Genre : Action
Release Date: November 4, 2003
I have never played any of the Grand Theft Auto games.
Part of it is because those games somehow transform a good friend of mine, a vegetarian and Buddhist, into the beltway sniper, taking to the rooftops with his trusty rifle to rid the world of a randomly chosen group (“This time, I’ma kill all the people in suits!”). I distrust anything with that kind of power. The other part is, pettily enough, because the entire world seems to think that the GTA series is the best thing since chocolate-covered sex. Therefore, I hate and fear it.
I mention this not to inform you of my horrifying cultural deprivation or latent hatred of fun, but to make this point: this will be the only preview of True Crime: Streets of LA that does not compare it, at endless length, to Grand Theft Auto. I lack the skills, and more importantly, the inclination.
The first thing that comes to mind about True Crime is that it’s an action movie. Not just any movie, either; it’s a multicultural spin on one of the most time-honored tropes of the genre, the rogue cop who, despite his tendency to bend what rules he doesn’t break, gets the job done, no matter what. Nicholas Kang (Russell Wong), born Nicholas Wilson, a half-Chinese cop following in his father Henry’s footsteps, is just such a cop. He’s a loose cannon, dammit, and this time it’s personal. He’s not playing by anyone’s rules! The 1980s are back, and Nick Kang’s got ‘em.
We’re told in narration by Johnson (Christopher freakin’ Walken), a friend of Henry Wilson’s, that what had happened to Henry, twenty years ago, was a true crime. Nick, cruising down the LA street, is ignorant of this, and of how the next few days will lead him directly into a confrontation with the who and why of his father’s dishonor and disappearance.
In the meantime, though, he’s on suspension. That goes away quickly enough, as he’s recruited for the EOD, the Elite Operations Division, a police agency dedicated to pretty much doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Towards that end, he’s given a new partner, Rosie Belasco (Michelle Rodriguez); a new badge; and a new case: find out who’s behind the recent series of bombings in Chinatown.
Obviously, the answer to that question turns out to be moderately complicated. Nick must shoot, drive, sneak, race, crash, destroy, and pummel his way across Los Angeles, leaving the broken bodies of just about every person in California who’s ever thought about being a crook in his wake, and pissing off no less than three major crime organizations, in his search for the truth.
It’s hard to talk about True Crime, because the question is, where do you start? This is not a game in and of itself, so much as a complex blend of ingredients that mix into a sort of sundae of violent flavor.
But first, let’s talk about Los Angeles! True Crime is set within that city to such an extent that it’s impossible to separate it from its environment. You'll commit vehicular manslaughter on a shockingly frequent basis—I mean, seriously, True Crime is like an interactive argument against the pedestrian right-of-way law; these jackasses will saunter blindly into the path of a gun battle between speeding convertibles—against the rendered backdrop of the city itself, accurate down to the street signs. The exception, of course, is that traffic in this fictionalized Los Angeles is far lighter than in the genuine article, but it’s real hard to have an exciting car chase in full gridlock.
The other exception is that this fictionalized Los Angeles is held together by, apparently, hopes and dreams. Nick’s kind of a reckless driver, which means you’ll plow into things all the time. Unless it is something as durable as a house, and sometimes not even then, you’re going to knock it over. Driving down the sidewalk, siren blaring, taking out a row of newspaper stands, two lamp posts, a park bench, and a stoplight before crashing into that idiot mugger who’s unloading an assault rifle in your general direction is one of the little pleasures that is too often denied to those who lead a civilian life.
True Crime is divided into multiple episodes, and from there into multiple missions. When you’re out on the streets, and your current mission isn’t anything too urgent, you can explore the city. If Nick’s car isn’t good enough for you, go ahead and jack someone else’s; I’ve stolen everything from a city bus to a cherry red Ferrari. Nick’s car does have a siren, though, which gives your fence-crashing, accident-causing escapades that air of legitimacy they might otherwise lack. Further, if you want, you can jump out of the car and attack or search random passersby, beating them up or checking them for illegal drugs or contraband. I patted down a scantily clad young woman, and found that this beautiful young lady was, in fact, somehow concealing an automatic shotgun. She protested that “a girl has to protect herself,” so I underscored her point by kicking her in the face. She ran away, so I kept the shotgun, and used it against the next mugging that broke out.
