The sequel to True Crime takes place in that semi-fictional New York that seems to exist in a polar-opposite dimension to that of Sex And The City. Four hundred dollar shoes are replaced with dodgy early-90s trainers, while caviar and champagne sex exploits on 5th Avenue are replaced with Uzis and crack pipes in the ghetto. It's that caricature of graffiti and ultra-violence that Mayor Giuliani worked so hard to erase, and that videogames and cheap thrillers insist on hyping up as a lawless gangster genocide zone. You almost expect to see Max Payne sprinting past in slow motion...
Sadly though there are no pills that ease the pain of poor game design, especially when the really very pretty opening sequences of New York City raise your hopes that maybe, just maybe, the next few hours aren't going to be a carefully-scripted waste of time. The guns blaze, the corpses topple, you character strolls and New York is looking promisingly GTA-like...
Initial forays into the city were mixed with incompetence and bewilderment at the obfuscatory controls. True Crime is awesome, if it's actually a simulation of "Mr Magoo on PCP". Take these initial moments where I stepped outside the training missions and onto the streets of the freeform city section: I am ordered to resolve some street crime and so leave the precinct to walk down the street. Soon there is a man holding a gun to a woman's head. Perplexed by the overly complex controls I first punch out a fat bystander in the crowd, then pull out my gun and fire uselessly at some shop windows. Taking careful aim I gun down the hostage, the gunman and a nearby policeman as I struggle for control of the fine-tuned aiming. Finally, I turn around and accidentally rugby-tackled one of the fleeing pedestrians, before beating him in the face. I got better, but it was still only fun in the way that flailing helplessly as you drunkenly fall down a hole is fun.
Anyway, True Crime: New York City is grungy, detailed and well animated. The streets feel gritty, and the driving sections and pedestrian action blend beautifully. Visually, New York City is constantly impressive: litter whirls through the air and arguments break out on the trash-strewn sidewalk as your saunter casually by. This is a game in which just walking down the street feels good: you soak up ambience and occasionally shoot someone in the face, just for kicks. Virtual tourism at its most ugly - and that's a good thing. Yes, the urban decay has been applied with artistic love, and the muscular thugs who make each other's lives a little shorter are convincingly acted and beautifully rendered. Sadly these young pixel-folk are trapped in a world where nothing is much fun. Although immediately visually striking, True Crime trips over its own inflated Nikes with just a few too many moments of lamentable emptiness.
The structure of the game is laid out by the 'investigation' of various leads, each one taking you to another moment in the storyline. Although superficially freeform in the manner of GTA, you are sucked in to a routine sequence of missions where one cut scene introduces you to a stream of people to be killed, before the next cut scene presents another ne'er do well who either manipulates you, betrays you, or leads you to the next contact. Ultimately it's a conveyor-belt shooter, where the enemies are lined up along the route for you to delete from your PS2's memory, making way for all that vital head-stomp data to come. It's bland and forgettable, but the scenes are all adequately moody and hip-hop cool. (Celebrity rapper 'Redman' is the lead character, you know.)
As I was saying: there are problems. The perps you take down never suggest that they are anything other than mindless automata ready to be slain, and exhibit an artificiality that could never be described as 'intelligence'. The random crimes that pop up seldom veer off the shoot/arrest cycle, which means that although New York City is a very wide area, it's also extremely shallow. Worse, it simply lacks genuine charm. While artistically more accomplished that genre boss San Andreas, New York City lacks the personality of the big daddy. And there is little in the way of humour, aside from the antics of those murderous Magoo moments.
As the game unfolds you are also faced with 'ethical' choices, where you must decide whether to be good, or to be bad, which takes your character on a troubling journey from legitimate policeman to the kind of bad cop that would make Harvey Keitel blush. Of course you can try to choose to be a good cop, but too many psychotic Mr Magoo episodes will likely put pay to that. After you've run over two dozen tourists and whores (completely by accident) you tend to give up on being the nice bloke.
Once you do wrestle the controls into some kind of order, you will find the fighting to be the most virile element of the game. The gunfights are suitably kinetic, and the capacity to lean round corners, or zoom in for pinpoint aim means that your naughty policeman is an extremely versatile gunman. It's a shame his opponents barely fight back. But he can also move in for meaty melee too, with grapples, jabs and body blows all combining to deliver the pain to your enemies. To remain on the right side of the law (and maintain the favour of your fellow cops) you'll need to avoid shooting unarmed perps, although you can pretty much beat up anyone you choose, which, given the nature of gamers, dictates the course you'll end up taking.
But the physicality of things is also where True Crime really begins to mangle. Your character runs in the manner of man trapped in a treacle-dimension, and although there are some lovely corpse-flipping fight physics, the cars that are so vital to the game react in peculiarly dead fashion. It's a shame that New York City couldn't have had slightly more active physics, especially since crashing at 80 miles and hour into bollard stops your car dead, with no obvious effect aside from making the 'car health' diagram light up with injured pink.
True Crime is a game looking to score the ultimate dope hit of Grand Theft Auto genius, and it has the contacts to make such a score, but fails to use them. The ethical choices are really little more than a decision about how to make money, and how few people you want to kill. Ultimately it ends up smoking carpet underlay in an alleyway somewhere outside Brooklyn. And hey, don't knock underlay 'til you've tried it, okay?