American Fugitive, a straight-up homage to the top-down Grand Theft Auto games of old, sees players assume the role of William Riley, a bad boy with a criminal past who’s just been framed for his father’s murder. Convicted and sent to jail in the opening moments of the game, he almost immediately manages to set himself free in what must go down as one of the most ridiculously easy jailbreaks of all time, smashing an unbarred window and strolling out of the infirmary where he’s been recovering from a fist fight, from here the game wastes no time chucking you out the end of a sewer pipe and into its world.
And it’s a world that gives off a very good first impression. Redrock County is a vibrant and colourful place to behold, it looks amazing on the Switch’s portable screen, a seemingly huge leap in detail from the old GTA games it emulates. Here almost every object you come across has real time physics applied; stone walls collapse satisfyingly as you smash a vehicle into them, wooden structures are weak, a tempting target for a rogue van or tractor, and fences are just begging to be barrelled through Dukes of Hazzard style, all these breakable elements combining to make car chases look just like the ones you remember from all those 1980s cop shows. The ambient noises are also on point, radio stations, police chatter, wildlife, the hubbub of day to day life is all present and correct. It’s impressively detailed stuff, right down to the satisfyingly crisp crunch of gravel under the wheels of your car as you creep slowly up the drive of a house you’re about to ransack.
It’s also stuffed full of gameplay mechanics. Not satisfied with aping just about every element of the likes of Chinatown Wars with its mission dispensing array of oddball characters, wanted system, weapons dealers, vehicle paint shops, car races and the word 'WASTED' popping up onscreen when you die, American Fugitive also features a bevvy of ideas all of its own. One of the first you’re introduced to is a neat little minigame involving breaking into properties for loot. Approach a house and you’ll be prompted to case the joint, peeking through each window. You’ll make note of which rooms are unoccupied before breaking in to secure whatever goods are inside.
Once in a property the game switches to an overhead map of the rooms you have access to, you then hold down a button to search the room, this takes time and if you’ve alerted the police a clock at the top of the screen will indicate how long you have left until they show up to take you down. Holding down the search button speeds up the police clock, creating a nice tension as you decide whether or not to move to another room to look for more gear or get out of Dodge before the fuzz show up. It’s a clever idea which is added to by the fact any residents you come across can be killed, tied up or let go. There’s a genuine tension here which is sadly wasted because of janky mechanics.
No matter how quiet and careful you are when casing a property - even when you’ve waited until the dead of night and are positive the place is deserted, sure that nobody is watching - as soon as you set foot through a window or door that police timer shows up. They’re on their way, you’ve been seen. It doesn’t make any sense, it’s annoying, and it pretty much ruins this fun little setup. In saying that, it’s also something that could be overlooked if it wasn’t for the fact that almost every system at play in American Fugitive seems to suffer from the same kind of problem.
The police operate under the exact same system as you’ll be used to from the old GTA games: cause trouble and you’ll receive one star of heat. Causing further problems sees it rise, putting more cops on your tail until the military get involved. However, its implementation is problematic here. Sometimes police will notice crimes, other times not, one moment a slight prang against another driver’s car will have the cops, who show up instantly no matter where you are, on your tail en masse. Other times you can smash at full speed into a police vehicle and they’ll pay no mind to it.
These problems continue once a police chase is instigated, it’s laughably easy to escape, even at five stars worth of heat. Simply jumping out of your vehicle and hiding in some bushes nearby will usually be enough to lose the spectacularly dumb law enforcement officers. Driving off the main road, doing some doughnuts and crashing through a fence or two will also suffice, the game’s AI just can’t handle any sort of mischief at all.
There are other half-baked mechanics thrown into the works. Story missions will often present you with dialogue options; will you wake your sleeping wife to tell her you’re going out or leave her to rest? Don’t spend any time considering your answer to these situations though because we replayed almost every section that presented you with these choices and the story played out in the same way regardless. It’s a shame. It feels as though developer Fallen Tree Games just decided to throw as much into their game as possible, creating this beautifully realised playground then filling it with rather janky systems of play.
Perhaps the biggest annoyance, however, is that when you die the game strips you of your inventory and punts you back to a sewage pipe to start over. You get to keep your money and XP progress - yes there’s a whole tree of unlockable perks rammed in here too - but all the weapons and loot you had is gone. It’s heavy-handed and doesn’t fit the tone of the game, on the one hand Redrock County is practically begging you to lay waste to it, teasing you with its beautiful destructible environments. On the other death is treated in a way that pulls you out of the flow of the fun and makes you consider your actions a little too carefully.
The combat too is a bit of a hit-or-miss affair. Delivered via a twin stick system it feels loose and inaccurate for the most part. Firing off a few shots then running away, hiding behind some bushes or jumping into a vehicle to mow enemies down certainly feels like a better option than facing hordes of armed goons head on as you’re often overwhelmed by their firepower. It’s not bad but it lacks refinement and doesn’t feel like something you’re going to get progressively better at, relying instead on perks to make things easier as you progress. Police also have a habit of standing behind their own vehicles and shooting directly into them until they explode, doing your job for you.
If American Fugitive had a wanted system that worked flawlessly, with a story that was more focused, perhaps three or four hours of entertaining missions rather than ten hours of almost exclusively dull fetch quests, that would have been enough. The world is perfect, the driving is fine, different vehicles feel and sound pleasingly unique, If the developers had dropped the house-breaking stuff and the story choices and focused on polishing the simple things, this game could have been a perfect little slice of GTA nostalgia, but instead it feels unfocused and clumsy, you’re never really in control. It compares badly to the games it’s trying to emulate, you never felt this way charging around Chinatown Wars because it was polished and streamlined, every mechanic worked as it should so you could manipulate it to your will.
Beyond problems with the mechanics of play there are other issues with the Switch version of the game. The framerate chugs along whenever you get up to anything approaching a reasonable speed in vehicles, making avoiding traffic and pedestrians or just engaging in some fun stunt driving a bit of a pain, it doesn’t feel smooth or precise. Our version of the game also crashed to the Switch home-screen on multiple occasions, a bit of a nightmare when you’re just finishing off a particularly laborious fetch quest and are forced to reload the game. Did we mention this thing take an age to load up?
Overall it feels a little like death by a thousand cuts with American Fugitive, with one too many niggling little problems letting the whole thing down. There is still some fun to be had here, we can’t emphasise enough how impressive Red Rock County itself looks and feels to knock about in, stealing clothes off washing lines and running around doing murder in a pink dress never gets old, the story has a handful of reasonable missions around its middle section, including a standout, multi-part bank heist and the music and ambient effects are perfect. It’s just a shame then that those gameplay mechanics didn’t have a little bit more time in the oven because there’s only so many times your best laid plans can fall apart due to things beyond your control before you lose patience with the whole thing and jack it in for some GTA 2.