There's no getting away from it. Yes, the new True Crime game looks a bit like Grand Theft Auto. But the old True Crime games were a bit like Grand Theft Auto, so that comes as no surprise. More intriguing is the longer list of titles from which this new instalment in the series has taken its cues. Burnout, Batman, Ghost Recon, Need for Speed, Mirror's Edge, Assassin's Creed, Ratchet & Clank, Bejeweled... All of these games are referred to during the course of our 45 minute demo, and only the last one as a joke.
Then again, the variety of influences comes as no surprise when you consider the pedigree of the development studio. United Front was established two-and-a-half years ago but most of its employees have been around for a lot longer than that. They came from the likes of EA Black Box, Radical and Rockstar, having worked on games such as Skate, Bully and Prototype. Two of them, producers Stephen Van der Mescht and Jeff O'Connell, have come to the Game Developers Conference to show off True Crime.
They begin by explaining the thinking behind the subtitleless game name. "We're looking at this the same way JJ Abrams handled Star Trek," says Van der Mescht. "It's a reboot of the franchise. We're going back to the beginning, taking it back to ground level and building it up from there."
This philosophy was key to deciding the game would be set in Hong Kong, he explains. "This is going to be the first open-world action game set in an Asian setting. Obviously there's Yakuza, but that's markedly different in terms of a gameplay experience. Hong Kong made perfect sense for us because the fact it was under British rule for so long means there's a nice fusion of East meets West."
That fusion even appears to extend to the main character, Wei Shen - an undercover cop who speaks with a perfect American accent, and who looks almost as Caucasian as he does Asian. Today's gameplay demo opens with a cut-scene where Wei Shen is talking to Winston, a local Triad boss.
Winston is not very happy, as you can tell by the way he keeps screaming things like "Dog Eyes tried to shoot my f***ing mom" and "What the f***? Bring the f***ing guns right now". He tells Wei to head down to the local heroin packing plant and shut it down, as revenge for the attack on his f***ing mom. The most efficient way to do this, of course, will be to shoot everyone in the face, but Wei must keep one particular chap alive if he is to avoid incurring the wrath of a more powerful Triad.
Off we go to the heroin plant, then, courtesy of a hijacked car which swerves and screeches through the city streets. There are four neighbourhoods in this open-world and the one we're currently in is called North Point, as is a real-life area of Hong Kong. However, O'Connell says, it's modelled more on Kowloon. "Our game is not geomapped to the real Hong Kong. It uses the same districts and general layout, but it's all built for gameplay," he explains.
"It's been important for us to capture the essence of Hong Kong," Van der Mescht chimes in. "We have not focused on faithfully recreating every street and landmark, we've looked at it more from the perspective of capturing the feeling of being there. Which means taking iconic landmarks and staying true to the neighbourhoods in terms of the ones that actually exist, but putting this all together to maximise gameplay."
North Point couldn't be mistaken for a neighbourhood in your typical open-world American city. The neon signs lining the streets feature Cantonese characters, while strings of red Chinese lanterns hang in the alleyways. This is a brightly coloured rather than grey urban environment, painted with a pallette of rich reds, golds and greens.
Wei zooms down major highways and zips through back alleys with the carefree abandon only a man whose name is not on the insurance can enjoy. The style of the driving model is clearly closer to arcade than simulation. "There are a lot of guys on the team from Need for Speed," confirms O'Connell, mentioning Burnout as another influence.
Wei pulls up outside the heroin plant and gets out of the car. He quickly dispatches a bloke standing guard outside the entrance, throwing him to the ground then chucking him in a nearby dumpster. There are more enemies waiting inside, and Wei makes good use of them to demonstrate his wide range of kicks, throws and punches. He also shows off some environmental kills, slamming one man's head in a freezer door and throwing another one into some kind of electrical grid.
Icons such as exclamation marks and Y button symbols appear over enemies' heads during fights, and we're told this is to indicate the fact that Wei has an opportunity to counter attack. Van der Mescht agrees that it's a similar system to the one featured in Arkham Asylum. However, he says, United Front had the idea before that game was released, and the real inspiration for the fighting mechanics came from Hong Kong cinema.
"We wanted to create a combat system that had a lot more depth and was a lot more robust than anything that exists out there in the open-world genre. You have a number of offensive and defensive capabilities, there are combo chains, there's a counter system. We've really brought the environment into play as much as possible and that's pervasive throughout the world. There's a huge range of stuff you can do."
Such as pick up a meat cleaver and thunk it into a man's chest, as is being demonstrated now. ("Cleavers are the weapon of choice for actual Triads in Hong Kong," says O'Connell.) Or grab a pistol, pop out from cover and shoot an oil barrel to generate a giant ball of flame. And then vault over a bench and up a stack of crates, guns blazing all the while.
