[10 December 2003]
It would be impossible to write an honest review of True Crime: Streets of LA without the obvious comparisons to Grand Theft Auto, so I’m not even going to try. In True Crime, Luxoflux has attempted to emulate every ‘80s cop movie in the same way that Grand Theft Auto attempts to capture every mob movie you’ve ever seen. Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Tango and Cash—they’re all here. Unfortunately, True Crime falls short. While there are any number of technical factors that detract from the game (awkward controls and clunky cars to name only two), its true shortcomings are inherent in the design.
First, the “in-depth engaging story” simply doesn’t work with this genre. The beauty of Grand Theft Auto was in open-ended activity within the carefully constructed city. While True Crime does set aside some space for that style of play in the game, it is overshadowed by the consistent story elements. Even within the exploration sections, you are constantly harassed with tasks to complete. The missions themselves are trite, repetitive, and uninteresting. Shoot these guys, chase those guys, fight this stripper, repeat. Where Grand Theft Auto felt like freedom, True Crime feels like a job.
This ties into the second flaw—they’ve made our protagonist, Nick Kang, a cop. In doing so, they’ve lowered the walls of cultural protection a bit; it feels okay to watch a criminal beat up a random citizen, because he’s a criminal. The first draft of this review started out with “This game could be a little more racist, had it been developed by KKK Studios.” The truth is, however, that Grand Theft Auto relies on all the same stereotypes and caricatures, but watching inter-gang violence and playing a racist cop are two whole different ball games. Luxoflux tries to buffer this by making the police force a multicultural buffet (Kang is Asian-American, his partner Hispanic, and his commanding officer African-American), but you can only listen to our “hero” shout “It’s Dim Sum time!” as he shoots up a Chinese gang so many times before you start to get uncomfortable.
One might be inclined to chalk something like this up to simply “being how it is” or to “realism,” and dismiss it (or even applaud it, for representing a “true” LA cop). However, while gamers will occasionally debate the merits of realism, it is certainly not a requisite to a good game and occasionally a detriment to one. And if Luxoflux’s primary concern was realism, they might have started by making bullets which move at a reasonable speed or a police officer who doesn’t have to take lessons at a dojo before he figures out how to kick someone on the ground. The designers chose what to include as “real,” and what not to. Not that this is to advocate representing a fantasy world where everyone’s nice and criminals can be converted with a hug, but one can question the ethics of how they chose to portray Kang.
Of course, Luxoflux might claim that they weren’t trying to present Kang as a hero. With the game’s “Good Cop/Bad Cop” system, you’re not stuck doing things by the book. If a suspect is proving too difficult to arrest, you can whip out your pistols and handle him the old fashioned way. Your karma will take a hit, but the game will proceed. This makes True Crime the ultimate buddy story, in a twisted way—you can be both Murtaugh and Riggs at different points in the story. Presenting us with this choice, they can wipe their hands of it and say Kang is who we make him; if we want a boy scout, we can certainly have one. Sadly, this theory falls flat in practice—no matter how high your Good Cop rating goes, Kang will still interact with his female partner as a misogynist jerk.
The soundtrack, touted as a tribute to west coast hip hop, varies between being faithfully that and just completely random. It doesn’t take a connoisseur of rap to tell you immediately that Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction” just doesn’t fit. To be fair, the artists highlighted on the game’s webpage certainly seem to fit with that intention, and the majority of the soundtrack lives up to it. There’s plenty of Snoop Dogg and a bit of Coolio to satisfy your appetite, if that’s what you’re after. Perhaps they were just stretching to fill in some gaps and figured any power anthem would do in a pinch.
Really, though, True Crime‘s biggest failing is simply that it’s not a masterpiece, but it has to live in the shadow of one. People will overlook the racism and misogyny of Gone with the Wind, because, well, it’s Gone with the Wind. This game, however, has little hope of achieving such a status as it pales next to the champions of its genre. It fails to do anything spectacular, and, as a result, all of its flaws shine through clearly. True Crime cannot hide behind the all-concealing veil of “entertainment,” because it simply doesn’t have enough.