True Crime first flashed across my TV screen. I mean, here it was, the game we’ve been hearing about for months. It has been the talk of all of the forums as the up-and-coming “GTA killer” – especially on those forums catering to the Xbox crowd who, due to a exclusive licensing agreement between Rockstar and Sony, until only recently were devoid of any GTA titles. As so, Xboxers had spent the last two years Xbox-green with envy (but never admitting it), trashing the GTA series and constructing all sorts of reasons why they didn’t want Rockstar’s titles soiling their precious consoles.
So, upon its announcement, True Crime was quickly snatched up by the Xbox crowd as “their” game – the Xbox’s answer (even though True Crime was never an Xbox exclusive) to the choppy, blocky, chuggy GTA series that those underpowered PS2 gamers were willing to settle for. Now, before I get a bunch of hate mail over what I just said, please understand that I tend to lean towards the “greener” side of gaming myself, I was just fortunate enough to own both consoles so the Xbox blackout didn’t affect me – and anyway, with the recently released Xbox GTA Double Pack and its enhanced graphics, handling and soundtrack control, who is getting the last laugh now? But I digress; let’s get back to the review.
The relatively unremarkable menu screen was straightforward and as so, a cinch to navigate – I really wanted to play, so after a brief look around the menu system and the sub-options, I headed for the streets. The three minutes that followed will forever stand as one of my favorite gaming cutscenes ever. It wasn’t the graphics and it wasn’t the storyline, both of which were mediocre at best; it was the delivery. One of the finest actors in modern cinema, Christopher Walken, narrates the opening scene in one of the best examples of game voice acting yet heard on any console. There is something inexplicably magnetic about the way Walken conveys the lines that lends a truly cinematic yet completely authentic vibe to the whole affair. I know we’ve heard the cinematic-spiel before with games, but never have I seen it done so well as Walken does in the True Crime opener. His narrative doesn’t sound like the patched-together, hackneyed voicework we’ve become accustomed to as gamers – Walken flawlessly portrays his character in an airy, lighthearted tone that is immediately endearing yet stern enough to demand respect. It really has to be experienced to be understood, and I suggest this be required viewing for future game designers and voice actors as the “right way” to do voiceovers.
As mentioned above – True Crime is Luxoflux’s answer to the GTA phenomenon of a free-roaming game set in a living, breathing city. However, this time around you get to play the cop, not the hoodlum, and the city is a detailed recreation of Los Angeles. What’s that – you’re a cop? Yep. Finally it is here – a non-threatening game about law enforcement for those nice lawyers and congressmen who have spent the last few years worrying about all the helpless children being brainwashed by GTA, right? Not even.
True Crime’s protagonist, Nick Kang, was ripped from the reels of a Hollywood action movie – a badass cop in a badass city who is on a mission to avenge his father’s death, with little concern for who he hurts along the way. Much like our beloved Mr. Vercetti, Nick isn’t afraid to boost a car or two, or pop a few caps into a crowd of innocent bystanders, if it will get him what he wants. Sure, doing so will subtract points from Nick’s Good/Bad Cop meter, but those points are easily regained later and let’s face it – after GTA, who really wants to be a good cop anyway, right?
The game is structured around a series of eight chapters with just over a half dozen missions in each. The missions generally start with Nick being sent to some distant location to investigate one or another matter. Along the way, the police radio will ask Nick to assist in quelling a number of street crimes. Depending on how you address these crimes will add or subtract from your Good Cop/Bad Cop meter and dole out reward points. For every 100 reward points, you will receive a shield which can be used for extra health and/or gain access to upgrades.
Because the Good/Bad Cop meter is constantly in a state of flux and totally dependent on your actions, you will need to carefully weigh your options when approaching a situation. For instance, if you decide to end a simple domestic disturbance with a couple of well-placed headshots, you’re probably going to lose some points. But, if you kindly walk up and flash your badge, there is a good chance that the quarreling lovers will surrender and you will gain a point or two.
