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True Crime: New York City

Platform(s): GameCube, PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Luxoflux
Release Date: Nov. 15, 2005

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Xbox Review - 'True Crime: New York City'

by Hugh McHarg on Dec. 24, 2005 @ 12:01 a.m. PST

True Crime: New York City will follow another policeman through the meticulously re-created streets of a real-life metropolitan area. However, instead of the wisecracking LAPD detective Nick Kang, gamers will now play as Marcus Reed, a former gang member turned NYPD officer. <br><br>In the game, players take on the role of former gang member turned cop Marcus Reed as they fight crime on the GPS-accurate streets of Manhattan, complete with subways, hundreds of interiors, internationally recognized landmarks and real neighborhoods from Harlem to Chinatown to Times Square. Players will navigate the city the way New Yorkers do, by taking cabs, riding subways, walking and driving cars and motorcycles.

Genre: Action / Exploration
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Luxoflux
Release Date: November 15, 2005

Familiarity Breeds Contentment

Games that succeed entirely on execution rather than innovation offer a useful sort of low-pressure pleasure that's as comfortable as it is easy to overlook. They don't demand much of a learning curve, as you've already encountered and mastered the basic gameplay mechanics, and they extend the experience of similar games that leave you wanting more, albeit with a likely change of setting.

Mercenaries was one of those, planting Grand Theft Auto on the Korean Peninsula and replacing crime syndicates with warring factions of American, Chinese and Korean soldiers. Destroy All Humans! was another similar title that, while short and easy, was a worthwhile, sometimes funny diversion that filled in the days between more hype-heavy releases.

That's the kind of game True Crime: New York City, successor to 2003's True Crime: Streets of LA, should be: a variation on a familiar theme that gets by on implementation, maybe a tweak or two to the formula, and solid production values. NYC's basic shooting action and ridiculous plot twists flirt around the edges of entertaining in a GTA-in-New York mold, but startlingly ragged production values bleed potential at every turn. Block-by-block rendering of Manhattan or not, even the quaint farmlands of Destroy All Humans! deliver more exciting criminal thrills than this halfhearted adventure in the big city.

Soft on Crime

No stranger to trouble with the law, Marcus Reed's story entertains with convolution if not originality. Relying on the benevolence of his guardian angel on the New York police force, Marcus dusts the man responsible for an attempt on his father's life. His pops, a crime boss running an empire from inside the big house, is tight with the detective - Terry, also Marcus' godfather - who cleans up Marcus' messes. Five years on, Marcus is himself a man in blue just about to get promoted to Detective 5th Grade. He's also up for a spot in the Organized Crime Unit, but when Terry's lost in a so-called accidental natural gas explosion, Marcus is left on his own to uncover moles, take down a handful of major crime bosses and figure out whether his is the path of the good cop or the bad. All that, and Christopher Walken, too.

If you've brushed against a post-Grand Theft Auto III GTA title on the shelves, you know the basic gameplay structure. Several contacts around the city - a Fed, your dad, a madame, crime bosses, a street-racing queen - offer missions that, between solving random street crimes and shaking down restaurateurs, help you earn cash and career rank. Whenever it strikes you, you can take a break from the Big Apple's distractions and work on the major cases to drive the story along.

As it's the production values, presentation and mechanics - not the gameplay retread - that really doom True Crime: New York City, it's useful to begin there. The first thing you notice is the big-name voice talent issuing your marching orders. TV's Mariska Hargitay voices the commander who's always ready with a smart quip if you show up in her office with a new leather suit or blond mullet. Christopher Walken plays the shady FBI guy leading you around by the nose, while Laurence Fishburne, Esai Morales, Traci Lords and others round out the cast with performances drifting from archly comic to bloodstain serious and back.

Don't let that burst of star power, however, fool you into thinking you're in for a polished production that puts a fresh shine on the basic shoot-drive-explore gameplay rhythm. Beyond the voice actors and soundtrack - plump with classics and recent hits from notables Sonic Youth, Sugar Hill Gang, Ramones, Interpol and many others - the audiovisual presentation of True Crime: New York City is aggressively substandard.

Hunting down music stores to buy new tunes is, in fact, one of the better reasons to explore the city, offering a greater reward than the crusty graphical treatment that mars every Manhattan neighborhood. The architecture does differ appropriately from 'hood to 'hood, with the cleaner, more stately facades of the Upper East Side contrasting with the desolate corners and crumbling tenements of Washington Heights.

