Jonathan Fingas On June 22, 2006 at 11:56 am

Any game that professes to be true to some aspect of real life, as True Crime: New York City does, has some high standards to meet. This is especially true for a game set in the Big Apple: many of us associate strong memories with the city, whether we’ve lived there our whole lives or only stopped by for a week on a family vacation. While no one would expect a computer game of today to be perfectly accurate, it’s fair to say that game developers should at least try to capture the essential spirit of the experience if they’re going to be truthful at all.

The results for this particular incarnation of the True Crime series are a mixed bag. Like the Streets of L.A. game that preceded it, the NYC game revolves around a morally ambiguous character (in this case, ex-gangster Marcus Reed) who has a chance to either develop a reputation as a paragon of virtue, or else to become a rogue cop who breaks the law as often as he enforces it. As you’d expect, this is frequently an effective game mechanic: it rewards careful players who avoid unnecessary force with extra points towards new equipment and skills, but also acknowledges that dirty tricks often make the job easier. There are many times when flashing your badge is better than drawing your gun. The ethics system even acknowledges that the best solution is often somewhere in between good and evil: if you’re in the middle of a heated gun battle, you won’t be punished if you kill threats outright. You also don’t have to worry if you ignore reports of a minor crime on the way to solving a larger one, as AI police officers will respond if they’re nearby.

However, it’s also in dealing with this system that you begin to see critical holes in the game design. There are far too many instances when the game controls and mechanics actively work against what the player is trying to accomplish. As an example, the same key command is used to both arrest people as well as grab them from behind. This sounds logical until you realize that the game won’t let you arrest escaping criminals without first punching or shooting them into submission, even if they’re unarmed; if this was how “true crime” was solved, most NYPD officers would face police brutality charges. You’re not safe from illogical game design in cars, either, as a combination of bad civilian AI and sloppy car physics virtually guarantees that you’ll lose ethical points through unavoidable collisions.

This situation isn’t helped by the overall interface. Though Aspyr clearly took care to adapt the game to the common PC user’s preference for the mouse and keyboard, the sheer number of task-specific commands requires that you frequently take your hand off the mouse. An analog gamepad is practically a necessity if you want to play the game as intended. Furthermore, many higher-level options are buried unnecessarily deep in the menu system. Even the simple act of quitting the game takes several steps. Many of these frustrations can be traced back to the original console game’s design rather than Aspyr’s skill at adapting the game to the PC, but that doesn’t make the game any less irritating.

More troubling is how quickly True Crime gives up on trying to remain complex, let alone realistic. Outside of the random side-missions, the main game quickly devolves into repetitive arcade-style play where you fight a steady progression of underlings until you reach a final boss. I don’t recall the last time a real New York City plain-clothes cop had to slay legions of bodyguards and dodge fireballs from ships on opera stages. Characters that initially appear deep in cutscenes are reduced to cardboard-cutout targets. Such gameplay isn’t just imitative, it’s forced; rather than try to make the game live up to the game’s title, Luxoflux chose the quick and easy route of overworn video game formulas to advance the plot.

True Crime is also horribly inconsistent in how it rewards the player for all that effort. While you’re undoubtedly rewarded for playing well, your rewards aren’t always useful. A new car is only relevant when you start at the precinct; you’re never punished for stealing – sorry, commandeering – someone else’s vehicle. Similarly, weapon purchases are often futile. You aren’t given access to the gun right away, and when you are it quickly runs out of ammo. It’s far easier to pick up enemies’ weapons as you progress through a given firefight.

At least the story presentation, as infrequent as it is, holds up to scrutiny. Most of the key cutscenes feature quality acting and good production values that keep you interested, even if that interest is quickly followed by disappointment. Avery Waddell deserves credit for voice acting that makes Marcus a believable character on the edge of the blue line, and it’s a pleasure to hear both Christopher Walken and Mickey Rourke as jaded detectives. There are gaps in the acting: a number of minor characters are nothing but overblown stereotypes of Hispanic drug lords, immigrant cab drivers, or Mafiosos. These walking clichés thankfully don’t remain on screen very long by themselves, but they come up often and detract significantly from the experience.

The game’s visual impact is at once a step up from its most obvious rival, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and yet also a step backwards that betrays the game’s console origins once more. True Crime’s environment is much more detailed than in San Andreas and has a more believable look than San Andreas’ cartoon-like style. New York City in True Crime is one of the more believable cities yet to be seen in a game. Anyone who’s been to the real-world New York will recognize the crosswalks, police booths, and subway entrances. Vehicles look less like flimsy toys and more like the several tons of metal they’re supposed to be, especially when they smash into each other (as they so often do in this game). People have more realistic features, making cutscenes less stilted and unnatural as a result.

What’s most dismaying is the lack of improvement in these graphics over the console version. All the sacrifices made to run the game smoothly on the PS2 and Xbox are still present, including painfully obvious draw distance limitations and blocky characters that, while better than in San Andreas, are considerably less detailed than what people expect from modern PC titles. Quite a few textures have a distracting shimmering effect. Additionally, there are still frame rate issues even on much faster hardware: entering some buildings triggers a noticeable frame rate drop. When Rockstar Games can increase draw distances and improve frame rates in its PC ports, Aspyr doesn’t have a reason for leaving the graphics largely unchanged. The potential was there to offer a truly good-looking game that set itself apart from other free-roaming games.

Failed potential seems to summarize True Crime: NYC all too well. It’s as though neither Aspyr nor Luxoflux thought the game held much promise to begin with, and didn’t want to invest the time needed to turn a half-realized concept into a thing of beauty. There are enjoyable moments in the game, but when the side-missions are more enjoyable than the action in the main storyline, you know there’s a serious problem. Even in the course of these missions you’ll encounter annoyances that could have been avoided during either development or the porting process. True Crime is only really true in the most superficial sense of the word: it understands basic concepts of policing and how to recreate the New York landscape, but digging deeper reveals an ultimately hollow experience.


There’s a great basic premise, but it’s drowned out by annoyances and rehashed ideas.


It’s more realistic than similar games, but it’s plagued by console limitations.


Some good main actors are counterbalanced by bad stereotypes and an otherwise average production.


What could have been a great game was marred by poor execution.

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