Speaking of which, True Crime will not earn any accolades from Los Angeles’s tourism bureau. In this gritty urban landscape, there is a random crime roughly every thirty seconds, usually within a few blocks of one Nick Kang. When informed of this by your dispatcher, or if you happen to be walking by, you can opt to do your job and stop the criminals. Oddly, they do not tend to go quietly very often, which means you’ll have to get rough. A street fighter might have to be shown the weaknesses of his technique, while you must deal with an armed mugger with a hostage by carefully aiming at the exposed parts of his body.
By resolving crimes, violently or not, you’ll earn Reward Points, which, in turn, can be spent by the hundreds to unlock new martial-arts moves, gun tricks, and driving skills in the dojos, shooting ranges, and practice courses found all over the city.
You have to be careful as to how you fight crime, however. Out on the street, Nick has the option to go in like a cop, flashing his badge and firing warning shots, or to pull his twin pistols and go all John Woo on the place. The overenthusiastic use of force, however, has a habit of earning you Bad Cop points, whereas settling disputes peacefully or, well, at least leaving the perps alive will add Good Cop points to your total. If you’re a Good Cop at the end of the game, you get the best ending; if you’re a Bad Cop, you’ll come to a bad end.
The sliding scale does give you a lot of leeway. As long as you pick your crimes carefully, opting to stop street fights and assist other cops, the better to boost your Good Cop rating, you can go ahead and run over the occasional drug dealer. There’s a certain frisson, an unknowable cosmic flavor, to “breaking up” an illegal gambling table or drug deal by simply driving over all involved at what appears to be at least sixty miles an hour.
Stopping random street crimes does tend to wear thin after a while, and Nick does have a larger goal. You begin, as noted above, by tracking down the mastermind of a bombing scheme, and from there, into the heart of a complex scheme involving a deal between the Triads, the Russian mob, the mysterious crime figure known only as the General, and the “urban legend” Ancient Wu.
A given mission may require Nick to shoot it out with a passel of thugs from one faction or another; tail a suspect through busy traffic without being spotted; beat down cleaver-wielding cooks; sneak into a restaurant owned by the Russians; or while undercover, evade an overzealous police tail in a criminal’s van. Each mission tends to require a different set of skills, and only rarely do two different play styles meet.
It’s interesting, though, to see how the engine handles all of these different requirements. While the graphical detail isn’t terribly high, it’s impressive that cinematic sequences fade seamlessly into action without a hiccup. The camera closes in on Nick, who assumes his battle stance, and then it’s on like neckbone.
While he’s shooting, you can perform slow-motion dodges and shooting leaps by holding down the Triangle button, resulting in some truly cinematic moments. Nick jumps through the air, guns blazing, spent shell casings hanging in mid-air around him, and thugs drop to the floor or fling themselves screaming from their sniper’s nests. If your standard revolvers—later upgradeable to twin .45s or even custom .50s—aren’t enough, take out a punk and snatch up his shotgun or automatic weapon, then really wreck shop. (Yes, Nick can dual-wield pump shotguns; no, I’m not sure how, either; yes, it does kill things, thanks for asking.) A particularly troublesome or beefy thug might even find himself used as a human shield, blocking his friend’s bullets while you unload a Kalishnikov rifle over the shield’s shoulder with one hand. Stray bullets have a habit of taking out the landscape; stone pillars powder, furniture shatters, cars shake with each bullet before exploding into fire and maiming whoever’s standing nearby.
I really like the shooting in this game. Can you tell?
