One look at the box of Escape From Paradise City reveals a lot of the hallmarks of gaming disaster. There's the name primed to set up a dozen punch lines, the cheap cover art, and a back blurb filled with clichés about a "dystopian world" and "gritty characters." But the game inside is a lot better than first impressions would lead you to believe. Sirius Games hasn't exactly broken new ground with this action role-playing game/real-time strategy hybrid about cleaning up a crime-ridden burg. (You could consider this a sequel to the developer's similar Gangland, released in 2004 when the company was still known as MediaMobsters.) But at the same time, all of the scrapping, leveling up, and thug management rolls along in a passable, if formulaic, fashion.
Surprises are few and far between when it comes to story and basic gameplay. Paradise City is a run-down disaster zone where gangs are running wild, a chaotic situation that attracts the attention of NSA agent Walker J. Kovacs. To take charge of this rotten metropolis, he turns to a trio of criminals that you guide through the game's 16 chapters. Most of the solo part of the game is structured like a grade-Z action flick you might have caught at the local drive-in in 1974, and the three "heroes" fit into standard action RPG stereotypes. Nick Porter is a bank robber proficient with guns. Angel Vargas is a speedy street fighter who likes brass knuckles and knives. Fat Boris Chekov is a corrupt cop who's best at firing his pistol and cowering behind hired muscle. You've got the ranged fighter, the melee fighter, and the smart, tricky guy who doesn't need to get his hands dirty to get the job done; these are character types seen before in, oh, just about every action RPG ever made. There is also a multiplayer mode in which you team up to kill each other or take over territory, but good luck finding anybody playing online.
Mechanics are fairly routine, although most of the gameplay features are filled out well. Porter, Angel, and Boris each gain experience points to add to core stats such as body, agility, and charisma each time that they level up. Increasing a level also provides points used to pick traits that emphasize each character's talents. Specifically, Porter is focused on firearms combat, whereas Angel is all about knife fighting, and Boris is keen on bonuses that help him order around lackeys. Each trait in turn activates skills used directly in the game. For example, Boris' fatality trait opens up the headshot and earshot skills, which raise damage done by his pistol during combat. However, there isn't much need to really specialize here, given that you can pretty much acquire most of the traits for each character by the time you finish the single-player campaign. They do add personality to how each mission plays out, at least, which means that you need to alter your approach to levels depending on whether you're controlling Porter, Angel, or Boris. Using Boris really changes things up because his average combat skills force you to meet goals with more trickery and the smart use of allies.
The characters also have access to powers geared to show how you're becoming a crime kingpin with friends in high (and low) places. As you take over neighborhoods and businesses, you earn the points needed to call up these handy abilities, most of which let you alter the city in some fundamental way or call up assistance. You can use neighborhood lockdown to clear streets, street medicine to summon a medic who heals all allied units, and even airstrike to radio for a bombardment of the selected area. They generally require hefty investments in power and cash, though, and can only be used sparingly.
The setup in Escape From Paradise City is a little more original than the character design. Operating under the orders of Kovacs, you lead the three protagonists into different maps with the singular goal of beating the heck out of all of the thugs that control the streets in various neighborhoods. You gradually work your way up to a district boss ensconced in a hideout denoted with a castle icon on the map of each neighborhood, and then smack him around until he says "uncle" and agrees to let you be the new boss. Neighborhoods vary quite a bit in terms of resources, so there is a bit of strategy in your decisions about which area to attack and when. Some are pretty much barren of anything but scum hanging around the streets, whereas others are loaded with flophouse hotels that generate cash, stores where you can buy guns and armor, and bars that sell stat-enhancing booze and attract goons you can hire as henchmen.
But even with all of the player-development frills and the strategic layer of gameplay, there isn't much overall depth here. Although neighborhoods differ in terms of their goodies, they all offer the same challenge. You run in, kill everybody you can find with simplistic right-click combat, loot the bodies, then take out the boss--over and over again. There is little variety in your actions. Enemies frequently show some smarts and run off for help if they're near death, but other than that, you simply move forward while mindlessly whomping everything that moves. As the game progresses and gets harder, you at least have to take more care in setting up attacks. After a certain point fairly early on, you can no longer just waltz into enemy territory and kick butt until the bad guys acknowledge that there's a new boss in town. Nevertheless, even when you have to adopt measures such as calling in allied gangbangers from adjoining neighborhoods to cut down enemy numbers before going in yourself, or even using a power or two, the end result is still a lot of repetitive fighting. And this also forces you into extra busywork in that you usually end up taking over all of the easy neighborhoods on a map so you can surround a tough one and swarm it with goons.
Tiresome visuals add to the sense that you're repeating yourself. Paradise City generally looks very good, with lots of grimy detail and a ghetto vibe conveyed through clotheslines and spray-painted walls, but you're forced to trudge through the same urban wasteland in every neighborhood. Streets and alleys are festooned with identical hot-dog carts, neon bar signs, and hanging laundry. Ads for the same Nokia products and CDV games can be found on billboards throughout the city as well. Advertising in games is annoying enough, but it's extra irritating when the signs display the same handful of products ad nauseam. Bars, stores, and hotels all feature similar layouts, and boss hideouts boast almost exactly the same furniture, right down to matching oriental rugs. Everything is also extremely dark, and the city is tough to navigate at times because of the narrowness of the alleys and the height of the buildings. Only the voice samples keep the action feeling fresh, given that there seem to be hundreds of different lines. Most are cornball action-hero fare like "You ordered the lead salad?", but they're spoken with an over-the-top tone and are so varied that they don't get stale until you're well into the midway point of the game. And the voice clips nicely compensate for the barely noticeable techno score that sounds like a cheap riff on those old John Carpenter tunes that adorned his '80s movies...such as Escape From New York (that's probably not a coincidence).
Better than it looks at first glance yet not as good as it could be, Escape From Paradise City settles for mediocrity when it could have aspired to much more. The game mechanics and character development are more interesting than you might expect from a game like this, but with more imaginative level design, better graphics, and better multiplayer, this could have been a much better game. If you can get past the game's repetitive gameplay and visuals, you could still say that Escape From Paradise City is better than it looks at first glance, though perhaps that's not saying much.