25 to Life is an embarrassingly bad game, but at least it tells you it’s going to suck—and suck mightily—in its very first scene. The opening cinematic is a ludicrous potpourri of overripe urban cliches, giving you fair warning that what lies ahead will be contrived, derivative, and ultimately, insulting.
We’re introduced to the main character—a black man named Freeze who has a kid, a woman, and a home, and just wants to get outta da thug life, but he has to pull off just one last job, and then he’s out, for good! We’re supposed to identify with him—and even feel bad for him—but that’s a bit tough to do after the game’s first mission, which has Freeze indiscriminately kill hundreds of police officers.
And, even though 25 to Life tries for balance by letting you play as the good guys (for those of you out in Subjective Morality Land, that would be the police), the developers clearly hate cops, because they give them the dumbest AI this side of MS Word Grammar Check.
As someone who’s watched the Godfather films a dozen times, I’d be a hypocrite to pile on “gangsta” culture for its exaltation of violence and crime, but there is a difference. Most quality mob stories are classical drama with a solid and consistent, albeit warped, internal ethic. Tony Soprano is low-brow capo, but his repeated mantra that “there have to be consequences” is a rock-solid conservative principle.
Thug culture, on the other hand, tends to lack any recognizable ethic beyond “get rich or die tryin’” and “get over here, bee-atch.” Sure, I think the music, the clothes, the slang, the entire detritus of urban culture is 10 pounds of crap in a five-pound bag, but as a middle-age, middle-class, married, straight, white, conservative Catholic, suburban male, my opinion on the subject is probably less than authoritative.
Sometimes you can suspend your better nature for the purpose of good entertainment. Grand Theft Auto is a corrosive game, but at least it’s not a bad game. 25 to Life is both. It reminds us that clever gameplay is its own redemption, which leaves this little slice of viciousness unredeemed.