A long time ago, before GTA Online was even a malevolent glint in Take-Two Interactive’s bloodshot eyes, Grand Theft Auto was two dimensional. Back on the original PlayStation it used a top down camera and 2D graphics to go on a trip that was perhaps even weirder than the more modern games. It wasn’t until the PlayStation 2 that the series to make its way into a third dimension and become the juggernaut that it is today, but American Fugitive isn’t interested in any of that. It’s a game that’s convinced that the old, old school GTA experience and a top down camera is plenty, thank you very much.
At first glance it seems to do a good job. You might be looking down on the world, but the graphics are decidedly 3D, making it rather reminiscent of GTA Chinatown Wars. It can look particularly nice at night time, where the light cast by street lamps, car headlights and helicopter search light make things all lovely and atmospheric. On Nintendo Switch, it also helps cover up some of the blurrier textures and the aliasing that exists on the edges of objects. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of tanking the frame rate on the hybrid console, to the point where it damages the experience significantly. It’s difficult to drive accurately when the frame rate is inconsistent, slowing down your reaction time in-game and making you more likely to crash. Of course, when playing with the added grunt of a PS4 Pro, the performance is fine, but the Switch’s wonky frame rate becomes nothing short of frustrating when paired up with the overbearing wanted level mechanics.
Naturally, being a GTA-like, to use the more modern parlance, there are cops and crimes for you to take part in. The most common crime by far is the hit and run, because whenever you drive somewhere you’ll nudge cars, bits of fence, etc, and then a passer-by will call the rozzers on you. This only gets you a one star wanted level, but that will inevitably spiral out of control as you pass a cop and they give chase. This happens every time – and I really mean every single time – I try to get to my next mission or objective. It’s next to impossible to avoid the cars pulling out in front of you, straight up crashing into you, and the constant frame rate drops. The only consistent way to avoid this fate is to slowly make your way through the world, circumnavigating other cars and bits of scenery like they’re liable to explode at any moment. If I wanted to drive safely and carefully, I’d go outside and drive a real car.
This isn’t the only annoying way to gain a wanted level, either. You’re expected to steal from buildings to make money and find useful items, and this is done through a mini-game. First, you wander around the outside of the house peering in through the windows to ensure there is nobody inside, then you break in, whether by window or door. After this happens you’re presented with a map of the house and a timer, because despite you ensuring there wasn’t a soul nearby or inside, breaking into a run-down trailer has alerted the cops and they’re now on the way. You now have a short amount of time to choose rooms to search through and escape before the omniscient cops show up to chase you. On top of this, dying strips you of your entire inventory and you have to set about stealing everything all over again, which is just a bit too punishing and doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the game.
This is all a shame, as the game’s open world is pretty good. It has stunt jumps, races, and time trails amongst the other activities dotted around for you to attempt, not to mention some fun toys like a car crusher to play with, if you know where to look. Dealing with your wanted level is equal parts reasonable and funny, as you swap your car for another, buy new clothes in stores and even swipe some clothes off washing lines. It’s pretty hilarious that the police can’t recognise you when you change out of a trench coat for a pink dress. Other than that, you can break line of sight and hide whilst your wanted level slowly ticks down, or just take a shortcut across some garden fences.
The story even manages to muster enough mystery and wit to keep you interested were it not for the technical issues and fiddly wanted system. Set in the 1980s, Will Riley is framed and imprisoned after his father is killed under suspicious circumstances. After a quick chat on the prison phone and the customary prison beating, Riley decides to escape from prison and find out who really killed his dad. From here, he finds himself stuck in a criminal underworld full of gang wars and, well, crimes. It’s not unique, but it’s good enough to keep you going when combined with the snappily written dialogue, despite all the reading due to having no voice acting.
Unfortunately, all the actual missions are very repetitive, often just fetch quests or “go here, kill this” missions. There are occasionally things like ramming a car off the road or stealing one, but the majority of the missions are far too simple to keep you interested for long.