Look carefully, though, and you find dumpsters that look like they're covered with tarps painted with blurry garbage shapes and blood spatters that extend beyond walls' edges. Vehicles have an issued-by-totalitarian-regime sameness about them, and whatever dramatic impact that might be squeezed out of the setting itself is lost to skyscraper draw-in and jagged shadows smudged across the streets. The city comes to life a bit after dark with some neon, street lights and lit windows that add depth to the otherwise flat buildings, but not to the degree you'd expect in a game that's so boastful of its true-to-life treatment of its real-world counterpart.

Punks, prostitutes, guys in flannel and rock-and-roll dandies populate the streets with a convincing-enough density, though slow down long enough to check them out and you're likely to find 10 guys wearing the same checkered jacket in the space of two blocks. Homeless men and psych-ward inmates share a tendency to yell, "Feets don't fail me now!" and, in fact, broad ethnic stereotypes and a high per-utterance profanity ratio seem to drive the voice acting and writing more than anything else. The most satisfying interaction you can expect from this crowd is when a lucky shotgun blast separates a baddie from his leg, or when you crash head on into an oncoming car and launch its driver through the windshield.

Under this scabby surface, you find the control mechanics and technical failings that nail True Crime: New York City's coffin tight. Good cop or bad, Marcus needs to chase down perps. For being in better shape than most of his enemies, he moves awfully slowly, and actually pulling off a tackle requires supernatural precision. Targeting works in situations with only a couple of enemies, but put more than two in the same room - or worse yet, one around the corner and one within arm's reach - and you can't count on automatically targeting the one that poses the most immediate threat.

Between indoor segments that have you hopping laser sensors in museums and smashing bottles over the heads of arms-dealing goths, an insultingly unstable framerate puts the brakes on the driving action. Take a corner, scrape another car, jog slightly to the left - that's all it takes to start the chugging. As plenty of mandatory timed missions require racing to spots many blocks away, this problem asserts itself beyond all hope of tolerance.

Yes, that's a load of troubles, but the real tragedy of True Crime: New York City is that the gameplay and story could have had a shot at used-bin acceptability. The city holds plenty to do in your cop life; street racing, fight clubs, random street crime and other incidental violent episodes fill in the gaps; and an overwrought story manages to entertain despite wild fluctuations in tone.

When you're not brawling your way out of an asylum with the help of savant mumbler Zeke (who knows the security codes) or machine-gunning your way through an opera house shootout (with a cartel queenpin using stage pyrotechnics against you), petty disputes and thieves keep you busy. Some of the minor incidents share the comic tone of the more ridiculous moments, with angry vegetarians busting up a restaurant, for example, because they found some meat in their food. Among those, however, you also find serial rapists and domestic violence that feel more in keeping with the game's earnest, bloody introduction than the wacky shootouts that come later.

Of course, some of the true crime in New York City is of your own doing. A morality system assigns good-cop points for resolving crimes without excessive violence, and bad-cop points for killing innocents. The good cop-bad cop system itself also provides some comedy, though perhaps unintentionally. You can participate in a prolonged three-cops-on-one-perp beating, and just so long as you don't shoot the guy, you still get good-cop points when you put on the cuffs.

Your dad has some enforcer missions for you, and you can extort shop owners on your own, alternately abusing and persuading pharmacy clerks and deli proprietors to get some easy protection money. When that loses its charm, you've got a stock of evidence to plant on anyone you deem deserving. As you collect packets of drugs and other crime scene evidence, you can either hand it over to the evidence room or sell it on the street.

Too much bad-cop mischief, though, and your Rogue Meter hits the red zone, and you risk getting busted. Mariska Hargitay persuades the DA to drop the charges, but you have to make a few arrests using strictly good-cop methods to earn back your rank, which you need if you want the skills, (vastly overpowered ) weapons, and custom SUVs that come with increasing your detective grade.

Special Victims Unit

If that all sounds like an unimaginative but potentially fun variation on free-roaming conventions, that's what True Crime: New York City could have been. A convincing attempt at tuning the presentation and fixing the most bothersome of the technical issues would have come close. As it is, no amount of racing through Times Square, cruising strip clubs, or laughing along with nutty narrative conceits eases the bruising frustration of the moment-to-moment True Crime: New York City experience.

Score: 5.2/10


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