Having finally completed the crime game “This Is The Police” and getting slapped across the face with its overall message of “Crime doesn’t pay, but neither does non-crime, so to hell with you either way, bucko,” I found myself with an itch to play some more crime games that feature the gritty underbelly of society and both sides of the law.
Well, gritty is kind of subjective. This list of the 10 best crime games includes video games set in the afterlife, a sexy wolf-man, anime characters shouting at each other, and a couple of toy animals bouncing around spewing goofy comedy quips, nyuk-nyuk-nyuk.
But that doesn’t change the fact that these are some of the best crime games out there (except for one, which I’ll get back to very shortly), and all the goofy rabbit sidekicks in the world can’t change the fact that there are some really remarkable creations to be found in this very under-appreciated video game genre.
I guess you can’t expect the best to always be the most popular. Oh, and speaking of…
10. Grand Theft Auto V
To my mind, GTA V is one of the most overrated crimes games of the decade, a messy, mediocre time-killer that was somehow made on the kind of budget that would make Donald Trump sweat. You know Toby Fox made an instant classic with only a fraction of the money, time and a couple of people, right? And Undertale also didn’t create one of the most toxic online communities I’ve ever seen. Go into a public server and see how long you can last before racial slurs and incoherent abuse echo over your headset, shrieked out by some stupid, soulless teen with a can of Red Bull and a bag of cheap marijuana given to him by his older brother.
But any product with sufficient marketing and no risks in the formula will eventually make its money back, and people do seem to enjoy it (by which I mean Grand Theft Auto V, not marijuana). I can even see why people enjoy Rockstar’s latest entry – play in a closed server with friends and you might find yourself getting some pleasure from the experience, provided you don’t enter the online heists and end up throttling the one guy who isn’t good enough to avoid getting cheaply killed. Consider this my reluctant submission to peer pressure, because I’d actually have liked to put Shadowrun Returns, Monaco or Payday 2 here. Now let’s put it behind us and actually look at some good games.
9. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
I admit that I’ve only played the original entry, but even as somebody who treats anime and manga the same way a vampire might flinch from a holy cross, I did find myself hooked by Phoenix’s first five crime cases. Bouncing between interrogating suspects and adventure-game evidence searching in one half, before crashing into the courtroom and clearing the suspect’s name in the second, Phoenix Wright does provide an interesting core series of mechanics. The cross-examination works especially well, as you scour a witness’ testimony and look through the established facts to see where they’re tell a big, fat fib. OBJECTION!
Of course, it’s not perfect. The story in Phoenix Wright is a bit weird and tonally unstable, bringing in supernatural elements where they really weren’t needed, and some of the Phoenix Wright characters seem a bit too “Kawaii” (ugh) for my tastes, but on the whole it creates a series of good mysteries that usually come together in a solid way. Oh, and any series that has the stones to call its P.I.“Detective Gumshoe” is worthy of respect, partly because that’s what they called you in that great old PC game for kids, “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?” Does anybody else remember Carmen Sandiego? No? Fine, I’ll move on again.
8. L.A. Noire
See, L.A. Noire is the Rockstar crime game that actually holds some weight, partly because they decided to think outside the box and make something innovative. The premise behind this mid-twentieth century cop thriller is that your job is to play war veteran and police detective Cole Phelps, ricocheting between departments in the LAPD to solve various crimes and loudly shout at people until they tell you what you need to know. I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of shouting at people. It’s actually one of the main mechanics.
The big thing for L.A. Noire was that Rockstar paid a bunch of actors to mug for the motion-capture technology, playing witnesses and suspects in various cases; and you have to judge their facial reactions and body posture to see whether they’re lying or not. It’s an interesting idea that works in a reactive story, broken up with organically searching crime scenes, pootling around the rather beautiful sandbox in old cars and a bit of shooting bank robbers to finish off. There are problems – the ending feels a bit out of place, some actors are too easy to read and Cole’s dialogue can be a bit unpredictable, ranging from nigh-undetectable disapproval to a full-on tirade at some frightened old biddy, but on the whole I like this odyssey of old America, and not just because I’m a sucker for the music and styles of the time.
7. Sleeping Dogs
No, not perfect. The overly slow build-up to the third act, the fact that gunplay is markedly less fun than the melee combat, the final villain being too obvious, the fact that Wei Shen’s battle of loyalties never quite gets a proper payoff, and that sodding karaoke mini-game means that Sleeping Dogs can’t achieve a higher score than this, but it also doesn’t nullify the fact that this Hong Kong-set sandbox is really, really fun.
It’s partly because I like the core idea. Wei Shen is an undercover cop trying to make his way into the inner circle of his hometown’s Traids, and he’s more than happy to break a few ribs with his Kung fu moves along the way. Yes, yes, yes. Not to mention that the characters are well-crafted, the city has great atmosphere and the combat “reaction brawler” system influenced by the Arkham games gives great bone-crunching catharsis, and allows you to beat a man to death with a live fish. Oh, and this crime game also features one of the best villain deaths in gaming (see here).
6. The Condemned Series
I know, I put these games in the 10 Best Survival Horror Games list too. So what? Sometimes a game fits multiple genres, and does them both really, really well. The first Condemned game in particular is a gritty, creepy, relatively grounded mystery that enthralls, engages and – of course – terrifies.
Condemned is also a game series that does melee combat realistically, but without being compromised by it. The crunch of metal meeting a homeless man’s jaw as you swing your weapon in frightened desperation is so believable that you practically feel the impact run up your arm. Same also applies for when his buddy comes up behind you and caves your skull in with a lead pipe. And between bum fighting sessions, you get to peruse a strange serial killer mystery that tests your intellectual boundaries, so I hope you still have some brain left inside that skull after a hobo tried to beat it out of you. Check out the first Condemned game on Steam (found here), or dig out the previous console generation to play the sequel, because they’re totally worth it.