I remember the first time I ever stepped foot into the world of Grand Theft Auto. It was in the late nineties and I’d discovered that magazines offered demo discs with games loaded on them. It was only a short snippet of the game, but its top-down free-for-all aesthetic had me hooked. Now, some 22 years later the GTA series has evolved into something we couldn’t have possibly imagined back in the nineties, but I’m still incredibly fond of that top-down perspective of the early titles in the series.
Now, why am I dithering along about Grand Theft Auto in a review for a game called American Fugitive? Well, that’s because American Fugitive is, at its core, a Grand Theft Auto title with some very, very interesting mechanics thrown in. You have the top-down/isometric perspective, more similar to Grand Theft Auto: China Town Wars than the original GTA/GTA 2. You have a world map that has two districts sealed off, to begin with, and you have an endless array of missions from different characters within the world.
When I first saw American Fugitive I couldn’t quite shake the GTA comparison, but I decided to brush it aside as aside from the perspective, the game has a completely different plot. You’re a fugitive (of course) after being falsely imprisoned for the murder of your father. Once you escape, you find yourself in the typical orange jumpsuit looking for a safe haven from the cops. Fortunately, someone left some washing hanging out overnight and boom, you have a new outfit.
Off you go to your brother’s salvage yard in an attempt to get answers, and from here the similarities start to rear their heads. After some brief dialogue, you find yourself taking part in a series of different errands for your brother, whether it’s to steal a car, cause some damage, or take a car to the paint and spray as part of a prank. Of course, these errands have part of the plot tied to them, but the repetitiveness of these errands begins to overshadow the reason you’re actually playing the game – to find out why you’ve been framed.
Things begin to redeem themselves once you’re introduced to more characters, but in typical GTA fashion, you begin to have a number of initials dotted around the map with no real direction as to which of these characters progress the story and which are just there to earn cash and upgrade points.
After a good couple of hours with the game, it’s clear that there are multiple similarities between American Fugitive and Grand Theft Auto, whether it’s the overly jumpy cops, the number of ramps which can be used to perform stunts and earn cash, and even down to the paint and spray. In a way, it’s a nice homage to the classic games in the series, but ultimately aside from the plot offers only a few differences to Rockstar’s series. That being said, these differences make for some really compelling gameplay.
The key difference between American Fugitive and GTA is the ability to burgle houses. Sure, you can kick someone out of their car, or steal a vehicle from a parking lot, but taking a risk attempting to case and rob a high-profile building gives you a real rush despite it not actually being the most involved part of the game.
Rather than having you fanny about looking through drawers or cupboards for valuables, you’re are given a rough blueprint of the house you’re attempting to rob as well as a countdown timer as to when the fuzz will arrive. Depending on the point of entry, you’ll be given the option to search the current room, or move to the next room and search that too. What makes it risky is that searching rooms speeds up the timer. This gives you a choice, do you attempt to search every room, or do you aim for lived-in rooms like the lounge or the bedroom?
If you’re too greedy, you’ll find yourself surrounded by the cops as they block every exit, though you do still have a chance to flee. This is another improvement to the formula provided by GTA. Rather than scarpering and hiding in an alleyway hoping for the best, you can continue your burglary spree, or simply find some clothes to change into. The game doesn’t discriminate either, as you can pop on a dress if that’s the only option available. While it’s not a major mechanic to the game, it’s a really nice touch that helps it escape its GTA-shaped shadow.
Furthermore, there’s some smug satisfaction in putting on a police uniform and actually robbing the station of its evidence only to sell it to the local fine art dealer for a cool bit of cash which can then be used to upgrade your character. These upgrades use both points you earn through gameplay as well as cash and can improve health and health regeneration, chances of evasion, and chances of people surrendering when you burgle their houses while they’re still in.
Having reviewed the game on Nintendo Switch I can say that in handheld mode, American Fugitive is the perfect addition to Nintendo’s console. Considering the perspective, I didn’t struggle with seeing smaller items like edibles or weapons, nor did the console struggle in handheld mode. When hooking it up to a TV, that’s a different story. While the game is enjoyable to play using the Pro controller, the game actually struggled a lot more in this mode.
Most notably, American Fugitive would stutter and lag whenever you were in a vehicle, especially as more vehicles populated the road and you moved quickly. This was, unfortunately, a bit of a let down as the game’s driving mechanics aren’t the tightest. This was most apparent when it came to driving faster cars as the handling was shocking and more often than not you’d spin out at every corner. Adding to this, cars drive insanely slow in the game causing me to accidentally bump into other drivers more than once causing them to call it into the police and initiating another manhunt.
The AI in the game could do with some work, too, especially when it comes to the police. More often than not I’d come across a random patrol car that had either driven itself into a ditch or was sleeping with the fishes. In addition, AI vehicles would often just career into one another and because I was nearby, or even involved, I’d be held accountable and another APB would be issued.
This unfortunately hindered gameplay on multiple occasions as I’d simply be traveling to find a new mission and I’d have to spend the next ten minutes escaping from the cops. Though considering how easy I continue to escape from prison, I’m not surprised everyone is so damn twitch in this small town.
Overall, American Fugitive scratches that old school GTA itch whilst also providing something new to sink your nails into. While the AI and driving mechanics could do with a bit of tweaking, the game is an overall enjoyable experience with the thieving mechanics bring the most stand-out feature.