This is accomplished thanks to True Crime's free running system. Approach an applicable object (as indicated by orange highlights) while pressing A and Wei will perform a fluid vault, climbing move or wall run, depending on the context. Get the timing wrong and he'll slam up against the object in a crumpled mess, and worst of all, he'll lose face.
The face meter, as it's called, is cited as one of the main elements which differentiates True Crime from other open-world games. According to O'Connell, "Face is a term used in China, especially in Hong Kong, which means the outward projection of your social standing through your wealth. It could be the clothes you wear or the car you drive." In the context of this game, you fill up your face meter by doing things like performing smooth free running moves or pulling off successful environmental kills.
The advantage of having good face is that people in the world react to you differently. It can scare off would-be attackers, for example. Certain characters will only give you information or offer you side missions when you've earned enough face to match the level they're at. However, you can pretty much ignore the system if you prefer - "The story has a linear progression and if you want to power through it, that option's there for you," confirms O'Connell.
But let's get back to that free running system. Has United Front taken any inspiration from the likes of Assassin's Creed and Mirror's Edge? "Lots," says Van der Mescht. "But our free running has been way more inspired by realistic scenarios, as opposed to running along rooftops or jumping from beam to beam."
In the scenario we're being shown today, Wei has located the bloke he needs to keep alive. He grabs him by the scruff of the neck and marches him through the warehouse, using his other hand to shoot at anyone who gets in the way. Once outside the bloke slips from Wei's grasp and makes a break for it in his own hijacked car. Our hero gives chase on - wait for it - a motorbike.
"We spent a lot of time on the motorbike as one of the principle vehicles for getting around, just because it's that much easier to navigate around the city and it's a lot of fun," says Van der Mescht. "We brought the same kind of philosophy for the on-foot experience to the vehicle experience, so it's all about action. For example you can jump off the back of the bike right onto a car and comandeer it. Or you can jump off, pull out your gun while in mid-air and shoot the bike to make it explode - using it as a weapon, if you will."
But there's no time for that now. Wei's path is blocked by a police blockade - a long row of cars parked right across the road. He fires a hail of bullets and the cars explode in yet another giant ball of flame. True Crime is clearly taking cues from blockbuster action movies, but as Van der Mescht explains, not the same ones which inspired the first games.
"One of the watchwords for us through this entire experience has been authenticity," he says. "The first two True Crime games were a little more cartoony, a little more campy - they were more based on movies like Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour. Our influences have been movies like Infernal Affairs and the American remake, The Departed. So tonally, I think there's a massive shift in terms of what happened before and where this game is going."
Unlike Wei, the previous games failed to set the world alight - so what did United Front decide needed fixing in order to make this one a success? "You know, I don't really like to think of it as what needs to be fixed - more, 'Where can we take this?'" says Van der Mescht.
"I like to think of this game as being almost like a Robert Altman movie. There's an ensemble cast and everyone has their stories, and they interweave. That's kind of the way we've approached the open-world genre. You can have the best action mechanics in the world, but if the world is not alive, if you can't engage with it - you're dead right then."
Speaking of the open-world genre... No one in the room has mentioned the words Grand, Theft or Auto so far, but the comparison is inevitable. So how do Van der Mescht and O'Connell reckon this game stands up? Does True Crime have the potential to be a better game than GTA?
"I'm not going to say anything about whether it's going to be better or worse," says Van der Mescht. "We're going to do the best job we can, with the experience we have and the people we have, and we're going to put something out which I think we're going to be extremely proud of, and which is going to do really well.
"To answer the question more directly, everything we've done has been born from differentiation. Of course we're looking at GTA - that's the first place we look when we're differentiating. That's why we've gravitated towards spending a lot of time on the on-foot stuff, on a much deeper combat system, on creating a martial arts feel and integrating those pieces together."
And those elements aren't the only things which set True Crime apart, according to Van der Mescht. "The Hong Kong setting has not been used before, so that's something fresh and unique. From a thematic standpoint, going for the undercover cop angle - that's in distinct contrast to what you see in GTA or Saints Row.
"Every part of what we've done has been strategic in nature, to end up with something which is clearly differentiated," he continues. "Whether it's better or not, we'll leave that up to people to decide, but at the very least it will be competitive."
As so extensively discussed, GTA is by no means the only inspiration for True Crime. From Batman to Burnout, Ghost Recon to Ratchet & Clank, Robert Altman to Andrew Lau, there's a host of influences at work here. Then there's the extensive and varied experience of the team working on the game to consider. The question is whether all these elements will come together to engineer a series reboot as significant as United Front is promising. And never mind GTA, will it be as good as Bejeweled?
True Crime is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in the autumn of 2010.