Luxoflux developed the Random Crime Generator for True Crime which, as the name implies, nucleates crime scenarios at random amongst the city’s NPCs. It is pretty much a given that if you get into a crowd of people, something is going to happen in a matter of minutes. Each of those disturbances awards points, so it is entirely possible (and encouraged) to lollygag around, letting the Crime Generator go wild, and build up quite a cache of credits before you reach your mission point.
Once you get to your assigned destination, it is mission time. Missions are similar to those encountered in any game of this genre – chasing, tailing, shooting, escaping, arresting, etc. Completing one mission will unlock the next, where you get to repeat the process of driving to a distant location and addressing street crime along the way. However, unlike the GTA and Driver games, you don’t have to succeed at every mission to progress the story; the story branches according to your successes and failures. This is an interesting twist, as failing will often open special mini-missions that you normally wouldn’t see.
For instance, in one mission I was being chased by a group of Russian mobsters. I first failed the mission, and the result was a short shower room rough-‘em-up scene which ended with Nick having to subdue a number of Russian mobsters using hand-to-hand combat. I later retried the same chase mission and this time successfully eluded capture, and never once saw the shower scene.
The city is huge, and driving around sightseeing can be a real pleasure. I’m not too familiar with LA’s layout, but the word on the streets is that it is pretty much dead-on. I don’t know whether to believe it or not, but I’ve even read forum posts by people who swear to have found their (or relatives') homes in the game, right down to the style and color. Mapping a city this large must have been a massive endeavor and Luxoflux deserves kudos for their work. I only wish True Crime featured a more exciting city for driving; something with character, like the oft-used San Francisco.
True Crime strives to right the wrongs of the GTA series. It is apparent that Luxoflux, in an attempt to separate themselves from being just another GTA-wannabe, addressed the biggest complaint that gamers had with the two GTA games – the on foot action. It cannot be denied that as popular as the GTA series is among gamers, there is general malcontent with regard to on-foot controls – mainly with the weapons targeting. Luxoflux allows for standard auto-aiming, but they also added a precision aiming mode which takes place in an over-the shoulder reticle view.
With all of the Asian flavoring to this game, with a main character named Nick Kang and Triad gangs and such, it is no surprise that Luxoflux has made an honest attempt to enhance one area that GTA almost completely forgets – hand-to-hand combat. While Rockstar allows some basic punching and melee moves, Luxoflux has all but included a fighting game in their title. Sure, it is not on the level of a Virtua Fighter, but I would say it rivals many of the lower end professional wrestling games still taking up shelf space. There are a variety of kicks, punches, grapples and combos at your disposal from the start, with more to learn as the game progresses.
This brings up another neat aspect of True Crime; leveling up your character. Throughout the game, you are allowed to trade in the shields you garner from reward points for admittance into training scenarios in combat, driving or shooting. Each time you enter a training scenario, you are introduced to some form of skills improvement. You then have to show your competence with the new skill before you can take it out on the street. You are given a specified time limit and set rules (no headshots, no killing bystanders, etc..) in which to test your skills. If you pass, you are awarded the skill; if you fail, you lose one shield.
While many of the tests are simple and easily passed on the first round, an equal number will make a delicious meal of your stash of shields (which also represent lives) so you’ll be forced to hit the beat and solve random crimes before you go back again. And believe me, you must get these skills in order to progress as the games gets crazy-difficult without them.
The game starts out with some basic training-type missions to get you acquainted with the game’s control scheme. At first the controls seems somewhat intuitive and straightforward, yet just different enough from the GTA standard to make it a bit irksome. Thankfully, you are allowed to swap button assignments to your preferred settings. However, since True Crime has its extensive fighting system, you have to remember to keep your kick, punch, grapple and block buttons at the ready, making assignment decisions a bit of a task. Couple that with the fact that some controls are in-car only, some on-foot only, and some work both, it can get confusing.
Finally, with all of the combination presses (stick click + face button) required for relatively common tasks like flashing a badge, firing a warning shot, or arresting a criminal, reassignment can get downright perplexing. This is especially bewildering when you are in the midst of training missions and you don’t know whether the on-screen help is accurate to the custom layout or only to the default configuration. Thankfully, the on-screen messages do change to reflect custom assignments and click-combos do retain their default settings so you can’t screw things up too badly.
