Release Date: November 22, 2005
The Opposite of Glorifying Violence
It's a sorry state of affairs when the simple mention of a game's setting is enough to trigger suspicions about its quality long before its release. It's not because you hold the story itself responsible for the game's problems, but rather because the setting is such a burned-through cliché that your first thought is, how is this game going to overcome my doubts?
A sad circumstance, yes, but an understandable one in light of games like Crime Life: Gang Wars. While it's often tempting to latch onto the guilty pleasures of games that make self-conscious attempts to offend or generate controversy, Gang Wars delivers only the tiniest of those pleasures -- guilty or otherwise -- that you might expect from a brawler that turns you loose in the streets to kill, vandalize and shoplift.
It comes as a surprise when you notice, slipped in among Gang Wars' back story details, a line about how your mission is actually supposed to have something to do with ridding Grand Central City of urban blight rather than just participating in it for fun. This is surprising because, as you play as Tre, fighting your way to a position of respect among the Outlawz, you don't feel particularly noble, not even in an ends-justifies-the-means kind of way. After proving yourself in a simple fight with a fellow Outlawz member to learn the controls, cantankerous barber Smally Biggs sends you on some head-busting missions to get a feel for Grand Central City. From then on, Gang Wars is a gangland odyssey reduced to a shapeless mass of simplistic combat scenarios as you run through the city trying to show rival gangs who's the boss.
The story's tone is among the first clues that Gang Wars may not be terribly well thought-out. With more than one gang name ending with a “z” and neighborhoods with names like Blingsley Hills, it hints at satire, or at least at an awareness that it's dealing in clichés instead of themes and stereotypes rather than archetypes. The mini-stories behind each mission are largely conceived without much imagination, though. Teach a rent-gouging slum lord a lesson by smashing up his house and cars. Vandalize some stores in rival gangs' ‘hoods. Earn enough cred to enter Conchita's fight club. That's the extent of the game's playfulness with its subject matter.
Tre's required tasks are usually straightforward or at least easy enough to figure out, though the circumstances and restrictions often make little sense in the bigger picture. When Smally Biggs asks you to put the scare into Granville the landlord, for example, killing him is off-limits. You can dust as many of his enforcers as you like, though, just to achieve the goal of frightening him into compliance with Smally's wishes. If you pay attention, you can spot a taxi slowing down briefly, then plowing through a pile of dead gangstas as if nothing's there. Semi-stealth missions make you keep an eye out for cops, but the limited perspective forces you to rely on a magical map to avoid the heat. That sort of curious logic persists throughout Gang Wars.
Text messaging is the device that guides you from one mission to the next, even reminding you to visit Fat D's for some health-replenishing burgers and fries when you're hurting. While the mission details vary superficially, from fighting to claim turf for the Outlawz and repel Headhunterz incursions to organized fights in which you can bet on yourself to finish in 60 seconds or win a perfect victory, the details of what you're actually doing stay much the same as you progress through Gang Wars. That is to say, it's a whole lot of unskilled, undemanding combat.
The battle animations change up depending on which weapon you've snatched off the body of a fallen enemy, but the fighting itself amounts to endless strings of light, heavy and special attacks. The biggest challenge is mustering the patience to wait for your adrenaline meter to fill sufficiently to pull off the more powerful brutal moves. Finishing moves are an OK touch, but like many other games that condescend to players by not relying on more subtle visual cues, Gang Wars indicates stunned enemies with an obvious overhead icon, ruining whatever thrill might have been had by realizing you've pummeled a rival street soldier into a vulnerable enough state that you can knock his feet out from under him with a club and finish him with several knocks to the head.
Some more practical rewards await, when you win a fight or finish a mission, in the form of cash and new moves, though you can also just beat some change out of parking meters and pay phones. What should be among the biggest perks of progressing through Gang Wars' story -- but in practice is the game's major disappointment -- is the crew you get to order around as you prove that you're worthy of their obedience. The potential evaporates after the first glimmer of hope that something more exciting might happen now that it's not just you and Darryl. You can issue basic commands like assist and regroup, but in most of the run-of-the-mill combat, your orders make little difference in whether or not your crew wins the fight. The crewing up mechanic doesn't feel like it's letting you lead your own mini-army to right the wrongs of rival gangs. It just means that there are a few more guys wearing Outlawz colors following you through the streets.
Grand Central City's neighborhoods sport some scenery that, while not detailed or particularly immersive, at least offers some environmental variation if you hang on long enough to check out the rest of the city. The dead grass and barrel fires of the ‘hood give way to manicured lawns and wooded parks in more affluent environs. Even the visuals, however, seem incompletely conceived, with the rich folk of Blingsley Hills living in boxy mansions that look less impressive than the Outlawz crib. The flash effect that accompanies every death blow feels gratuitous, as if it's trying to inspire some delight in your bloody accomplishments that the action itself doesn't earn.
It's difficult to judge the voice acting given that attempts at characterization are entirely absent from Gang Wars, and given what a tough job the writing sets up for the actors. Lines like “Let's do this right here and right now” and “I'm gonna tear you up, dog” fill the script, alongside other semi-self conscious gestures like the health meter that uses measurements like “Never felt better” and “Ah! It's nothing.” The soundtrack doesn't contribute to the sense of tedium turning to depression that accompanies progress through the game, but neither is it up to the task of elevating the experience as a whole.
Taking the Life Out of Gang Life
If the game's tone makes it seem that it's confused about its own approach to its gangsta subject matter, Crime Life: Gang Wars manages to clarify one point: Whether you're supposed to chuckle at the writing or take Tre's quest at earnest face value, either way, it's not too much fun to play. With the simplistic, repetitive missions and a story that frequently assaults even the least-demanding ideas of what makes sense, Gang Wars is just one more unfortunate reason to be wary the next time you approach a game that uses street justice as an excuse for some thin, ill-conceived action.
More articles about Crime Life: Gang Wars