After the years of hype and promises, it felt slightly odd when The Getaway preview disc arrived in the Eurogamer office. There it was, unheralded, vanilla, no armed heavies escorting us to a guarded smoke filled room to play it under cover of darkness. No 'Non Disclosure' documents, not even a manual; just a grey disc and our preconceptions to go on.
And there's been a lorry load of preconceptions. The Getaway has come under the most intense scrutiny, ill will, rumour mongering and general sniping ever since those screenshots appeared a couple of years back. To its credit Sony's Team Soho has battled on, and finally after all these years has delivered. But is it any good?
Get your A to Z out
The first thing Eurogamer wanted to know was just how well London had been recreated. Allegedly 40 square kilometres of England's filthy capital, so the blurb goes, and the Free Roaming mode allows you to do just that. Starting off parked outside Sony UK's Great Marlborough street offices in the heart of seedy Soho, you can set off for a drive, and very quickly it's apparent that The Getaway is an astonishing technical achievement at the very least. Anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of London won't have any trouble recognising the city's famous landmarks. And even if you don't, grab yourself a London A to Z and plan your route in advance…
Take a left and a quick right from Sony's HQ and you're immediately aware you're on Oxford Street, complete with all the shop fronts. Oh look, there's Burger King, Virgin Megastore, Centre Point….take a right - there's Border's, Les Miserable…and for seemingly hours you're playing the compelled tourist, just taking in the sights, swapping cars, even driving Buses. This is the future, and it's a stunning feeling to be part of it.
If you're not too familiar with London then all this won't mean as much, but it's still a richly detailed, interesting, and frankly huge play area where you'll get to know the city in a way you just can't do in real life. Yesterday we had to drive around London for real, and it was, obviously, impossible to go anywhere at more than about five miles an hour, but it was quite a freaky sensation after spending fourteen hours doing the same thing in a game.
But London was never this easy to get around…
Clearly there is a fair amount of artistic license. For a start the traffic is relatively light to allow you to actually drive, while you don't get cars parked on both sides of the road. It's a London that clearly has never existed, but we won't get too hung up on it - for the purposes of the game there's enough traffic to make it feel convincing, without ever forcing you into a joypad hurling fit of road rage.
As you'll have seen, all the cars are everyday real life models, although Sony's been restricted to a select few manufacturers. For the most part you'll get by in a Lexus IS200, TVR Cereba, Saab 900, or Nissan Micra, but you can also nick a black cab, a Police Vectra or a Bus (which oddly switches to a dashboard view). It's disappointing that after going to all the lengths of modelling London that Sony didn't populate it with a more varied selection of cars, but it's doesn't detract too much. The handling has, thankfully, been sorted out since its initial E3 airing, and is a satisfyingly realistic and much heavier than the wild antics of GTA.
Clearly with so much driving, you're going to be getting into all sorts of scrapes, and thankfully the damage modelling is very good. Early scrapes and knocks won't affect you too much, but have a major prang and you'll find the car veering to the right, or its engine performance steadily being impaired. You'll even hear the engine begin to strain, and when the rozzers are on your back, you'll most likely have your tyres shot out (which is accompanied by an alarming bang sound). Try to drive on in this state, and before long you're driving on metal, with sparks shooting out. Bullet holes will also affect your car, with windscreens regularly being shot out by your foes. Once you start to choke on the smoke, it may be a good idea to get out before the thing catches fire. But as with GTA 3, there are always plenty of passing cars to nick, and The Getaway works in a similar vein.
London welcomes careful drivers
But carnage is not the only way: the game rewards careful drivers, and if you're prepared to patiently observe one way systems, traffic signals, and not crash into anything, you'll be able to get around without too much incident. Flagrantly ignore the law, and the coppers will be all over you like a rash, and they're not afraid to shoot, set up road blocks, tyre shredders and the like wherever you turn. You'd think that every street had a Police station on it the way the fuzz reacts in The Getaway. Sometime it pays to be calm, take in the sights.
Sadly it's not just the Police who want your blood. The Free Roaming mode also lets you get a taste of gang warfare, and you'll find yourself being randomly attacked by Triad and Yardie mobs, who are only too happy to point a machine gun at you in some drive by shooting action, and then chase you to the end of the Earth. The many pedestrians don't have much backbone though, merely fleeing at the sight of you, which rather spoils the fun of random acts of violence.
He's nicked my son and killed my wife!
