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SummaryTwo steps forward, two steps back
The GoodPersonally, my favorite thing in the game is something I sorely wished for when I played the game Freelancer. One thing you have to do to complete the game 100% is clean up street crime. The game starts with seemingly random precincts of New York having low, medium, or high crime (though there was probably some reason to that, because notoriously high crime areas, like Harlem, started as a high crime), and if you ignore crime, eventually all precincts not fully cleaned up will become high crime. But if you solve crimes in a precinct, you can clean it up completely. More stores open, the crime rate in that precinct no longer increases, and I think you become less likely to be called to crimes in that area. That ability to make a real difference in the game world beyond the main storyline was what in my opinion set it apart from many other games.
The game also made several improvements over Streets of Los Angeles (which I confess I haven't played in years). I remember the most aggravating thing about SOLA was that though you came across many cool weapons, you couldn’t hold or reload any weapon besides your default pistol. In this game, you can purchase weapons and an unlimited supply of ammunition from the police armory and gun shops, with money you earned in the game, another improvement over SOLA, eventually allowing you to possess any weapon you see in the game for yourself, anything from simple .38 and .45 pistols to M16s, AK-47s, and sawed off shotguns, fully automatic shotguns, and anything in between. And I'm not just talking guns, there's also a whole variety of melee weapons. Then you can store them in your cars, and take out a limited number of guns and ammo and use whatever weapon you want whenever you want, assuming in the mission they weren't taken away from you. There’re also other weapons you can buy, such as stun guns, tranquilizers, fragmentation grenades, Molotov cocktails, and mines. Plus, while SOLA had a lame flamethrower that worked more like a mortar, this game has fully realized fire, with flamethrowers, exploding cars, and burning objects like hot stoves.
Unlike SOLA, you don't learn more combos of the same fighting style. Instead, you go to Dojos, and learn different unarmed fighting styles, which come with their own packets of combos, and ways of handling melee weapons, like duel wield, sword training, and staff training, though you can only have a certain number of styles at one time, so you need to decide which ones you like best. It doesn't really make sense. So, to learn Thai Boxing you need to forget how to do Karate to make room? You character's brain can't remember how to do more than a set number of martial arts styles? And you can learn martial arts to proficiency instantly? Oh well, those are the breaks. But it’s still a pretty interesting feature, and gives more variety to hand to hand combat.
The car system is pretty good. It has some errors and bugs, which I’ll go into later. But there are some nice things. There’s a great variety of cars. You can get 5 different cars at the police station and others at the car dealerships. The dealerships don’t have that many good ones, but there are a few. Any car you buy also has the advantage of carrying your weapons arsenal, so you can easily select which weapons are right for the situation. And just like how you can still pick up weapons others drop, you can commandeer any vehicle you see, allowing you to control the car, though not have your weapons in its trunk. You can even commandeer motorcycles if you see them, since you can’t buy any. They’re much more maneuverable than cars, but also more fragile, easily exploding, and often throwing you clear if you hit something. But all vehicles have a Mech Warrior-style damage system, which shows what part of your car is hit, as well as visibly looking damaged.
Some of the music's very good. I especially liked Honest Mistake, Bridge and Tunnel, and Slow Hands, songs I didn't hear until playing the game. That's not to say all the music is good, or there's a good selection, but that deserves to go in the "bad" section. All I’m saying is that it certainly had some songs I really took a liking to.
In this game, you have the ability to customize your appearance, for a price. So, if you don't like the silly looking dreadlocks Marcus starts out with (I didn't), you can change his haircut (but not his facial hair). You can also purchase new clothes, to suit what look you like best. Your clothes don't really have any influence on the missions (blow up taxis dressed as a pimp, a tourist, or in casual clothes, the game doesn't care, and neither do the NPCs), but one cool thing is your appearance transfers over to the cinematics. It's a cool touch, having how your character looks in the game carry over to the cinematics. Granted, the cinematics are still set in stone, and you'll never hear anyone in the cinematics tell you how ridiculous you look as a half-naked cowboy, but it is funny to see them have the same conversation in the same tone regardless of whether you're wearing jeans and a t-shirt or pimp clothes.
There’s a good variety of missions, some which put you in weird situations, but unlike SOLA there's nothing supernatural in the game, which I personally thought was a good thing.