I have to admit, after a half-dozen times watching the True Crime television commercial featuring the 180º driving sequence, I was a bit disappointed with the actual driving aspect of the game. It could be due to my time spent playing GTA and Midnight Club II – both of which were far from realistic, yet still left you feeling in total control of a vehicle with weight and physics – but True Crime’s driving just never felt right to me.
Probably my biggest gripe with the driving would have to be the way the cars feel when turning. Instead of feeling like they steer from the front, they almost seem to pivot about the midpoint of the vehicle which gives a feeling of disconnect with the environment. This central pivoting is a common design scheme for car combat games to allow a smaller turning radius, and as so it is probably a carryover from Luxoflux’s work on V8. However, it is awkward and just doesn’t feel right in the True Crime setting – even with the vehicle and driving skills upgrades. It is only because you get used to it that it ever feels acceptable.
The hand-to-hand fighting controls are pretty clear-cut, giving you one button for punching, one button for low kicking, one button for high (jump) kicking and finally a button for grappling. As the game progresses, you learn combos which can be unleashed on dazed foes. It seems like it should be simple enough, but even with all of the moves, grapples and combos available, the fighting is so frantic that it usually degrades into a mash fest and you tend to pull off moves more by luck than skill. And for all of those all those special moves you learn? They never seem to work the way they were intended.
For instance, I was excited to learn the running attacks early on and had no problems performing them perfectly in training, but it was hours before I could successfully perform one on a crook. This was quite irritating to say the least, as I leaped around like a ballerina into oncoming traffic while some hood sped off in my very own vehicle.
As for the weapons targeting, while it is a bit deeper than the GTA system and features the precision aiming mode, it still suffers from the same lock-on issues that plague Rockstar’s masterpieces. Often times, I found myself with a foe plugging me from the side, literally close enough to touch, while I was locked on some distant crook and unable to turn. And although you can use the precision aiming mode to pinpoint specific target areas, the interface is so sloppy that it is almost easier to take the hit to your Good/Bad meter if you accidentally kill a bystander with the auto-targeting than it is to let the perpetrator run off with your car because you were too busy trying to make sure you hit a neutralizing zone.
Graphically, True Crime wasn’t what I had really been hoping for. While having a living city of this magnitude at your total disposal is a big feat for a console, it definitely comes at a price. Much like GTA, this game is chock-full of blocky surfaces, jaggy edges, robotic animations, and heavily recycled character and object models. What’s worse is that the game has such a bad problem with clipping, it actually negatively affects the gameplay. I couldn’t keep track of how many times Nick (or his vehicle) got stuck to (or in) objects, or how many times a perp got out of his car to surrender and stepped through a solid wall into some off-limits area. Losing a crook after a five-minute chase because he is stuck (in an arms-up surrender) in an inaccessible region is one thing, having him cap you through a solid cement wall is another. And PS2 owners can rest assured – I’ve checked out the Xbox version and there is only a negligible difference in the graphic quality of the two; they get the same blocky clipping as the PS2 version.
That brings up another problem – invisible walls. I know it is called Streets of LA, but couldn’t we deviate from the streets a bit more? Sure, there are a few grassy areas here and there, but there is a certain lack of freedom in where you are allowed to roam. In GTA we were allowed to get on top of buildings or explore the beaches, but in True Crime you’re pretty much confined to the streets they give. You’ll be hard pressed to find an alley or anything to give you the feeling that you’re doing anything more than driving on a cardboard-cutout movie set.
Every now and then, you’re brought indoors for a shootout or brawl and the graphics take a significant leap for the better with characters and objects appearing more realistically textured and dimensional. Speaking of fighting, Luxoflux did a good job with most of the combat animations. Although the controls might be a bit shaky, the characters do look good when they’re tossing each other around. Especially when Nick starts smashing up the local bar with some Triad member’s backside.
