Years and years ago, there was a brief moment in time when math class was exciting. We got to use graphing calculators, hulking slabs of plastic with Game Boy-sized screens and a million buttons most kids would never press. These gimmicks lost their luster soon enough but in that moment, news these things could play games spread all hush-hush-like from the one guy in class with a personal calculator and a USB cable. The novelty of these crude renditions of Super Mario Bros., DOOM, and Phoenix was powerful, but only one game captured long-term interest: Drug Wars.
Until today I hadn’t thought about Drug Wars for years. But it was the third thing I thought of after playing Crime Boss: Rockay City. The first thoughts being, “what in tarnation have I brought upon myself” and “wait, is that Body Count?” Developed by INGAME Studios and published by 505 Games, Crime Boss: Rockay City is the strangest game I’ve played so far in 2023. This game is a fascinating blend of vibes, genre, and sound mixing that feels out of time and place with such profound confidence I almost felt like it was my fault for being confused.
Smells like a 2009 dorm room in here
Crime Boss: Rockay City is a head-scratching blend of “turf wars,” first-person shooting-slash-stealth heist action, bizarre stunt casting and… it’s also a roguelike? It’s almost like a mixture of WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$!, and Grand Theft Auto with an unending stream of small snippets of gameplay strung together by cutscenes featuring grown-ass adults yelling to each other about doing crimes like a group of teenagers who just watched Scarface together for the first time.
The campaign stars Travis Baker, a de-aged, cowboy hat-wearing, smarmy Michael Madsen clone grown in a vat at a video game protagonist factory run by an AI chatbot. Everything about this game is like what happens if a Boondock Saints poster and the cover of a PlayStation 2 GTA do the Fusion Dance and miss the finger touch at the end. And Baker is the hero of that waking nightmare. As Baker your job is to spew awkward one-liners at underlings, choose goals and tasks each day, and make piles of cash by any means necessary. Then get killed by the worst iteration of the “Chuck Norris Joke” I’ve ever seen, which is weird considering literal, by-God Chuck Norris is involved in this one.
Onboarding is Crime Boss’ first major hurdle. The way this game’s concept, structure, premise, and story is unrolled feels disjointed, confused, and slapdash in a way that makes understanding the bigger picture much harder than it should be. Once all the pieces are actually in place and you’ve died and started new runs a few times, the loop will click into place and what Crime Boss actually is comes into focus. The narrative is still a Walmart bag full of screeching, feral cats and five-dollar DVDs though. Oh, and a copy of Body Count’s classic album, Body Count. I don’t remember the rest of the soundtrack, but that’s not really important when Body Count’s in the house.
Checking too many boxes
Ultimately the game is about half Drug Wars-style number management and half roguelike shooter. Each “day” has you play a handful of bite-sized action segments, ranging from bank robberies to attacking or defending chunks of a map. Win or lose, the game continues as the story develops and you react to the board state, so to speak. If you lose while you’re playing as Baker, however, that’s an instant game over. You’re rewarded for the work you did, earning permanent perks to help your next attempt at taking over Rockay City go a little better. Each run can feel relatively distinct, as the game pulls from a pool of intros and events to fill in your overall understanding of who’s who.
The goals don’t really change though, and you’ll be skipping cutscenes you’ve already seen in no time. The missions start to blend together pretty quickly too, as environments, enemies, and scenarios don’t change much beyond the numbers going up. Every now and then you get little substories that pop up and introduce new characters, but especially early on you’re so ill-equipped to succeed you’ll probably just die before you can process what’s happening.
It doesn’t help that Crime Boss also just feels confused about what it wants. The narration constantly pushes stealth, but everything else about the game wants you to go in guns blazing. Being graded on “clean execution” afterward never seems to match how the the level actually went, and implications I was or wasn’t drawing more heat from the police were all over the place and never once clear. Once I stopped caring about nuance, I had a better time. Although the gunplay sequences were pretty milquetoast, so “better” is relative.
