I was trying to explain the vibe of Crime Boss: Rockay City – a new Payday-like whose main USP is it’s full of aging 90s-era-ish stars whose unifying trait is that they should not have been hired to do voice work for this game – to Graham as I was playing over the weekend. “You know how police procedurals all have at least one episode that’s about gamers, so they have to make up a game for it? This feels like that. It’s like a fake game made up by a Hollywood television producer.”
A few hours later, after numerous short cutscenes in which Michael Rooker has to shout nonsensical American Football metaphors every so often, to justify the fact that his character is called Touchdown, and Michael Madsen growls about “candy” in a hard-living 65-year-old’s voice coming out of an uncanny-vallyy 35-year-old’s face, I text him an update: “It’s also like that tweet that goes ‘Bames Nond’s having a stronk, call a bondulance‘.”
I mean, also what it’s like is a worse Payday – and considering Payday 2 is ten years old this year, that’s sort of an achievement in itself. Given that gap, you can see why a Payday replacement sounds like a mighty idea: co-op PvE is having a big comeback, and Payday has clear goals (steal stuff) but emergent shenanigans (where am the stuff to steal? Oh no, the cops! etc.) in a compact map. It makes for a good time! And this would theoretically be the case with Crime Boss too. If you’ve played any Payday, or even watched a let’s play, you’ll recognise a lot of what goes on here.
What you mostly do in the game is crime, delivered in standalone, instanced nuggets. Rob a bank, rob an armoured truck, rob a jewellery store, rob a warehouse full of drugs, do a burglary (that’s when you rob something at night!). You do this in squads of four, with each character having different skills, and the aim is to get away with as much loot as possible – with a bare minimum being set for you to win the level. In the course of this you’ll have the opportunity to be stealthy, ziptie civillians, crack safes with a drill that takes fucking ages, and have extended shoot outs with escalatingly tough squads of police (regular guys will stand still while you walk up to and shoot them; SWAT teams will abruptly dodge roll like members of the Cats ensemble).
These crimes are delivered in three different contexts. First is Crime Time, which is your quickplay mode for when you want to jump in and do some heisting. There’s a map of Rockay City where burglaries and robberies pop up every few seconds, but you can also take on a contract, which cost money to do but have greater returns. Some of the more complex of these have to be unlocked in Baker’s Battle, and if you want squad mates beyond rubbish generic ones then these are unlocked in Urban Legends.
Urban Legends is a series of, currently, six mini-campaigns, where you have to play three levels in a row connected by a kind of loose story. An early on goes: attack Vanilla Ice’s gang, steal drugs from him, and then get sold out to the cops. If you fail a level in Urban Legends you have to start at the beginning. This mode is probably the most fun, because it has a greater sense of purpose and more immediately high stakes.
Baker’s Battle is the single player mode where you play as Baker (a distressingly throaty Madsen) trying to take over the titular Floridian party town. This involves looking at a map of the city divided into territories, and taking daily actions to earn money – which will be one of yer heist levels – or take territory from a rival gang leader – which will be an instanced shoot out that may or may not culminate in a bullet-sponge boss. In between these you will be treated to short cutscenes where the much-trailed actors rattle off a melange of crime words like “pussies” and “fuck yeah”, before going back to your map and planning more actions. There are seeds of good ideas here. For example, you end up with different things in a stash, which you can sell when the market for them is up to get a cash injection. You can also die, at which point you have to start the campaign again, but with buffs you’ve earned like extra starting cash, more hired goons, higher personal health, and so on.
This’d be a neat take on the single player for a primarily co-op-friendly game. Unfortunately, Crime Boss has done whatever the opposite of nailing the fundamentals is. It has pulled all the nails out of the fundamentals. The prospect of dying and doing loads of the game again is, therefore, depressing. Shooting feels as substantial as hurling a feather, and your gun pulls to the side of where the sight is – I think because less gun sway is something you can level up, but it’s, just, so annoying. You’re supposed to use stealth to take out cameras and neutralise guards and civillians, but there aren’t enough ways for you to actually succeed. The cover system seems capricious, so you’ll sometimes be seen by cameras even if you’re fully crouched behind an entire car. Several times, when trying to be smart and scope out one of the (repeating) levels, I got walled in by a RETURN TO MISSION AREA when I tried to walk around to the back gate of the very building I was trying to rob!
The main advantage to playing in co-op is that at least you won’t lose specifically because of the AI. Taking hostages doesn’t seem to actually do anything in the event the cops show up, and I even found the impact of different crim’s skills to be pretty negligible, but if you’re playing with bots then it’s odds on that the fuckers won’t even pick up any of the loot, and you have to throw bags at them like you’re loading up a pack donkey. Even then there’s a chance that one will, e.g., run across to the starting spawn area of the level rather than the escape van, or just, sort, of stand in front of a machine gun going “ow”. There are radio barks from your fixer Nasara during missions, but they are all either too late, too early, or just have no relation to what is happening in the game. Also, a lot of the time the NPCs don’t actually load in for about 5 seconds, so it looks like a load of ghosts are shooting at each other. That’s not an AI thing, but it is pretty funny.
I don’t actually blame the devs for any of this, because one imagines that a not-insubstantial portion of Crime Boss’s budget was spaffed, by someone higher up the chain, on hiring aging actors who only kind of understand what they’re meant to be doing. They are, by a generous margin, the worst thing about Crime Boss! Instead of actual voice actors you have Chuck Norris, a 70-year-old-man who is barely in this game despite apparently being the repeating antagonist, delivering lines like “What’s his jam?” as if he’s browsing at a local WI fete. Kim Basinger mostly just kind of stands there. Even people like Madsen and Rooker and Vanilla Ice, who have either been in or, you imagine, heard of video games, are noticeably much worse than the experienced voice actors in there.
And of course they are! This isn’t their wheelhouse! All you need for a game like this is someone who can do a decently gruff “I’m a big bad wrong ‘un, I am” voice, and then you’d save money and get more done on the actual game bit of your game. It’s a no brainer, surely? I’m not going to begrudge the Dannys, both Glover and Trejo, a pension. I just cannot fathom the decisions that went into making Crime Boss: Rockay City. Payday 3 is slated to be out later this year.