Release Date: November 22, 2005
Undeniable fact of life: some people have it really hard. You start off on the low end of the stick and just slink down further from there. Poverty, violence, death and despair mingle together, hanging out on street corners like vultures with empty promises and broken dreams. This has become one of the more popular outlets for games these days: the "hood," as some call it, those clusters of urban decay that breed crime like a New York City slum breeds roaches and rats.
Hot on the heels of last year's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the recently released The Warriors, Crime Life is another trip into the never-ending fight to get out of the ghetto, or at least survive there. In this case, the man of the hour is Tre', a nobody thug out to find the safety in numbers that his area's gang can provide.
Even after he's in, however, there's a problem: the gangsters he's hooked up with, The Outlawz, are on the losing end of the war against the people around them, and it's not getting any better. Between rival gangs like K.Y.C. or Da Headhuntahz, corrupt local cops, and non-stop abuse from the rich folk who control the city, the sun's not going to shine in The Hood (literally — that's the main district, where the Outlawz call home) for a long, long time. And there you begin; much like CJ and the Orange Grove Families in Los Santos, he's got a lot of work to do, and it's going to come down on him.
Crime Life bears more than a passing resemblance to GTA:SA in design, as well: the city is open, with a variety of districts, buildings, and non-mission things to do. Beyond the ability to explore, though, things are kept restrictive, with missions that are designed in sequences to try and let you gradually ease into the city itself. Running out there like a complete idiot is a good way to wind up in the wrong territory, be it some other gang's turf or a rich yuppie's house. The affluent folk don't want you skulking about, and they've got the security to make sure you get the hint real fast. Each zone is smaller, and divided into smaller "sub-zones," with a gang controlling each (except for upper-class neighborhoods). The mission structure is very tightly weaved, and generally, finishing a mission will immediately give you the next one or tell you where to go to get it.
The maps are not nearly so claustrophobic as Narc's insanely tiny city, although it's snot exactly the sweeping 17 square miles that GTA:SA boasts either. There's a reason for this: Crime Life does not permit the use of vehicles. You're a gangbanger, not a carjacker, so everything you do is on foot. You'll have support crews from the beginning, though, and fellow Outlawz in your general vicinity will be more than happy to help you throw down and curb-stomp a few fools, if it becomes necessary. The smaller areas make it easier to traverse on foot, with enough landmarks, a good in-game map, and a subway system to connect everything together logically.
What Crime Life has that may push it ahead of the GTA clones is combat. Where CJ and Tommy must quickly acquire an arsenal of firearms to keep themselves alive in firefights, Tre's life is all about the fist fighting. From the very first segment, a brawl with a tattooed bruiser, everything will be decided by smashing the living crap out of it before it returns the favor. There's a simple combo system, an "Adrenaline" meter that enables special attacks like dashing head butts, roundhouse kicks, or flying tackles, a combo counter that slowly enables "Rage Mode" (Tre' moves faster, hits harder, and regenerates health over time), and most of all, Lethal Moves.
Beating a person to within an inch of his life leaves them wobbling (and a giant Y button over their heads to cue you) and wide open for a hit that'll leave Jack Thompson breathless. Heads get driven in, necks snapped, throats slit, and ribcages cracked (though notably — at least in the preview build — without blood) like something out of a pro wrestling match designed by Jason Vorhees.
Weapons are prevalent, and are all the sorts of things you'd expect to find in these environments. Tre' will throw traffic cones, boards, and boxes; or wield machetes, knives, tonfas (nightsticks, if you will), and 2x4s against masses of hooligans and a few cops now and again. These fights are huge sometimes — an early "take over this terrain" mission gets up to 20 men fighting at once with no slowdown — with competent AI on both sides. The camera is a bit of a pain to deal with, though, being far too slow to rotate and either too close or too far out with no vertical "angle" adjustment.
It's made clear early that you're very much outnumbered, and that fighting constantly is a good way to get walloped and left for dead. In areas where The Outlawz have no control, brawls will be you and anyone who came with you, often leaving Tre' horribly outnumbered and outgunned. If the cops get involved, it gets even worse. They have tear gas, riot guns, SWAT troops, pistols and shotguns, and huge numbers, so fighting them down is a good way to just make more trouble for yourself. Like a good little street rat, Tre' gets to learn when to run and when to hang around.
The preview build seems rough about the edges: the combo system is rather clunky, but the basic hits don't do enough damage to be reliable. One-on-one fights are horribly biased against the player, especially "signature" fights, where your opponent gets his own Special and Lethal moves, along with more energy than you do. I have issue with the camera's poor range of angles; the models are nothing to write home about. The music, something I usually find much fault with, is not dreadful, for once. While the basic looped music can get grating when you hear it too much, the disc ships with about a dozen rather good rap tracks by non-standard artists, particularly English and German acts that are generally unheard of in the United States. Support for the Xbox Playlists will certainly be applauded as well.
As it stands, Crime Life comes off as a simpler, more grounded take on Grand Theft Auto, without insane firepower, screaming car chases, or comic book hero characters. It works better than it sounds, and given a bit of love and polish, I'd at least take a look at it, especially if you enjoy fisticuffs over gun battles. On the consoles, it's much more approachable to punch than to shoot (one writer's opinion, mind you). On the other hand, it'll be interesting to see how Crime Life stacks up against Rockstar's more recent The Warriors, which seems to be doing the same thing on a much larger budget. Wait and see, and if throwing down with a gang of urban youths seems like a blast, try 'em both.
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