Roguelikes are trendy for a reason, but not everything needs to be a roguelike with a grab bag of subgenres bolted on. If Crime Boss was more straightforward, with a stronger emphasis on telling a story and more room for the management stuff to breathe, I feel like we’d have a much more compelling experience in front of us. The grind and manufactured spontaneity brought by Roguelike framing constantly gets in the way, trivializing gains and losses alike and failing to present the characters or stakes as anything worth caring about.
To its credit, Crime Boss: Rockay City has other modes aside from the campaign, with multiplayer modes that are more about individual, detached missions or building up the other characters. Crime Time basically turns the whole deal into more of a sandbox-style structure, putting more of an emphasis on grinding missions and money to bulk up. There’s certainly an appeal to just jumping in and playing some quick hits with friends or bots, but that’s easy enough to say about any multiplayer game. Here it feels like a side attraction, something to do to take a small break from the campaign.
How do you do, fellow 90s children?
90s nostalgia feels like the big hook here. I say “feels like,” because while I grew up in the 90s and recognize the individual pieces, the overall vibe feels like said nostalgia was put together in Bizarro World. Seeing Michael Madsen and Danny Trejo and Michael Rooker together in a crime story makes sense, but tossing the likes of Vanilla Ice, Danny Glover and Kim Basinger veers into silly territory. It doesn’t help that the VO mix (and performance quality) is all over the place, often sounding like two characters are having a face-to-face conversation in different rooms. Chuck Norris, the antagonist taunting you at every failure, sounds like he’s reading from a sheet of paper while his attention is 95 percent elsewhere. Maybe he’s still worried about the 1000 years of darkness brought on by Obama’s re-election in 2012.
I now step away from my time with Crime Boss: Rockay City with more questions than answers. It’s shockingly difficult to get a grasp on what this game is, what it’s trying to be and especially who it’s for. It vaguely reminds me of times and places I’ve seen in the past, growing up in the era of Chuck Norris memes and Rockstar Games’ rise to the top. But it’s all so weird and hazy, like everything Crime Boss is trying to evoke was bagged up and submerged in a vat of RC Cola before making it out the door. It also seems to have trouble managing its own core concept, which admittedly sounds tricky to land even on paper.
If the idea of playing a shooter crammed on top of a modern edition of Drug Wars, full of pseudo ironic stunt casting and roguelike gimmicks sounds like a good time, boy do I have a game for you. The only game for you, really. All snark aside I don’t think I’ve ever played a game quite like Crime Boss: Rockay City. It’s a massive swing and a big miss, with enough force to crack the sound barrier while the ball stays in the catcher’s mitt. It’s neither a cynical corporate cringe like Sharknado, nor is it a low-budget dud you’d expect to see a crew of robot puppets heckle. It’s weird, loud and uncanny. Frankly I’m surprised Christopher Walken didn’t show up.
Crime Boss: Rockay City
- Baffling, yet compelling gameplay premise
- Body Count, Body Count
- Body Count, Body Count
- Lots of interesting ideas, even if they don't all come together
- Body Count's in the houuuuuse
- Game-wide disjointedness gives off "fake game in a law and order episode" vibe
- Can't decide if it wants to be a tactical stealth joint or arcadey shoot 'em up
- VO is a whole spectrum of awful
- Chuck Norris was not relevant in the 90s, come on
Lucas White posted a new article, Crime Boss: Rockay City review: Body Count has entered the residence
Also, I have to say this review contains some of the best sentences I've ever read in a video game review.
"Then get killed by the worst iteration of the “Chuck Norris Joke” I’ve ever seen, which is weird considering literal, by-God Chuck Norris is involved in this one."
"The narrative is still a Walmart bag full of screeching, feral cats and five-dollar DVDs though. Oh, and a copy of Body Count’s classic album, Body Count. I don’t remember the rest of the soundtrack, but that’s not really important when Body Count’s in the house."
Also until the bullet points at the bottom I kept thinking you were talking about Operation: Body Count ( https://store.steampowered.com/app/1627120/Operation_Body_Count/ (wow! really!?!? ON STEAM!?!?) and I couldn't align my memories of the game with what you were describing.
Then I realized OH he's just talking about Ice-T.