Crime and punishment.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it's also really, really weak. And you won't find much more rampant imitation than in video games, where one year's Warcraft is another year's Armies of Exigo.
So welcome to True Crime: New York City, this year's version of GTA, which is also the follow up to True Crime: Streets of L.A., 2003's version of GTA. But unlike its predecessor, New York City is so far removed from Liberty City, Vice City, San Andreas and L.A., it might as well be on another continent. Playing it is like biting into a delicious cannoli only to discover that what you've bitten is actually a canary - a live, pissed-off, rabid canary with an inexplicably unstable framerate.
You play as Marcus Reed, a tough street cop looking to avenge the killing of his mentor. As Marcus rises up the ranks of the police force, he takes on the crime bosses of a fully-rendered Manhattan, eventually uncovering a giant conspiracy. It's an unbelievable story, just as Marcus is an unbelievable character. In the first scene of the game, you gun down twenty people just to get a slap on the wrist from your detective friend. This derivative tale tries to be gritty, absurd, serious and nutty all at the same time. The only thing it doesn't try to do is suck, but ironically, that's all it manages.
As you pursue your mentor's killer, you're often faced with difficult ethical choices. In turn, you gain either good cop or bad cop points. Good cop points help Marcus get higher ranks, bigger guns, and faster cars, while bad cop points knock Marcus down ranks, netting lower pay and a smaller Christmas bonus. Accidentally shot a fellow officer in the head? -20 bad cop points. If that happens a few more times you might get busted down to Sergeant. Perfectly fitting, since you just offed the Sergeant.
The rewards and penalties for the ethical decisions are too light, and really just amount to giving you the choice of whether to snap some punk's neck or merely arrest him. We applaud the underdevelopment, if booing and hissing counts as applause.
The core gameplay involves completing various missions related to the plot, performing a number of side-missions (underground fighting and racing rings) that do not progress the story, and making perfunctory busts of petty crime to rise in ranks. This is where True Crime does its best imitation of GTA, allowing you to play through the story, compete in the underground rings, or clean up the streets district by district. Most of the plot-related missions lack variety, mainly taking place in buildings where you shoot your way through droves of bad guys until you reach the boss. For a game which boasts both driving and on-foot modes of play, the almost exclusive reliance upon footwork in the actual missions is puzzling.
This pedestrian bias becomes easier to understand once you realize that the unplayable driving mechanic is much worse than the merely passable running and shooting. The cars are abominably sluggish. Accidentally nudging another car when you've finally got your speed up to thirty whacks you back to zero. Barely grazing a neighboring car will cause it to go into a spontaneous spin, like a break dancer having an epileptic fit.
When you're not driving, you slowly lope through the city of New York shooting things, frisking pedestrians, and performing martial arts. You're supposed to be a cop, but you feel like an aggro New York lunatic on a violence jag.
Martial arts can be purchased from Dojos, and in the heat of battle you can, but won't, switch between various "styles" of fighting. Some styles have neat reversals, while others feature more vicious finishing moves. But like moving and driving, hand-to-hand combat takes place at underwater speed and the few combos are rarely needed. Once you've learned how to punch your enemies in the kidney, you won't need to do much else.
Learning how to do any of the deeper moves, combos, or vehicle "skills" in the game is impossibly complex. I count fourteen buttons on the Xbox and PS2 controllers, including the D-pad. True Crime: New York City uses every single one of them, usually in more than three or four capacities depending on whether you are driving, walking, have a criminal in a headlock, are interrogating a suspect, are in your Thai boxing stance or are holding a gun. This mind-boggling set up (e.g. there are separate buttons for jump and climb) really makes you work at memorizing button schemes and adds just another cleat to the stomp on the face that is playing this game.
However, not everything is perfectly awful. The shooting mechanic is actually an improvement upon GTA's flawed lock-on. While locking on to targets can still be performed with the L-button, an ever-present targeting reticule allows for free-aiming, and a click of the R3 button (did I say fourteen buttons? I meant sixteen!) zooms into "precision aim" mode, a kind of sniping bullet-time.
It's too bad there's no "better graphics" button. The framerate is choppier than a gang of lumberjacks eating at Benihana. Frequently, the heads-up display will polarize, the street lamps will begin to drive with your car, and giant license plates reading "THUG4VR" will obstruct your view. These aren't just glitches, they're game-nullifying dino-bugs.
And they've been breeding. One of my favorites occurred when I had shot several motorcyclists off their bikes from my perch atop a racing limo, yet the ghostly bikes continued to pursue, even making perfect turns around sharp corners. Now that's some clever A.I.
All three console versions are virtually identical, although the Xbox version has a different ending. While the other two versions have you finish the game victoriously, the Xbox version ends with you struggling with a Chinese gangster atop a crate in a warehouse. Because of a fatal glitch, perhaps the mother of them all, you will not be able to throw the gangster off the crate, as instructed, and will continue wrestling for eternity like an O.G. Sisyphus.
At least Activision didn't waste time making New York look good. The perfectly flat streets make driving tedious, and the pedestrians' expletive-filled language is neither believable nor funny. Weather effects such as rain and darkness are artistic in their surreal portrayal of…rain and darkness. As you watch the jagged, pixilated"rain" or the moon that looks as if it were stolen from the junior high drama club, you can't help but admire the designer's defamiliarization techniques. Until, that is, you have a seizure.
The cut-scene voice work and the soundtrack are lonely in their decency. Redman does an okay job with the lead role, and Christopher Walken performs flawlessly. The songs are a good mix of hip-hop and indie tracks, making the audio the sole lone bright spot in this abysmal failure.
True Crime: New York City replicates the over-the-top violence and goofy sexuality of GTA, but trashes that series' friendly interface, gorgeous environment, and dependable physics. If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that what made GTA so enjoyable weren't the mature themes, but the execution. Come to think of it, an execution isn't a bad idea.