And that's all you really need to know about Crash Time 4: The Syndicate. The rest of what I'm about to tell you is window dressing arranged around that ten word description of the game.
A simple premise doesn't necessarily make for a simplistic game, but unfortunately this isn't the case with Crash Time 4. Whilst it is undeniable that there is a rich variety of things to do in the virtual Cologne created by Synetic, you may still feel shortchanged by the experience on offer here.
Crash Time 4 is a driving game with the heart of a badly written crime drama. Its source material is the German television show Alarm for Cobra 11 - The Motorway Police. Having never watched that particular show, everything I know about Crash Time 4 came directly from playing the game. You control a car manned by two autobahn police officers, Semir and Ben, and their dialogue is the means by which the game's narrative is communicated to you.
Gamers are invited to take control of Ben and Semir and drive in and around the city of Cologne and, with nothing but quick wits and high powered sports cars, take down the elusive titular Syndicate that plagues the city with their gun running, extortion and other heinous criminal activities.
There is a wide variety of ‘events' to occupy gamers as they drive the chatty officers around the large network of intercity roads, and on and off the autobahn.
The most obvious is the pursuit and apprehension of the local criminal element. At regular intervals throughout the game our cops are called on to chase down a car thief or a fugitive from justice (annoyingly these side-missions are usually announced just before arrival at a destination, and most require driving in the opposite direction). These chases will either result in the stolen car getting smashed, spun and penned in, or just as likely, the robbers will get away, with the cops left stuck underneath the back of a misjudged lorry.
The gameplay systems in Crash Time 4 are somewhat counter-intuitive. In one of the opening missions, as I was still getting to grips with the handling, I was delighted when I thought I'd ended a chase by rolling my target onto its roof. Within seconds the car was up and running and heading in the opposite direction, my confusion lasting until I ascertained that it would take five collisions before this pursuit could be concluded.
Taking down a target is tricky, and often frustrating. Once you've made a sufficient amount of dents in the chassis of a vehicle, you then have to spin the car and then park in front of it for a specified period of time. Only then does the arrest take place.
Getting in the way of such pursuits is a lot of traffic. Running into the back of a bus or lorry can put you so far behind that it effectively puts you out of an event/mission, so avoiding the larger vehicles is key. It is frustrating watching on as an opponent bounces his car off a bus and carries on unimpeded, only to then watch your own efforts limp into failure with one little knock on the back of a hatchback.
However, there's much more to Crash Time 4 than just high speed chases.
Parking up in various locations around town and installing surveillance cameras provides a constant distraction. Searching for public locations where nefarious criminal types meet to hatch dastardly plans is another staple. Less enjoyable was the vehicular hot and cold, a mini-game that relied on the intuition of the two traffic cops, their vocal clues helping find points of interest that may have been points, but were far from interesting. There are also various fetch and delivery quests, escort missions and, there's the racing.
If most of those activities sound boring, it's because they are. Things got a little better when I could actually start shooting at stuff, and the racing was a fun diversion, but the bread and butter of this game, the high-speed battle between cops and robbers, was lacking in excitement and tension throughout.
Driving monster trucks and using massive ramps to perform gravity defying leaps wasn't enough to distract me away from the shortcomings of this game. There are several missions in the campaign that feel horribly out of place, rather than adding to the atmosphere, they detracted from it. Crash Time tries to be a jack of all trades, but ends up being the master of none.
The racing element is probably the strongest. Finding a race is easy, and can be done by accepting any one of the improbable challenges received from NPCs in the game. There are also multiplayer and race options in the main menu, allowing the story to be ignored completely. A tempting proposition.
Racing either takes place on tracks, or through traffic on roads. I found myself looking forward to these distractions, and accepted the challenges whenever they were offered. Importantly, the handling in Crash Time 4 isn't bad. Whilst it feels a little cumbersome at times, there is still enough to work with. A satisfyingly precise hand-brake turn is only a short amount of practice away.
