It updates the classic GTA formula into a system-heavy sandbox — but it suffers from a short shelf life
I keep returning to Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, a series spin-off that was released on the Nintendo DS and then the PSP not long after. Its chunky-as-fuck low-poly 3D graphics (‘cause DS), a weirdly adorable art style and an addictive, easy-to-cheese drug dealing mini-game using the original formula of top-down Grand Theft Auto hold up better than you’d think… So when I found out Fallen Tree Games’ American Fugitive existed, I hoped it could tap into that nostalgia, intentionally or not.
For those who don’t know or can’t remember because you’re not ancient, American Fugitive is styled after the earliest Grand Theft Auto titles. GTA and GTA 2 weren’t too different from their 3D descendants except for the fact they were 2D sprite-based and played from a top-down camera view. Still about completing missions and escaping police, they’re simpler in terms of gameplay and sandbox mechanics with a bigger focus on driving.
As an (original) GTA successor, though, American Fugitive is shockingly ambitious. Loaded with more individual systems than anyone would ever expect from the genre, it can almost be called an immersive sim. A “criminal simulator” where the world reacts and responds to your actions with surprising detail.
Here’s the part where I list off as many individual systems as I can remember: a clothing system, which means you can switch between outfits to lose track of police (as long as no-one sees you) or access certain areas like the police station. A stealth system with a crouch mechanic and bushes you can hide in, alongside a believable line-of-sight system for NPCs. Ragdolled bodies (and trash bags) can be dragged around to hide them from NPC sight cones. Detailed police awareness, which tags the player in the outfit they were last seen in and whether you could have been recognised for a particular crime (like finding an unconscious body somewhere, where they’ll be looking for you without knowing what you look like). While the AI isn’t particularly smart, the way they respond can be surprisingly believable at times, like when an NPC catches you looking through their window and leaves their house to check what you’re up to. There’s a cargo train that circles the map, which you can manoeuvre around during police chases or hitch a ride on if you physically run into it. A (too) sensitive driving model with physics that lets vehicles crash and tumble. Almost everything on the map besides buildings, trees and train crossing signals can be destroyed, usually by driving through it. A weight system that means you can only carry a certain amount of items, tools, valuables and weapons on you at one time… And so on.
Then there’s breaking-and-entering, which is its own bundle of thoughtful simulator-like mechanics.
Every window can be used to case a building before you break in, letting you know which room (if any) has someone inside — and again, the NPCs can notice you if you aren’t crouching. Doors can be opened either loudly using a crowbar, which will immediately notify the police and start a countdown, or a lockpick to keep quiet. Every room can be searched for loot, whether it’s valuables, food, tools or weapons, and if the police are on their way, each search will cost valuable seconds. Entering a room with someone in it will give you a few options: knock them out, tie them up or try to flee. Using a gun to threaten them notifies the police but has a better chance of keeping them quiet. Almost every home has some sort of major loot to find, usually with clues to figure out the four-number code to a safe. House and car keys can also be picked up, letting you return to that house safely later or steal the car parked out front without making noise (though the police will be alerted anyway). When the police arrive, every window and door of the house will be surrounded steadily over time, which gives you a slim chance to make your escape from one of the currently-unguarded exits.
All of these individual systems come together into the most impressive part of American Fugitive: running from police is fun to do over and over again because it’s multi-faceted. That’s not to say it’s endlessly fun (it’s not), but it’s far more engaging than your typical GTA-like because the sandbox responds logically to your actions. Escaping police in American Fugitive isn’t just a race to escape the alert zone because there are options within that: stealing clothes off of a clothesline, breaking into a house to change outfit and taking the exit that avoids the helicopter spotlight, latching onto the train, switching cars. It’s entirely possible to escape even the highest wanted level of police by exploiting sight lines and taking advantage of your surroundings.
To summarise: American Fugitive is basically a secret RPG. There are even skill points and a big skill tree to dump them in, which mostly focus on upgrading your percentage-based dice rolls for the breaking-and-entering mechanics. Might as well be Baldur’s Gate.
While the sandbox makes American Fugitive worth playing, it’s these skill points that end up killing its momentum.
American Fugitive is at its best early on, when you’re a poor, fragile loser. Once you become a wealthy, hardier loser, all these systems lose their risk and their potential for emergent, suddenly-exciting scenarios. You gradually lose your ability to fail as you simultaneously improve at playing the game. In other words, American Fugitive cannibalises itself until all you’re left with is tedium.
Early on, the game rewards you for scavenging and playing smart. You can’t hold much and you don’t have the funds to buy much, either. Trying to get these funds (outside of missions) is risky, since there’s a higher chance that your dice roll will leave you worse off and on the run yet again. Neither you or your car can handle much damage. This all combines into an exciting risk-reward dynamic — which is then sanded down and flattened.
After a few hours or so, you have the money to buy pretty much anything (including cars via your mobile phone, eliminating the risk of stealing cars), you can carry just about everything you want, you and your cars can take far more damage, and every dice roll is almost guaranteed to succeed. American Fugitive flips from exciting to boring in almost no time at all.
The “solution” is to just leave these skill points alone, which is totally possible, but it’s at odds with the game itself and what it wants from you. Skill points are what drive you forward in American Fugitive and neglecting them means missing out on that central goal to keep you going, to keep you exploring and experimenting with the sandbox. The game’s slim story, which is told exclusively through a handful of text boxes and portraits at a time, isn’t enough either.
American Fugitive is far more interesting and ambitious than I ever expected it to be. It starts off strong as you get to grips with the gameplay and its myriad of surprisingly-detailed sandbox mechanics, doing that thing I love about GTA games where every early mission is a tutorial for yet another mechanic. But by the time you hit the second island (or one-third of the way into the main story), American Fugitive rapidly loses momentum. By the third island, it’s running on fumes.
The GTA-like didn’t quite tap into my nostalgia for Chinatown Wars but it did, out of nowhere, scratch my itch for an immersive sim. American Fugitive is imperfect but wildly ambitious, hinting at ways that the genre — whether it’s Grand Theft Auto or not — could meaningfully evolve in the future.
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