So, with a general appreciation of the driving mechanics, the City layout and enemy behaviour you'll be ready for some mission based action. The Getaway wants to be a film, and so you get some of the grittiest, foul mouth animated cut scenes ever attempted to introduce every mission. In a nut shell, the evil East End gang leader Charlie Jolson has captured Mark Hammond's kid, and killed his wife. Hammond wants his kid back, but Jolson wants him to do some seriously dirty work, which inevitably involves killing lots of people, in increasingly violent and vile situations.
Thus The Getaway is part fun driving capers from A to B, mixed with indoor killing fests. With all the pre release focus mainly directed at the driving aspect, it's pleasing to discover that it's even more fun to engage in armed combat. In this respect The Getaway shares more than a little in common with stealth based action games such as Metal Gear Solid 2 and Operation Winback.
Backs to the wall
Charge straight in all guns blazing and you'll be dead in seconds. The Getaway demands that you approach each kill with caution and care, and provides a number of moves to enable you to do just that. The 'backs to the wall' move is there, which also allows you to peer around the corner, and the camera shifts accordingly, allowing you to blindly poke your gun around the side to pick off approaching grunts without having to dive into their line of fire. Alternatively, you can face your foe and take your chances, or even take a dramatic roll if you wish. Faced with an adversary, it's a straightforward case of holding R1 to target your closest enemy and tapping square to fire off a shot. R2, meanwhile, allows you to manually target your shots, which is useful for targeting barrels of fuel, which obviously cause immense carnage when ignited - and look pretty cool too.
It takes a while to get used to the system, and the lack of any interface gives you no clue as to how healthy your character is. Only visual clues tell you how fit you are, and with no medi packs around, you're forced to take your time and rest up against a wall if you find yourself staggering around on the point of death. Resting won't recharge your health more than a few hits, but it's enough to progress to the next batch of enemies without being killed immediately.
Grand Theft Solid
After a while, you realise that taking out enemies by stealth is often the best way to progress. Merely tapping square while behind an unsuspecting foe enables Hammond to perform a head lock, and you can either snap his neck there and then, or take him hostage. In reality, you'll be using the former option, as buddy loyalty seems to count for nought with your adversaries generally just firing at you regardless.
Tension is one area The Getaway excels in. It's positively dripping in the stuff during the shoot out sections. Your inability to gauge your health lends a palpable sense of impending doom, and creeping around corners to encounter yet another thug has the palms of your hands sweating in anticipation. Eventually, of course, you learn where the enemies are and pick them off one by one until the end, but like a good film, it's the timing and suspense that you'll enjoy most.
Only three weapons - are you nuts?
Strangely the selection of weapons in the game is positively anorexic. Just one pistol, which you can carry two of, a shotgun, and a machine gun. That's it. But does it make the game any less fun? Well, no. In reality it was only having finished the 12 levels as Mark Hammond that it occurred to us that this was the case. You're more absorbed by the atmosphere and tension to really get too hung up on these traditional video game obsessions. For once, there's no inventory, you never have to go around clicking on everything to see if it does something, there are no puzzles, you have limited ammo but never quite know how much is left. You're more concerned with clearing an area without dying, and in most cases it's quite a tall order - so by definition challenging, and looks so good that you barely even notice that dozens of videogame rules are being flagrantly ignored. This simple, uncluttered approach makes it feel less like a videogame and more like you're part of a tense action movie. If this was the point, then Team Soho deserves huge credit, because it's near as dammit succeeded.
Remorseless, horrifying, entertaining
The general level of detail heaped upon the game is just breathtaking. Each of the 20 odd indoor locales is rich with incidental touches, and all look supremely believable. Going from Snowhill Police Station and onto a crumbling, festering crack house already rank as blinding moments in videogames history. The tight scripting necessitates repetition, but you'll enjoy the experience no less for it. Again and again until you finally get it right. There's frustration, sure, but the amount of enjoyment from going through tasks more than make up for this. The music blaring out in the crack house is pumping, but, really really annoying. So what do you do? Find the stereo and shoot the turntable, of course! It's moments like that which bring a huge beaming smile to your face, even if it does come side by side with endless remorseless, horrifying violence.
At no stage do you ever feel good about the violence. This isn't violence for fun like it is with GTA. You want your boy back. That bastard Jolson's got your boy - it's a means to an end. So despite slaughtering the occupants of an entire police station, blowing away strip club visitors, art gallery attendees, you always feel uncomfortable doing do.
