Every year around this time, the National Institute on Media and the Family releases its annual report card on video game violence. In this year's edition, the watchdogs went so far as to coin a new term, "killographic," for video games like Grand Theft Auto that shock the conscience with their numbing brutality. Me, I'm inclined to go with Bart Simpson on this one: If you don't watch the violence, you'll never get desensitized.
Speaking of, Fox's Proudhon-in-short-pants is starring in his umpteenth video game, The Simpsons: Hit & Run, a wholesale rip-off of Grand Theft Auto that's just violent enough to make the Institute on Media and the Family's case. Zipping around bustling Springfield in one of dozens of cars, you might run across, say, Krusty the Clown or Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. But no worries: Since this is just a cartoon, the destruction you wreak is no more permanent than on your average episode of Itchy and Scratchy.
Given that it's a Simpsons franchise, Hit & Run is naturally geared to fan-boys of the venerable show, with plenty of inside jokes from the series--play well enough and you'll unlock the legendary "Knight-Boat"--and an occasionally trenchant stab at meta-satire. (One mission finds Bart engaging in a GTA-style mission to steal a copy of an ultra-violent video game.) Even if Hit & Run itself steals pretty baldly from GTA, the game's cartoon milieu makes smashing up Springfield's streets and terrorizing its citizenry all the more fun. As Comic Book Store Guy might say: Best. Video game. Ever.
Hit & Run is hardly the first game to borrow inspiration from the extraordinarily successful Grand Theft Auto games. But at least its creators had the sense to garnish their rip-off with pop-culture dressing. The new Activision title True Crime: Streets of LA hews even closer to the proven GTA formula--and looks all the lazier in comparison.
In True Crime, you play as Nick Kang, an LAPD cop who's been suspended for, well, acting like an LAPD cop. To kill time between gross violations of the Fourth Amendment, you tool around 270 square miles of greater Los Angeles. Incredibly, True Crime recreates this metropolis in near photorealistic detail: Every LA storefront, tree, and park bench is right where it should be. The game also has fun with LA's seedy rep. As you cruise around, for instance, a dispatcher will tell you to investigate a hit-and-run accident involving Hollywood actress "Holly Cherry." But Streets of LA--like the streets of LA--also involves a lot of sitting on the 101 and swearing at the SUV in front of you.
True Crime stays true to GTA form, delivering a mix of aimless mayhem and small missions where you'll be asked to drive from point A to point B. The game's one major innovation is that it tries to introduce a moral variable into the GTA calculus. If you run over too many pedestrians or continuously "solve" crime with your gun, you'll get tagged as a "bad cop." If, however, you use nonlethal force to apprehend perps, you'll be able to play the game as Snoop Dogg and drive a pimped-out purple Caddy.
Technically impressive but dull and derivative, True Crime makes one miss the free-form chaos of Grand Theft Auto all the more: It's just not as fun playing a straight-arrow LAPD narc as it is a sociopathic mobster. As Snoop confrere Eazy-E once noted: "Yeah, I'm a gansta, but still I got flavor."