This game also has a concept of time, with day and night, weather, and it seems even a slight semblance of seasons. Certain stores and nightclubs are only open at certain times, and lights in buildings go on and off depending on the time of day. You'll never see snow on the ground past the first mission, but sometimes you may see snow in the air in the game. However, the use of time coupled with the rushed nature of the game made it an interesting feature, but also somewhat of a Pandora's Box.
Another cool thing is the ability to go in buildings, for things you want, or to take on criminals indoors. But indoors and outdoors are considered separate areas, leading to all sorts of problems. However, if NPCs leave a building while you’re in it, it seems that the amount of time between when they leave and when you leave determines how far from the door they got, which is a nice touch.
As for difficulty, the game’s certainly doable, with your main obstacles being making sure not to get shot too much or too close, especially for shotguns, avoiding car crashes, or being crushed by heavy cars, which have the ability to kill instantly, and finding out what you’ll have to do to take down bosses. But, it’s challenging enough to be fun.
The BadThe game's definitely buggy, but that wasn't the worst thing about the game in my opinion. It was the swearing. Sure you can understand a real New Yorker cussing if a car's coming straight at them or someone comes running down the street wearing robes and carrying a fully automatic shotgun. But in the game they'll swear every swear you can think of, and some you didn't hear until playing the game, if you just drive fast, walk in traffic, have a damaged car, or even something as minor as gently touching them, another NPC bumping into them, or simply walking down the street. And you can't simply mute the voices, because that channel also has important information you need to listen to, when people speak to you in game. And unlike the Windows version screenshots I've seen, Xbox has no captions. So you more or less have to listen to them swear much more than sailors in wartime. My Xbox happens to by in the living room. It took me more than 3 months to finish the game, not because it's particularly long or hard, but because I could only play when my Mom was gone.
Coming close second was the bugs. One reviewer one said the game contained more bugs than a 5th story flat, which is certainly true unless there's a whole colony of ants living there. There's dozens of bugs, if not 100, then a matching number of things in the game that might not be considered technically "bugs", but certainly should have been fixed. I was thinking of making a whole list, but found there are plenty of full lists on other websites, and this is just a review. But there are a few things that are major enough to be worth mentioning here.
The biggest error is that at random times while you're driving (it seems to be around the time the weather changes), the graphics will temporarily go screwy. It's hard to describe; the best I can do is saying the last image before the bug starts overlays all images afterward. Plus your radar blanks out, pausing just shows a black screen, and the bug continues even if you get out of the car, and even if you go indoors. Then, just as unexpectedly as it starts, it stops.
In an infamous error, in one level where you have to push “Tommy” off a cargo container suspended 5 stores from the ground, if you push him to the edge, it’ll tell you to press a button to “throw” him, but when you do, nothing happens. So now, a relatively simple mini-boss becomes a big obstacle which you can only beat by looking the bug up online, restarting the level and making sure you’re not carrying anything before you get to him, and probably using an endurance cheat (which thankfully for those that don’t like cheats, seems to go away after you save and restart the Xbox).
Next in line in importance are position errors. Many times fleeing NPCs will crowd around the door, their position shuddering, but not able to leave. And if you try to grapple them while their position is shuddering, you will too. But even if there’s only one person at the door, they’ll still sometimes start running around the door but not be able to leave. A similar problem appears with knocked-out suspects sometimes shudder too, and you will too if you try to cuff them. Speaking of which, if they’ve been knocked out near an obstacle, often rather than run around it to get in a good position to kick them over and cuff them, Marcus will jog in place for a few seconds, then the suspect will blink to the correct perpendicular position, and you’ll arrest them. If they happen to be near a change in elevation, like on a box, desk, or exposed 3rd story floor, Marcus mysteriously acquires the ability to walk on air for a few seconds when repositioning for an arrest, performing a finishing move, or grappling. But that’s not all. Sometimes suspects fleeing outsider will run THROUGH buildings. I don’t mean go to the entrance, I mean run through the wall like it’s not there, and in effect become invincible. So either common criminals have a working grasp of tesseracts and use it to pass through walls, they can change to ghosts at will, or more likely, this is another sloppy error.