Racing through oncoming traffic provided a few thrills; it's a more concentrated experience than just chasing criminals in the campaign. AI isn't great, and more than once I was taken out by suicidal road drivers incapable of moving out of my way. It was a minor frustration, but annoying enough to warrant a mention.
Unfortunately for Crash Time 4, these races are not enough to elevate the game beyond average. And if racing is your cup of tea, you are incredibly well catered for elsewhere. And with that in mind, it means there's very little reason to venture here.
Dropping off cameras and searching out locations is often the fluff used to pad out other games, but in Crash Time 4 these activities are integral to the story and these mundane tasks have to be carried out to move the plot along.
Speaking of plot; there isn't much to speak of. There's a car with two cops in it; there's a mysterious criminal syndicate running things in town; control the cops and take down the crims. Occasionally you have to deliver a bratwurst or drop off a car somewhere, but that's about it.
The major problem for me wasn't the generic story, but rather its delivery.
There are no cutscenes in the game, and Semir and Ben never get out of their vehicle. Instead they just sit in the front of the car looking like they've just returned from a session with the taxidermist. All of the story is delivered by voice-over dialogue, and by a cast of hammy American actors.
The decision to go with bad American voice actors has a significant impact on the game. Instead of feeling like a German game, it feels like a parody of a German game. The authenticity has been sucked out of Crash Time 4 with a super-sized straw and as a result, I found it hard to engage with the characters or the plot.
What makes it even more difficult to take seriously is the quality of the script. Whether it's a bad translation, or perhaps the original is just as cringe-worthy, either way the English language version isn't up to scratch. It was like watching badly dubbed vehicular porn. All the law enforcement cliches are in there, the dialogue is wooden, the characters generic, the colloquialisms clumsy. There is nothing endearing here, save for the odd smirk-inducing quip made by Semir or Ben.
To make matters worse there are frustrating save points. After an extended period of pursuit, one little knock can be all that is needed to put enough distance between law man and criminal that the game ends the chase. This then means going back to the very beginning of the mission and starting from scratch. It also means having to listen to the same uninspiring section of script again and again until the mission is completed.
Apart from a small amount of destructible terrain, such as boxes and sign posts, most of the scenery that encounters bumper will stop a car dead in its tracks. Small outcrops of rocks can topple monster trucks, barriers and walls halt all known traffic. Colliding into other cars can result in satisfying wreckage, though crashing isn't something to look forward to in itself, as it often precedes a restart.
There are a handful of generic, functional sound effects that accompanied me throughout my time with the game. Though on a more positive note, there is a crunching guitar-heavy soundtrack. I was constantly impressed with the riffs grinding away in the background. They're the kind of tunes the encourage reckless, aggressive driving, and that being the case, they were well chosen.
Crash Time 4 isn't the ugliest game I've ever seen (I tested the Xbox 360 version, top-end PCs may fair better), but you'd need to drink a lot of beer before you took it home for its looks. The city of Cologne, whilst impressive in size, is a drab and sterile place, with no warmth or personality. Many of the textures are bland and uninspiring, and the eerie lack of pedestrians gives the game a cold, clinical feeling.
Each of the vehicles has distinctive handling, and there is wide variety to choose from. They look ok, but again, they're nothing to write home about. If you want the crispest graphics and the smoothest animations, then you'll need to look elsewhere. Although the visuals were not to the highest standard, they were still perfectly acceptable. Everything moved as it should, the roads were busy and landscape filled with tall and imposing buildings. Frame-rates seemed a little lethargic at times, but on the whole it wasn't too noticeable.
At the end of the day, Crash Time 4 isn't terrible, and despite the poor first impression it makes, extended play exposes some worthwhile elements. Several hours of driving around Cologne revealed engaging race modes and, more importantly, provided some heart-stopping high-speed pursuits. Sadly neither of these modes are good enough to warrant buying this game over any of the other many titles that offer similar, and more polished, experiences. My advice is this; if you're looking for high-speed thrills and crime-busting action, stay off the autobahn.