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True Crime

New York City

(Activision; US: Jul 2007)

Restraining Order

In game reviews, the phrase “comparing this game to Grand Theft Auto is inevitable” has become inevitable.


This review won’t be any different, indeed, comparing True Crime to GTA is inevitable. But, this inevitable comparison brings to light a number of interesting issues that these sorts of games—open ended driving games that allow you some sandbox freedom in determining what to do and how to act in your own little hard boiled universe—raise about games, ethics, and how we see right and wrong, order and freedom in games.


While True Crime bears a striking resemblance to the world of GTA—albeit on the “true” streets of Los Angeles, rather than Rockstar’s Liberty or Vice City—in that, if you desire, you can jack cars, shoot hookers, and cause other random acts of mayhem, its point of contrast is that in this game, you play on the side of angels, rather than play the libertine.


The game promises the sort of amoral sandbox world of GTA thug Tommy Vercetti, yet, unlike Tommy, suspended cop and now taskforce member of the E.O.D. (Elite Operations Division), Nick Kang, is a peace officer—albeit a “loose cannon” in an elite branch of law enforcement that allows for a bit more latitude in how the law gets enforced. Thus, while Kang jacks… errr… commandeers cars and causes a great deal of property damage, his actions are judged by a kind of karma meter—a gauge resembling a yin yang symbol in the lower right hand part of the screen that shows whether Kang is being naughty or nice.


Also, by contrast, but, perhaps related to this prior notion of amorality and its ensuing freedom is the fact that in the GTA series, following a brief bit of plot to give you a sense of what the missions and goals of the protagonist are and will be like, you are dumped into the world and can go about your own business—be that actually following the plot or hitting the streets to boost a hot set of wheels or roughing up old ladies with a golf club—or chainsaw. Yet, in True Crime you will find yourself immediately launched into a set of training missions and the beginning of a pretty, typical cop story, involving Chinese triads, Russian mafia, and the dark secrets of Kang’s deceased father (also a former LA cop), and it is only at the close of missions that you are allowed out into the sandbox of the LA streets to do whatever it is that you wish to do.


Criticisms of the console version of this game seem to have focused on this forced linearity and the frustrations of limited controls and limited options on how to accomplish missions. These are all features well-known to be the strengths of the GTA series and so the expectations of reviewers seem to be largely based on their experience with GTA. Reviews often can be boiled down to the idea that True Crime is like GTA but a knock off version with less freedom.


Indeed, a lack of freedom seems to be a major issue when you’re kept away from the sandbox initially and instead launched into training missions to learn how to make arrests, avoid lethal headshots, and are informed that if you kill civilians, you will be penalized with “bad karma.” When you are finally given your head and allowed a free roaming mode at the close of a chapter, the “rules” still apply—though you can use lethal force, but a penalty will apply. You can roam freely, but your police radio will keep you informed about crimes in the area that you can go solve, and, given the “rules” that you’ve grown accustomed to through linear gameplay and the general difficulty that it takes to arrest a criminal rather than gun him down in cold blood, you will tend to want to resolve those crimes and do so properly.


The game is frustrating. It is frustrating because following rules and laws are harder than playing how you want to. What True Crime seems to reveal is how difficult being good really is. Having countless options in the GTA-style game is rewarding in that it makes you think—although often the train of thought leads to thoughts like “How do I kill that mother fucker?” or “How do I get my money back from that bitch?”


I have a tendency, personally, to always start playing a GTA game quite conservatively. My choice is to avoid killing people if I don’t have to, to try not to run people over when I’m barreling down the street at 100 miles an hour. I find killing innocents and hookers alike equally appalling in my GTA.


Yet, I always find my moral fiber eroding as I grow accustomed to racing through the streets as a necessity to get where I need to go and finish my mission. After awhile, paying attention to (or maybe even valuing) human life in Liberty City simply becomes a hassle, and the expediency of doing it my way and the freedom that game allows turns me into a stone cold killer.


I had a very different experience with True Crime. All the encroaching “linearity” and the enforcement of rules made me do it the hard way. I stuck to my guns to keep my karma on the light side because it seemed “right” even if it was harder to get from point A to point B without killing 17 people.


Restraint in a lawless world is hard. Being lawful in a lawless world is hard, frustrating. Cops have to tangle with folks that have total freedom of action everyday, and they need to do it the hard way, the frustrating way—they have to follow the rules even though they get to carry a gun. It’s the very rigidity of the rules that can sometimes make a game more interesting, more challenging, and ultimately more right than wrong.

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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By Sean Trundle
9 Dec 2003
You can only listen to Kang shout 'It's Dim Sum time!' as he shoots up a Chinese gang so many times before you start to get uncomfortable.
31 Dec 1994
The game continues to remind you that being a good cop in such a rough and violent occupation is less than easy.
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