The volume’s inconsistent. The opening logos are extremely loud, the cinematics are extremely quiet, and the gameplay is somewhere in between. The result is a game that’s starts off really loud, then gets quieter so you’ll have to turn it up if you turned it down for the logo (or start with it muted if you don’t want everyone within 100 yards yelling at you to turn it down when Marcus punches the screen with a Luxoflux ring), then cinematics that you need to turn up to hear when they come, then turn the volume down again when you go back to the game. Point is, it’s best played if you use headphones or only play when no one else is around, but even then you’ll have to constantly adjust the volume so you can hear what needs to be heard while still not popping your eardrums.
The manual for this game is bare bones. It mostly just gives you the control keys, and little else. Which is really a shame because the “buying” menus are needlessly complicated. Assuming you get to store clerks (some can be accessed from the counter, but others require you go behind the counter to the employee area before you talk to them), you have to go through the process of selecting the item, then “buying” it, then accepting it. But the real trouble is the same button for going back a step also cancels the purchase. So many times in the start of the game you’ll go through the frustration of thinking you bought something, but you pressed the cancel button instead of the accept button. It’s the same problem whether you’re buying something from a store or the police station, getting a haircut, or selecting weapons from your car truck, assuming you can. It’s next to impossible with some cars to correctly position yourself so you open the trunk when you press the button instead of running over to the car door and getting in, which uses the same button. At the least, it’s annoying, such as when you get a hair cut or buy clothes, and the lack of change is obvious. At most, you could select weapons from your car, accidentally cancel, then go into a mission inadequately armed, and since there’s no way at all to cancel a mission besides loading a previous saved game, you have to load your last save game and work your way toward that mission again, this time being more careful and checking your weapon selection before starting. But even if you saved right before, saving doesn’t save your position. It only saves your status. If you’re on a mission, loading starts at the beginning of the mission; if not, loading starts at the police HQ, and you have to take a subway or taxi to the police booth closest to your designation to get your car. A good idea when playing is to save in 2 or 3 different slots, or you might find yourself stuck and have to restart the whole game.
The controls aren’t that great either. It’s nearly impossible to do some of the car tricks on command. One required you to simultaneously shift the joystick, keep the acceleration button depressed, and tap the brake key. It’d be a lot easier if you had 3 or 4 hands. It’s impossible to remap the controls, so if you don’t like them you’re stuck. But perhaps the most aggravating thing about the controls is something this game lost that SOLA had: incremental acceleration. In this game, the vertical position of the control joystick while driving is irrelevant. You can turn by degrees, but you can’t accelerate or break by degrees. It’s either full stop or nothing, petal to the mettle or coasting. This isn’t so much a problem in races (though one race had in it what looked like an empty lot, but if you try to drive through it, a building suddenly appears with you in it, and your car’s immediately destroyed), where you want full power, but it is a problem when you’re driving the fastest car in the game in a crowded street with slow-moving traffic. In those cases, you’re forced to press your acceleration for a second, then break, in a manner I can only compare to the fictional roller coaster on The Simpsons, “The Tooth Chipper” Remember the episode where a carnival comes to Springfield and one of the roller coasters is one that rapidly breaks as its going down the hill, chipping people’s teeth? It’s like that, but in a car. So, because Luxoflux was too rushed to even implement one of the strong points of a console, the small built-in joystick that, like the petal of a real car, allows a greater selection speed than a keyboard does, in heavy traffic you’re forced to start and stop more than a blond at a blinking red light while other cars smoothly putter along, not using their full acceleration somehow.
This brings up another point: car weapons. Other NPCs in other cars can use all sorts of pistols machine pistols. But what can you use? You can use your default .38, a silenced .40, or a stun gun (which for some reason shows a visible electric bolt and its target can be changed while its firing. It’s certainly nothing like a real TASER, which uses metal prongs. I guess the game must be set in the “not too distant future”, though the stun gun which acts more like a working Electrolaser is pretty much the only thing futuristic in the game, aside from NPCs walking through walls). Any more powerful pistols, machine pistols, or 1-handed submachine guns just won’t work. Meanwhile, NPCs can fire anything from a car that’s 1 handed, so a NPC in a car can fire an Uzi at your car while the best you can do is usually a .38, which unlike SOLA, cannot be upgraded. Thank goodness there’re two missions where someone else drives a limo while you shoot attackers out the sunroof with an assault rifle and unlimited ammo, or you’d never be able to fire anything automatic in a car.