The brawling’s not bad either, although it’s a little slower. When it comes to fisticuffs, Nick’s decent, but unremarkable until you score him some upgrades. The name of the game here is to watch the other guy and wait for your opening, then batter him with low kicks, high punches, or leaping roundhouse kicks until you daze them. From there, it’s a question of which of Nick’s custom bonebreaking combos you want to land next; my personal recommendation would be his Leaping Monkey, a jumping snap kick that throws the other guy backward in dramatic slow motion. He flies backward, shattering furniture or busting through a wall, before coming to rest in a heap of shattered debris; in some levels, you can even use this to pitch him into a gas fire or oddly explosive propane grill. If the guy was carrying a weapon—anything from a broken bottle to a katana—you can snatch it up with the Circle button, then use it to add serious damage to your punch attacks, or throw it at the next guy to ruin his day.
Just as with shooting, the real loser in a fistfight in True Crime is the environment. Fight it out in a Chinese restaurant, and your cinematic slow-motion finishing moves are guaranteed to knock the other guy through a table or over a countertop. A slugfest in a crumbling tenement building with a couple of winos means one of ‘em will crash through a loaded shopping cart and an ancient, fading couch before reaching you; then he’ll eat a kick to the face, get dizzy, and get Tiger Swept off his feet. He lands on a wire spool, splintering it, and lies still. Sure, the fighting engine has a few gaps in its execution, but it more than makes up for it in the presentation.
Somewhere between the two are the stealth-based ops. These are a little bit less spectacular than the others, as Nick must creep into or through his environment without tripping over a noisy object or being seen. If someone does look his way, drop them with a chop to the head, a vicious neckbreaker, or a tranquilizer dart, depending on how Good Cop/Bad Cop you’re feeling at the moment.
One of the weirder facets of the missions in True Crime is the option to skip them. If you screw up, you can opt to replay the mission, or continue the story. The latter option means you go straight past the mission in question as though Nick failed, and the game’s plot unfolds from there; that option is the key to unlocking several of the game’s branching paths.
F’rinstance, at one point, Nick’s brother Cary gets into trouble, and you have to get all the way across town to save him… in two minutes. Screw it up, and Cary dies; get there in time, and you’ll be able to find and save him. The former approach will drop Nick onto a story path where he goes completely off the deep end, abandoning even his faint pretense of following the rules in favor of becoming the loose cannon everyone’s been accusing him of being throughout the entire game.
Alternatively, if you finish an episode and you’ve completed all the missions, you’ll gain access to the “Bonus Cruisin’” mission, where Nick is on the loose in Los Angeles, and all he has to do is drive to his choice of one of three upgrades: get a new car, new guns, or a new combat move. I tend to recommend that you upgrade to the twin .45s as fast as possible, by running an LAPD obstacle course and blowing up some robots, then enter some illegal street races to collect some new cars. The ‘60s muscle car, with its combination of durability and sweet sweet racing stripes, is a particularly wise choice.
Whatever you’re doing—and there’s a lot to do—is backed up by a surprisingly long soundtrack, divided up into slow or fast action. A gunfight is usually accompanied by driving power metal or hiphop, whereas cruising in Nick’s car or creeping into a building’s done to the beat of funk, triphop, or mellower rap. I didn’t recognize a lot of the music, but it’s excellently timed and never fails to match the action onscreen.
It doesn’t hurt that the vocal cast is uniformly excellent. They’ve got a damned cliché script to work from, true enough, but the self-conscious approach that the actors bring to the script helps sell the dialogue. They know it’s corny—and Russell Wong has to say some really weird one-liners, along with some genuinely funny ones; I nearly fell out of my chair when he told a bunch of thugs that they needed to “play more Street Fighter”—and act accordingly. Christopher Walken plays Johnson, Nick’s “father figure” and the clerk at the shooting range, and seems to have been given all the best lines; Michelle Rodriguez, by comparison, has a relatively thankless role as Nick’s partner/adversary/kidnap bait.
The word that I keep coming back to here is still “cinematic.” Between the excellent use of slow-motion, the feel of a living city surrounding you, and a good cast bringing life to the characters, True Crime is like playing a season of the best ‘80s cop drama ever, with an infinite budget and a high body count. Run over criminals, punch out winos, crash city buses, and tear up the city on November 4th.
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