A moment of tribute for the forgotten “semi-sandbox.”
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
True Crime: Streets of LA, which turns 15 this November, is not a very good game. Arriving as one of the first sandbox third-person action games since Grand Theft Auto III flipped the entire gaming industry on its head forever, Luxoflux’s attempt to break into the big-time was a wildly ambitious jack-of-all-trades. Combining Max Payne-style shooting, Driver-style races and chases, Streets of Rage-inspired hand-to-hand brawling, rudimentary stealth sections, a massive 26km recreation of Los Angeles as a sandbox, a karma system, multiple potential story divergences that occur based on said karma and whether a mission is passed or failed, unlockable upgrades, and all wrapped up in the bow of a deliberate attempt to ape Hollywood-style renegade cop B-movies. At least it had an identity of its own compared to the other lesser-GTA imitators that were to come.
But this was a classic case of “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” in full effect. The precision-shooting mechanic is too slow to be of any use in either massive firefights or hostage situations. Brawling is kiddie-pool shallow and pathetically easy excepting a few cheap-ass times. Driving is like trying to wrangle control of a Scalextric. Stealth is so infrequent it may as well not be here. The sandbox smushes all of the mechanics together – individual levels are segmented to one specific mechanic only – and they do not interact or switch smoothly at all. Los Angeles as represented by True Crime now looks like an ominous warning of sandbox games on generations to come, in that it is technically massive but impossibly empty and boring with nothing of interest to do in its often-repetitive design. The karma system amounts to “don’t kill civilians or surrendering criminals” and therefore is pretty much a non-entity. Oh, and Nick Kang, your player character, is a massively annoying and unlikeable little shit – one of my favourite past times involves loading up a fighting stage and deliberately letting him get his smug ass whooped over and over again.
True Crime, then, is not a very good game. Yet I can’t help but have a soft spot for it, one that’s not just the product of nostalgia. See, even if True Crime did a lot of things sub-par or straight-up bad, its wild ambition did result in one brilliant concept that I wish more games would have lifted from it for their own purposes. That would be the game’s approach to structure. Not so much the strict segmenting between “this is the brawling stage,” “this is the gunplay stage” etc., but instead what I refer to as the semi-sandbox.
At the time, critics attempted comparisons to games like Team Soho’s The Getaway, Illusion Softworks’ Mafia, and Reflections Interactive’s Driver since all four have giant sandboxes but campaigns that linearly ferret the player from one place to the next – making free-roaming an entirely separate mode usually unlocked after the story has finished. On the surface, that’s an accurate comparison, but True Crime differed by letting the player roam free in its sandbox to do whatever they wanted at set points in the story. In those, Nick will be given a destination and the player can drive straight to it, or they can go and explore at their leisure. Random street crimes will crop up that Nick can respond to or ignore, he might stumble across one of the upgrade outlets for each of the three main systems that he can partake in should he have the badges available (earned by completing missions and street crimes), or he can go hunting for the hidden Dogg Bones to unlock the sandbox-only mode with playable Snoop Dogg and even simply typing that fact out without any commentary already makes it sound incredibly lame.
Now, because True Crime is not a very good game, the execution leaves more than a little to be desired. Those “random street crimes” are in actuality pulled from a very tiny pool that will cycle over and over again, many with bonkers scripting choices that can make dealing with them an extensive pain in the ass for all the wrong reasons – you could make a drinking game out of the frequency of muggers jacking multiple sets of cars, forcing you to chase them halfway across town, ending with them burning to death next to their disabled car because the AI didn’t move them out of the flames’ hitbox. It also doesn’t solve the problem of virtual Los Angeles being a barren samey wasteland lacking in anything to do, but even with all that said it still honestly works, at least in the mechanical sense.
By letting the player run about in the sandbox whilst the ostensible story mode is still in play, it stops driving to and from places in it feel like frequent pointless padding as in The Getaway and Mafia. But by restricting the scurrying to predetermined points in the story, True Crime also gets to tell a coherent(-ish) and properly paced story with rising and falling tensions, where the events of one mission flow understandably and immediately into the next. When the story heats up and Nick needs to get to some place in a hurry, say to rescue his kidnapped brother or respond to an escalating hostage situation in a high-rise office, it locks off all the street crimes and upgrade stations and tasks the player with racing to the destination within a strict time limit. But when the pressure isn’t so hot, when Nick is cruising for leads or gets a tip that’s not particularly immediate, then the game lets the player off the leash a bit to indulge their sandbox whims without messing up the flow of the narrative.