But what of the storyline? It's a bit like Eastenders meets Lock Stock, with Mark Hammond coming across more like a desperate Martin Kemp than a Ronnie Kray, while Charlie Jolson is a fairly two dimensional bald cigar chomping old school villain. The supporting cast does its job pretty well, and with over an hour of footage, there's plenty to watch. As usual it won't get everyone's vote, but what did you expect? However it does, possibly for the first time ever, deliver a script and a set of cut scenes you absolutely won't want to skip.
The voice acting, while still not perfect, is a class above the drivel we all routinely put up with, although many will feel (including us) that the use of the f-word rhyming with duck is overused to the point of being gratuitous. But it's gritty, and these are the scum of the Earth, of course, so it just about gets away with it. The Daily Mail brigade will have a field day, but maybe that's a good thing - a game that challenges convention and boundaries for once. A game that features, gulp, genuinely adult content, and one that you absolutely won't want to show your 10 year old nephew. Violence, death, foul language. It's not big, it's not clever, and if you don't feel uncomfortable witnessing it, then that's slightly worrying, but in the context of this game it's a breakthrough. A breath of fresh air for an entertainment medium struggling to get away from its colourful, joyful cartoon roots.
Just tell me what I'm supposed to do now you f*****s
Having evangelised to a large extent so far, The Getaway is by no means the perfect game. Of course, there are niggles, there are criticisms. There are odd times, especially when you're driving, that the game doesn't make things clear enough. For example, you'll drive across town, in one evil case for ten minutes, and having avoided gun toting gangs, relentless mobs of police, you'll arrive at your destination. Except you're not sure whether you have, because you'll be running down an alleyway, which leads to a dock area. You're not sure exactly where you're supposed to be heading. There are no clues, no arrows, and you have a woman who is accompanying you. Take too much time wandering around and some incidental music appears, hurrying you along. In seconds it's Game Over. Eh? So, go through the whole thing all over again (providing you make it, as ten minutes avoiding the law is tough on its own) and then next time, inexplicably, you get too far ahead of your partner in crime, and it's back to square one. Game Over again.
This process is fairly typical, and not an isolated occurrence. On another occasion you have to drive to the Old Bailey, but when you get there you see a Police car on fire, and you're not entirely sure what's happened. Having then replayed the mission multiple times, it finally dawns that your arrival cues a crash scene and you're supposed to chase a Police van and drive it off the road. But if you don't get there fast enough, it's easy to completely miss chunks of scripted events. We're hoping these unnecessarily frustrating sequences will be ironed out in the final build, but as it stands it is a painful thing to have to go through.
Meanwhile, the opportunity was there for Sony to include a killer soundtrack (a la Vice City), but there's precious little to report, sadly. We're assuming the vast Sony Music Corporation could have lent a hand in this department, but alas you'll have to be content with some admittedly well conceived incidental pieces, maybe with the Lock Stock soundtrack blaring out in the background.
Also, on a visual level, many will berate Sony for not living up to the promises it made a couple of years back, but you'd be hard pressed to still not be utterly impressed on every level. There's no load time during driving, virtually no incidences of pop up, and the frame rate is almost flawless. Interiors are hugely detailed and varied, and the animation is top notch. If they can do this on a PS2, it makes you wonder what on Earth the inevitable sequel will look like, assuming it will be a PS3 project, of course.
Replay value will be relatively small, seeing as the entertainment comes from the surprise element, but like a good film there are some key moments you'll want to come back to. One of the game's best elements is that once you've finished Mark Hammond's 12 missions (roughly an hour per mission, we'd guess on average), the game unlocks another 12, this time played from the perspective of dodgy cop Frank Carter. It's almost like starting a whole new game, and certainly sheds a lot more light on the shady dealings of Charlie Jolson. How long you'll want to play the Free Roaming mode entirely depends on how much London fascinates you. Ultimately this mode is fairly pointless, but London is a beautiful place to explore. You can kill hours just driving around for no other reason than to take in the sights - it feels quite educational, although it would have been even better if the game had the facility to tell you where you are at any given time. An in built map based on the A to Z would have been a genius inclusion. Maybe next time eh?
To sum up, in the same way that Max Payne riled some of the more cynical elements of the press, The Getaway will too. There are areas you can pick holes in if you want to - and people undoubtedly will, but by the same token you could do the same with just about any great game ever released. Our advice is appreciate it for what it is: a tense, challenging, utterly compelling, and well crafted, well paced piece of digital entertainment.