I mentioned previously that it has some good songs. Well, let’s just say, to play this, you’d better like rap. Whenever you get into a car, music starts playing, music that’s selected partly based on a system of “favorites”, a score of 5 stars, 5 meaning most likely to be selected, none meaning it won’t be, that decreases when you skip a song and increases when you repeat it or listen to it all the way through, or you can manually control it. For music selection, you’ve got some Metal, some Alternative, some Club, just a few Rock songs, but then a Rap/Hip Hop section about as big as all the others combined. So if you really don’t like rap, you’d better decrease all the rap songs’ favorite score to 0, something that’ll probably take 5 minutes just by the sheer size of the section. It’s certainly not a balanced selection of songs. But now assume you actually want to hear the whole song. Sure you could go to the rating selection and play it while nothing’s happening, but that’s kind of boring. If you want to hear it in game, you’d better not get out of your in-game car. If you do, it cancels the song, and a new song is selected from your favorites when you get back in even if you only got out of your car for a second. It sure would be nice if it just paused the song, and you could resume it when you got back in the car. Funny thing is, music plays when you get in a motorcycle too. I’ve never heard of any motorcycle with a built-in radio or CD player or whatever you’re supposed to be listening too. Also, funny thing, everyone has the same music tastes as you, as the same songs are selected even if you commandeer a random person’s car or motorcycle. Or maybe you just carry your favorite CDs along with you. In this game, you have limited space to carry things, but still keep your weapons in hammer space, so your M16 or bo staff appears out of nowhere when you select it.
Now, if you don’t like the default music, you can buy them from music stores. Trouble is, each one only sells 3 songs each, and is only open during the day, making it an even bigger hassle to try to get into. But, music stores are the only real way to bolster your music selection, especially the Rock section. There are other times you hear music, but it’s pretty much all the same music. There’s one song (or rather, tune) for every non-mission in-game street crime you go to, one for every club you go to, and nearly ever gun shop and car dealership (which always have pretty crappy cars) in Manhattan plays Ghostrider, by Suicide. Mission levels are a little better, but you only hear at most 4 new songs.
Some of the weapons aren’t that great. The beanbag shotgun is slow to fire and only stuns someone for a few seconds. You get caltrop, but first no where is it explained what the heck a caltrop is (flimsy manual, remember?), so if you’ve never heard of them before, you’re kind of baffled by what they do. Once you realize they deflate car tires, you still have to stretch to find a use for them. You can’t throw them out your car window, so the only thing they’re good for is either driving ahead and putting them on a street you think a car will come down, which is silly because you never know which way a NPC will turn, or throw them as soon as you see one get in a car, which is nearly impossible to do quickly, so caltrops only serve to take up inventory space if you take them. In the game, you can throw fragmentation grenades, flash bangs, Molotov cocktails, and caltrops. But each has its downfall. With all of them, selecting the correct weapon category and weapon takes time (the three categories are unarmed combat, melee weapons, and ranged weapons), so the suspect could get away while you’re sifting through them, or kill you. Then the throwing method isn’t that great. You look somewhere and choose how hard you want to throw it, and the path shows up in a high arc from you to somewhere on the ground. But outside enemy movement is too fluid for you to predict and use throwing weapons accurately. Meanwhile, indoor combat, where thrown weapons are the most useful, is inconvenient because you need to break cover to throw it, take the time to judge how far you want to throw it, all while being shot at, then when you throw it, it will sometimes hit the ceiling and fall short. But even if it falls exactly where you planned, it’s rarely useful. It rarely hurts people behind cover, even if they’re hiding behind a box and it falls on their side of the box. The fragmentation grenade is the most useful, because if the flash bang works correctly it only stuns them for a moment, and by the time you get back to the weapon you want, they’re already better anyway. The Molotov cocktails have a crappiness that would make Postal Dude from Postal 2 cry if he saw them. They only work if they hit the ground, not a person, they have an extremely small blast radius, they burn silent fire, and only burn for a second or two. So what may be one of the most important weapons in other games is one of the crappiest in this one. On top of all that, you can only carry 3 of any thrown weapon per weapon slot. So between the lengthy time it takes to select a throwing weapon, throw it, and select another weapon, the uncertainty it will hit the correct place, the inconsistency in its effects, and how few you can carry, you’re more likely to just waste any thrown weapons you take, or get killed while trying to throw them, so you’d be better off taking a gun.