I’ve written about this before; sandbox games are kind of awful for quality focussed narratives, especially this decade when they’ve overloaded on secondary content in an effort to appear like players are getting some ill-defined money’s worth. Narratives, after all, work on momentum and structure, rising and falling, of one action leading into another, escalating to big payoffs chased with cool-downs and all that good stuff. Sandbox games, however, sell themselves on giving the player the freedom to engage with the game however they so choose. They could do the next scripted story mission, advancing the narrative and avoiding everything not related to it until the post-game… or they can go bowling, or hunt for secret packages, or unlock the many karaoke songs included, or just go on a nice old-fashioned violent rampage! They’re all about player freedom, player choice (or at least the illusions of both), of making one player’s approach of blitzing through all of the story missions and another player’s approach of not touching the story for actual days at a time both feel valid. And, as with most systems designed for player empowerment above all else, that insistence on making the player feel catered to ends up as a detriment to the story.
For an example: United Front’s 2012 semi-cult classic Sleeping Dogs, originally envisioned as a True Crime instalment. The gameplay was fantastic and the story, basically Infernal Affairs with a sprinkling of Johnnie To, was high quality and occasionally engaging as these things go, but the two never coalesced together like they should have, which I put down to the game’s sandbox nature. Because Sleeping Dogs needs to account for its players potentially sacking off the main narrative for several hours to go repossess cars or play mah-jong or hunt for drug busts, the pacing of the narrative is a haphazard mess that only properly rises to any kind of moving crescendo in the last 45 minutes when it locks you into the endgame. Blasting through the main campaign, therefore, reveals a really disjointed story that adds and drops characters pretty much at random, where the timeline is ill-defined and impertinent. Example: one mission involving the extended rescue of a kidnapped friend is immediately followed by a mission where that exact same friend is re-kidnapped and killed off-screen in the time between the two missions. If you’ve been dicking around or mopping up side quests, it’s perhaps not too noticeable. If you went straight to that second mission after completing the first one, it immediately neuters whatever impact said death could potentially have (if any).
True Crime’s narrative isn’t exactly Shakespeare and also doesn’t make a lot of sense in its own right – particularly since the Good Path devotes an entire chapter to a Big Trouble in Little China homage that impacts nothing and is never referenced again once finished – but that semi-sandbox structure at least lets the narrative work as intended. It only occasionally has to account for players deliberately dicking around and wasting time instead of all the goddamn time, so it flowed like a proper narrative with cause-and-effect. The semi-sandbox allows a game to effectively have its cake and eat it, yet its not something the games industry has touched in the years since Streets of LA’s release, let alone improved upon. True Crime’s own sequel, New York City in 2005, even ditched it and went for a straightforward GTA-type sandbox. And with the continued effort by big mainstream publishers to kill off single-player story-driven games in favour of (*best Jim Sterling impression*) “live services,” I fear this concept may never get its day in the sun. The closest I’ve seen in recent years is arguably Ubisoft’s Far Cry 5, although that inverts the paradigm to a much lesser effect – screw around in the sandbox until a certain amount of progress has passed, then get forcibly spirited away into the next scripted story mission, before being tossed back out to do it all over again.
I’ve been struggling to connect with AAA game design for a long while now, and it’s left me feeling stuck very much on the outside of a medium I’ve spent much of my life loving and connecting to in some degree. Much of the sandbox genre makes me feel like it’s a case of either/or when it comes to “quality gameplay” and “compelling narrative,” where the latter will always suffer at the alter of the former for necessary underlying mechanical and structural reasons. But maybe it wouldn’t have to. If more games were to attempt the approach pioneered by True Crime: Streets of LA, maybe I could finally get it both ways. Maybe those games would also have protagonists I don’t want to punch repeatedly and forcibly in the dick! That would be nice!