American Fugitive: escaping prison in classic GTA style

As big-budget studios continue accelerating with ever more technically complex (and expensive) open worlds, you might forget that Rockstar had actually embraced its roots with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, which, though made for less powerful portable hardware, was no less acclaimed. American Fugitive’s top-down sandbox crime game looks set to recapture the same feeling of the classic GTA games.

Despite the obvious comparison, Fallen Tree Games art director Lewis Boadle tells me, “the strange thing is, we never set out to make a GTA game.” While it is in the crime genre, the inspirations for American Fugitive primarily came from 1990s prison escape movies like The Shawshank Redemption and The Fugitive. You play as Will Riley, a man wrongly convicted of his father’s murder, who escapes from the penitentiary with revenge on his mind. From an artistic point then, the top-down camera was, Boadle says, “more evocative of those police chase TV shows with the overhead surveillance videos,” though as a small studio, this also means a large open world can be created without the time and resources spent on creating hugely detailed environments that need to hold up to scrutiny.

Fans of The Shawshank Redemption ought to appreciate this reference.

The world in question is the rural Red Rock County in the 1980s Deep South, a contrast to the usual urban video game locales, and again inspired by prison escape movies where the escapees often find refuge in rural towns.

This setting also fed into Fallen Tree Games’ initial vision for the game as being more survival-oriented. “You could live off the land, eat carrots and potatoes, hide in a bush, cook a chicken – but after about six months, we realised it wasn’t really that fun,” Boadle explains. “And by going down that route, we were going into a crowded marketplace we weren’t really sure of.”

The team pivoted, eventually adding vehicles and missions, giving the game a more playful, arcadey direction, though the vehicles really provided the epiphany. “Once we realised we were effectively channelling those classic GTA sensations, we just embraced that and went with it,” says Boadle.

There are obvious similarities, such as how you can steal vehicles, while a stars-based ‘Wanted’ level escalates as you would expect. More interesting, however, are the differences. Unlike early GTA titles, American Fugitive is essentially a 3D game made in Unity, and it also deviates from a literal top-down perspective. The camera rather settles at an angle, making it easier to discern details like players’ poses, while it also moves contextually, zooming in certain details or moving up to a top-down view should you move behind a building.

The game doesn’t feature fast travel, but you can always catch a ride on the train as a fun alternative.

There are also more subtle modern mechanics involved, such as how stealing a vehicle isn’t always just a case of walking up to it and pressing a button. You might need a crowbar if you want to break into one quietly, or a brick to smash the window, or you can even be honourable, buy a car, then just use the actual key for it. The Wanted level can also quickly rise or fall based on multiple factors, especially by what you’re wearing.

At the beginning of the game, just after Riley’s escaped, you conveniently come across a washing line with some clothes you can change out of your orange jumpsuit into. Changing clothes then becomes a legitimate way of reducing your Wanted level, while vehicles can also reduce your visibility and therefore bring down your rating – it’s actually a surprise that your stars suddenly shoot right back up when you step out of your car.

Perhaps the biggest departure from the GTA formula is that Boadle and his team have considered their social responsibility when making a game like this. So, far from the amoral chaotic rampage Rockstar’s series has been infamous for, the adult content in American Fugitive is considerably toned down. For example, there’s no gore – knocking out NPCs results in them comically seeing stars – while the script eschews expletives, “numbnuts” and “ass clown” frankly make far more amusing and very American vulgarities.

In true GTA fashion, maxing your ‘Wanted’ rating will see you being pursued by SWAT van and helicopter.

That’s not to say the game is aimed at children, but let’s just say you won’t be picking up prostitutes or flamethrowing Hare Krishnas, either. “There are cases where you’re sent to do something to a particular person but in all those cases, they’re a very bad person,” Boadle explains. “Even with regard to the cops, they’re all corrupt, given they put you in prison knowing you didn’t commit that crime, so we also frame the cops as the bad guys.”

Better still, this extends to the gameplay, where it’s quite possible for Riley to achieve his goals through less violent or non-lethal means, which also means you can expect a pretty freeform approach to missions. “You’re given the tools, and then you might be asked to make $200, but you can do that any way you want,” Boadle elaborates. “You just need to come back with $200. We’re trying to keep it as free-form a sandbox as possible.”

One of Rockstar’s tendencies is to give you a huge open world to play with, only to funnel you through heavily prescribed story missions; Fallen Tree Games, meanwhile, looks like it’s taking a leaf from the past, but American Fugitive’s consistent sandbox approach is something other studios could arguably learn from.

The Great Outdoors

Red Rock County’s open world is split into three areas that gradually open up as the story progresses. As you might expect, apart from the core narrative of finding out just who framed Riley, there are also other activities you can get up to, such as taking part in time trials, performing secret stunt jumps, as well as a wealth of collectables – particularly stealing valuable paintings – you can sell off to a shady art dealer.

Genre: Crime / Open-world sandbox
Format: PC / PS4 / XBO / Switch
Developer: Fallen Tree Games
Publisher: Curve Digital
Release: 21 May 2019

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