Short version: It doesn't work.
Medium version: People looking to play a game that works need not apply.
Long version: True Crime: New York City (TC:NYC) is missing the key words Streets of that would enable people to easily identify it as the sequel to 2003's True Crime: Streets of LA. Other things it's missing include an ending that makes sense, a decent framerate, and missions that don't crash the Xbox destroying two hours of unsaved gameplay.
A driving/shooting/fighting 3rd-person hybrid, TC:NYC follows in the footsteps of the Grand Theft Auto series, offering players a huge city to run, drive, and shoot people in. The twist is that, rather than playing as the kind of mass-murdering anarchist that the genre usually involves, the player is asked to actually enforce the law, stopping random street crimes on his way to working on the game's major cases.
On the brief occasions during which this game works, it proves that randomly-generated crime-fighting can actually be more fun than random, unfocused crime-committing. As players walk or drive around the city they're alerted to the fact that somewhere, a crime is happening. These miscellaneous crimes can be resolved in either a good or bad fashion, with the game's ending (and little else) being dependent on how the player chooses to deal with these criminals.
To its credit, the game actually manages to make the good vs. bad play style work in a way that few other games have. Being evil is considerably faster and easier, as players can simply shoot every criminal they see, regardless of the crime they've committed. There aren't any ramifications so long as too many innocent bystanders don't get gunned down in the melee. Being good, on the other hand, is more difficult but still entertaining, as the player can shoot criminals in the knees and elbows to non-fatally incapacitate them before arresting them. Apart from a completely useless shoot-dive move, TC:NYC is a perfect example of the old adage that everyone but Rockstar is able to come up with a decent shooting engine.
Everything else about the game is considerably less enjoyable than the gunfighting. With ten fighting styles both barehanded and weapon-based, this may be the most complex fighting system to ever be this simple and shoddy in execution. Sloppy targeting and slow response time makes it too hard to punch and kick enemies, but they can be grabbed and thrown incredibly easily which leads to some very quick and boring fights—especially since the Wushu throw kills anyone but a boss instantly. Worse still, many bosses need to be fought hand-to-hand, making them absurdly difficult.
Far too many quirks in the physics engine make the cars a chore to drive, and more than once I found myself thanking the game for including working cabs. If Grand Theft Auto has taught us anything, it's that getting there should be half the fun. (Getting there on motorcycles is generally 3-7 times the fun, depending on how many steep hills and narrow alleys there are on the route.) The less said about the motorcycles in TC:NYC (which handle like bricks without power steering) the better. There's still a little bit of fun to be had with the special driving techniques—racing away from a pursuer, then pulling a 180 and blasting out his front windshield is always fun, no matter how choppy the framerate is.
Make no mistake, though, the framerate stutters pretty badly. Apparently the game's engine just can't put up with the number of cars and bystanders that appear onscreen at any given time, and whenever things get crowded, the game becomes a frustrating, barely-interactive slideshow. Engine troubles aren't the only sign this was a rushed, unfinished release, either. The game attempts to provide a working model of New York City, with hundreds of stores and offices scattered throughout the city that the player can enter at any time. Unfortunately, there are only a few different maps for these locations, so no matter where in the city a random crime happened, it always felt like I was fighting them in the exact same place.
It's not often that a console game feels like a pre-test beta, but TC:NYC manages to pull it off. Driving around the city, I lost count of the number of times I drove past the local 'Clothing Store'. To avoid confusion, all of the office buildings are helpfully labeled 'Office'. Perhaps the greatest example of this lack of effort is the restaurant 'Fart Taco'. Yes, that's actually in the game. Doesn't that seem like something one texture designer did at 4AM to make another one laugh? How did it make it into a released game? Actually, this lack of polish does lead to some unintentional comedy at a few points. For example, the game's subtitles are clearly just the same text that was given to the voice actors, leading to wonderful subtitles like '5-6 various angry aahhhs, ohhhs and whoooos'. Couple this rushed quality with the fact that some of the missions lock up the system, and others have minor glitches that cause them to be unbeatable, and the result is a game six to eight weeks away from being releasable… available everywhere videogames are sold.
There isn't even anything redeeming in the game's story, a tiresome rehash of gangsta clichés that actually manages two separate bad endings (one is stupid, the other a complete cop-out). It's rare that I get to point to a single unbelievably stupid thing to discredit a game's entire story, so forgive me if I enjoy this way too much. One of the game's themed criminal organizations is called the 'President's Club'. They're theoretically named after the presidents who appear on paper money: Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant. Their leader calls himself Benjamin (as opposed to Franklin) because, according to the manual, he appreciates the irony of the fact that Benjamin Franklin wasn't a president. Of course, neither was Alexander Hamilton, who appears on the ten dollar bill. When two of the five members of one's themed gang don't have names that correspond to one's theme, the theme is officially broken. Were the developers unaware of this fairly easy-to-discover piece of trivia, or were they so proud of their 'ironic' joke that they didn't want to confuse matters by having another member of the gang named 'Washington'? Either way, the result is hilarious stupidity that makes the rest of the rest of the game look even more ridiculous.
True Crime: Streets of L.A. wasn't a great game by any means. It did, however, manage to provide its player with decent driving and shooting action without too many glitches or system crashes. It also featured, in one incredibly ill-conceived level, a Ghost Dragon. TC: NYC obviously had the potential to continue, and even improve on that tradition. That opportunity has been badly squandered by poor coding and design choices. I'm not sure just why Activision was in such a rush to release the game that they didn't let Luxoflux actually finish it, I mean, it's not like there's another Grand Theft Auto right around the corner, is there? Whatever the financial motives behind it were, it's not going to pay off for them in the long run. Why? At some point, dissatisfied customers are going to band together and sue publishers over all of these buggy, unfinished games, the same way they'd sue if every new car Ford put out didn't have tires or headlights.
In that inevitable court case, True Crime: New York City is going to make an exceptional exhibit A.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.