Scrolling Pixels is Dean Van Nguyen’s retro gaming column. Check back on the first Monday of every month for the latest instalment.
The juggernaut success of Grand Theft Auto hasn’t spawned as many clones as you might think. Since the series pretty much invented the 3D open world action-adventure title with the release of Grand Theft Auto III back in 2001, not a whole lot of developers have attempted to take on Rockstar at its own car-jackin’, radio-flippin’, twin-uzi-firin’ game. It’s as though they’re afraid to enter an arena where they can’t possibly hope to win. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto V, in particular, have set impossibly high bars for their respective console’s generation.
There has been Saints Row, of course, a clear knock-off that actually achieved near-sandbox perfection with the release of the second game of the series in 2008 by offering a more fun, irreverent crime epic than the super-serious (for GTA anyway) Grand Theft Auto IV. Subsequent Saints Row games have been frustratingly dumb though, as developer Volition attempted to differentiate them from the competition by making them more and more daft. There was the poorly-conceived Scarface: The World Is Yours back in 2006, which aimed to rewrite the original movie’s mythology with stunningly disrespectful results. And Rockstar has even attempted to extend itself with Western classic Red Dead Redemption. But, for the most part, the most notable (and best) crime-based open world adventure games have tended to be released under Grand Theft Auto‘s umbrella.
The very first title to rival the series, though, has largely been consigned to the bargain bin of gaming history. Developed by British company Team Soho, the incredibly ambitious The Getaway was released just over a year after Grand Theft Auto III, but appeared to dwarf its more cartoonish rival in both scope and realism. Prompted by the slew of British gangster flicks released at the time, it came with a fully realised, wholly cinematic plot, following a retired gangster trying to escape the clutches of the criminal life (that old chestnut) who must complete a series of jobs for a local kingpin in return for the safe release of his kidnapped son. And unlike GTA, The Getaway attempted to do what no game has tried since: while Rockstar’s creation was set in Liberty City, a fictionalised version of New York that allowed developers to scale down and restructure the Big Apple as they saw fit, The Getaway set out to recreate 16 square kilometers of present-day London, to scale and in detail.
But while The Getaway was hugely hyped ahead of its release, it mostly left a bad taste in player’s mouths. One of the most frustrating games you’re ever likely to play, the developers paid so much attention to some of its big picture aspects, they forgot to make the thing actually, y’know, fun! And despite finally dropping over two years after its original release date (it had been scheduled the launch alongside the PlayStation 2 in 2000, meaning the game would have actually have gotten the jump on Grand Theft Auto III), it still somehow managing to feel very much unfinished.
A playable movie
As gaming hardware became increasingly powerful at the turn of the millennium, the idea that games could become, in essence, playable movies became the holy grail for gamers and developers alike. That concept has largely been abandoned today as we’ve seen the release of incredible titles, with sweeping plots, convincing voice acting and stunning animation that still feel like fully-functioning games. But in the wake of Guy Ritchie’s frighteningly successful Laaaandaaaan gangster films Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), The Getaway sought to cash in by presenting itself as basically another instalment in the canon, featuring its own set of fast-talking cockney low-lifers – all bacon and eggs, bubble and squeak, and indecipherable rhyming slang. Every character is a well-dressed crafty geezer. Each interior as drab and dingy as the city’s weather.
Players first take control of Mark Hammond, dashing around the city to complete various miscreant jobs in the hope his son will be returned to him in one piece, and, later, Detective Constable Frank Carter, who is investigating the case. The mechanics will be familiar to GTA fans, with the game mostly requiring players to drive to a set location where they usually need to be handy with a pistol to complete their task. Team Soho’s attempt to instil a more cinematic quality to the game includes the lack of an on-screen map. During driving sequences, you’re are directed to your location by the car’s indicators. And there’s no health packs to collect. Instead, players can recharge Hammond and Carter by leaning against a wall and watching their blood-drench clothes self-clean. I guess it was deemed more ‘realistic’ than running over little pods with a red cross on them or whatever, though it took me ages to figure out you could actually do it. On first play through I was attempting to clear out buildings full of enemies without resting for a health top-up.
Let’s talk about the good: the city here looks absolutely amazing. If you have any knowledge of central London’s geography at all (which I did when I first bought the game), it’s an absolute joy exploring the familiar streets and sights. Fly past Westminster Abbey or go for a stroll down Regent Street – every area is instantly recognisable as the game achieves a near-photo realism.
Unfortunately, The Getaway does absolutely everything in its power to make enjoying the surroundings as difficult as possible. Chiefly, players can’t simply go on a tour of the city, as each mission comes with a not-advertised time limit. Dawdle for too long and it’s an instant game over. A free-roaming option does appear on the main menu after you complete the game, but should you stick around long enough to finish story mode, there are still some problems. For instance, it’s impossible to move the camera from within a vehicle, making it really difficult to enjoy the sites of old London town as you drive around. And while it trumps the Playstation 2’s Grand Theft Auto games in terms of visuals, Liberty City and Vice City (the series’ version of Miami) felt like living, breathing areas worthy of exploration. The Getaway’s London, no matter how pretty, just looks like window dressing. There’s very little you can interact with, and almost nothing to do.
In addition, The Getaway is weighed down by a horrible control system, clunky mechanisms on both the shooting and driving (cars are neither fun to drive, nor do they handle like vehicles should) and terrible production values all over. The acting is awful and the dialogue is laughable (“She’s not the slightest bit squeamish about seeing a bit of claret,” says one of the heavies). For all the effort that went into creating a realistic version of London, not a single character behaves like an actual Londoner. You could say the same of Ritchie’s movies, of course, but the filmmaker’s early work was self-aware enough to charm its viewers, and always felt like they were set in a kind of Carry On alternate universe version of London. The Getaway, on the other hand, takes itself wayyyy too seriously to work in the same way, favouring gritty realism ahead of tongue-in-cheek humour.
A sequel, The Getaway: Black Monday, was released two years later to little fanfare. I’ve never played the game, being one of many to skip the whole thing, but reviews were even more vicious than that lobbed at its bigger brother. According to IGN, Black Monday “doesn’t fix many of the serious issues that plagued the first title”, despite the belated addition of a map to the user’s interface.
And that was it. Having promised so much, both games were practically never heard of again and, despite the incredible achievement of recreating an existing city as a playground for blood-thirsty gamers, it wielded little influence on any later released sandbox titles. It’s an apt punishment. As much as I want to admire the piece, The Getaway just does everything else badly, providing a valuable lesson for later developers: When it comes to great games, it’s all about the details.
Get your early bird tickets now!