In traditional open-world games set in the modern day, players enjoy a degree of immunity from the law. Walking around with a .50-cal sniper rifle? Sideswipe a few dozen parked cars? The city's libertarian-leaning officers will overlook it, only getting involved if you actually hurt someone.
In American Fugitive, this cloaking device is permanently disabled, and a world of engaging fun results.
The gameplay most resembles early Grand Theft Auto games. You'll start by crawling through a prison drainpipe Shawshank Redemption style and emerging in the open world of Redrock County, a Midwestern community with more police officers than most small countries.
You quickly learn that the law in Redrock County is more closely enforced than Vice City or San Andreas. Police reports of your activities form a tension-building background to gameplay. Ram through a homeowner's fence? Get caught peeking into the window of an empty house? Trigger a car alarm? Even misdemeanors that only merit a one-star "wanted" rating will bring patrol cars in a hurry. The game nominally takes place in the early 1980s, but the law-abiding folk of Redrock must all have been early cellphone adopters, because they call 911 almost immediately if prompted.
The game's world is not a technological marvel, but it succeeds at being the slice of Americana that's needed. You'll prowl around junkyards, used-car lots, suburbs and farms, looking for your next big score (or maybe just a change of clothes). When you enter a building, you'll plunder it in a blueprints-like minigame that avoids the need to render all the interiors.
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The missions you're given by other members of the criminal underworld are simple, but the ever-present pressure to obey the law lends excitement and a sense of accomplishment to straightforward tasks. The game lacks fast travel, and this is a very rare case where that actually helps — stealing a "work car" and getting to your next assignment is part of the challenge. Thankfully, it doesn't quite become Follow All Traffic Laws Simulator 2019. But a traffic accident in view of a police car can quickly spiral into a situation where you drown trying to swim a river while a helicopter relays your every move to nearby SWAT teams.
When the cops get on your trail, fighting back can buy you some initial breathing room. But it won't get rid of your wanted level, so your eventual goal is to evade: switch cars, change clothes, get out of sight, or leap onto a passing train. Still better is finding ways to avoid the heat in the first place. Nothing beats leaving a house you just robbed, pockets full of valuables, and calmly cruising past the responding cop cars while they take no notice of you because you did everything right.
American Fugitive comes with an M rating, but the overall atmosphere is more Dukes of Hazzard than The Wire. Drugs, prostitution and gangs are de-emphasized in favor of car theft, burglary, and of course your ultimate goal of finding the real killer.
When — not if — you get killed or arrested, you'll lose all your weapons and tools, but keep your skill upgrades. The rogue-lite nature of the game could easily have become a dark commentary about life on the margins of a heavily-policed society. Get out of jail and try to make something of yourself before tangling with the law and having to start your next "run" from scratch. Fortunately, American Fugitive avoids any attempt at a socially redeeming angle and sticks to cops-and-robbers fun.
Like most small games with an emphasis on tactics, it's easy to see the empty spaces where a bigger team with more resources would have added more depth. There's no multiplayer. There's only one usable character. No AI companions accompany you on your crime sprees. There's no second act where new, more powerful enemies are deployed across the map. Combat is marred by the inclusion of Skyrim-style pause-and-eat healing. Car chases are mostly just vehicles bonking together, rather than cool car takedowns.
American Fugitive won't fool anyone into thinking it's a triple-A game. It is not rich in content. But it remembers the childlike pleasure of getting away with something, and it knows how to create that feeling with a minimum of filler.