As I mentioned earlier, I was very pleased with Christopher Walken’s voicework. It is just a shame that Walken isn’t used more often in the game, as he only plays a minor role and always seems like right when you start really enjoying a scene – he's gone. To make matters worse, although the talented Russell Wong supplies the voice of our protagonist, the scriptwriters have him spouting off more annoying quips and wisecracks than the entire Die Hard trilogy. I mean, I thought some of the rubbish that Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti came up with was corny, but this Nick Kang character really takes the cake. Are we actually supposed to think that this jackass is cool? Not me. Luckily, although the remaining cast of characters can be equally as annoying, at least they’re confined to cutscenes for the most part and you are not forcibly subjected to their dimwitted one-liners every time you commandeer a vehicle or bust a perp.
The soundtrack boasts an impressive 50-plus songs. The only issue I have is that, save for a few Limp Bizkit-y rock tunes, nearly all of the songs are no holds barred, hard-core West Coast rap. Not that I have anything against rap per se, and admittedly what is here is pretty cool for a couple of cycles, but the lack of variety and the repetitive nature of the beats quickly becomes irritating. Xbox owners are lucky enough to have custom soundtracks available to break up the monotony. PS2 owners are S.O.L. in the music department.
On a final note, I would again stress that True Crime comes with some fairly hard core rap tunes, so you’ll probably want to use some discretion around family and friends who might be offended by the extremely foul language.
The sound effects lean toward the more positive end of the spectrum, but still are nothing spectacular. One positive to note is the radio dispatch which can be fairly witty at times and does a nice job of distracting you from yet-another identical sounding rap tune.
If there's one thing True Crime truly succeeds at, it's in delivering you plenty of original content. With its branching storyline, multiple endings, alternate missions, 24/7 skills upgrades missions, and the Random Crime Generator, True Crime is sure to keep you busy for some time. Reports say that a person playing straight through, only completing the necessary missions to progress, can finish a game in as little as six hours. However, most people are reporting an average 15 gaming hours to completion. And, much like GTA, playing through a second or third time will hold almost as much enjoyment as your first run-through, especially if you choose different skills upgrade paths.
And, as with GTA, the one nice thing about a game with the open-ended structure is that if you need a break, you can easily put True Crime off to the side knowing that it will be a breeze to pick it back up again. Even if that break is for a week or even a month, getting back into a game like True Crime is like riding a bike – it will only take a few minutes to get back into the groove. Too often these days, games are made to be so complicated with plot twists, double crossing characters, and nebulous goal structure, that you don’t dare take a break for fear you will be completely lost when you do return. It is nice to have a game with well-defined goals, and the freedom to roam around and get your bearings before jumping headlong into a mission.
Due to the nature of the game, it is no surprise that True Crime lacks both multiplayer and online support. But this is good. While it would be interesting to see a developer meld the GTA formula into a multiplayer online game, I can’t help but shudder at the idea of millions of disillusioned teenagers acting out their anarchy fantasies en masse.
Aside from the enhanced fighting engine and targeting system, True Crime is not a whole lot different than the GTA and Driver games it aims to best. It is deep, it is branching, it is enjoyable, it is everything you’d expect from another free-roaming game about a blowhard in a car, in a city, trying to right some kind of wrong. The only problem? It never quite hits its mark as solidly as everyone had hoped. Nagging technical issues give a rushed feeling to otherwise-solid gameplay, and cheesy dialog from a thoroughly unlikable hero make it hard to identify with the character aspect of the game. True Crime is the epitome of a mixed-bag game; I really did enjoy playing it despite Nick and his glitches, and it is better than any Driver currently released, but it doesn’t come close to besting either next-generation Grand Theft Auto title.
For a first time effort on the new big-three console, Luxoflux did a commendable job with a monumental task. Designing a GTA style game with a character who’s on the “right” side of the law must have been difficult, yet they pull it off solidly. With some effort, I believe that they can make True Crime a series to contend with. As it stands, Streets of LA is a fun game, and you won’t be disappointed as long as you go into it knowing that as a whole, it’s not quite as good as GTA, and you’re going to have to put up with some issues. But, I do think Rockstar could stand to take a serious look at True Crime, because there are aspects of it that give GTA a serious run for its money, especially the hand-to-hand combat.