Starting the game playing as DEA agent Ernesto Cruz, you get killed very early on, meaning that Total Overdose could have been the shortest game ever. But to extend the plot a little, Ernesto’s son Tommy seeks to uncover the men behind his father’s death, and after a nasty accident with a hand grenade he needs his twin brother Ramiro to impersonate him and infiltrate a gang. Black sheep Ramiro is hauled out of jail by the DEA and works for them as an undercover agent, to try and track down the ruthless drug cartel overlord, known as Papa Muerte, the man thought to be behind his father’s death.
You don’t need to be a brain surgeon or even a brainy games reviewer like me to see where Total Overdose got its inspiration – it even uses the same Renderware™ graphics engine, and so has a very similar look to GTA games (as well as a hundred other PS2 games). Set in Mexico, the large, fully-explorable maps have you driving loads of different vehicles (cars. vans, trucks, tractors and even a Taco wagon), riding motorbikes, climbing ladders (couldn’t do that in GTA!) and even sliding down zip lines to explore your surroundings...The action is fairly limited compared to GTA San Andreas, so no swimming, boats, helicopters or planes. And of course, you have to shoot people – LOTS of people, and there’s plenty of blood splattering around too, and the 18 certificate is well justified. Weapons vary from pointy sticks (no, really) to assault rifles and rocket launchers, but surprisingly there’s no sniper rifle in the game – odd. Like GTA there are loads of ‘challenge’ missions to keep you busy when you’re not following the storyline, and number icons lying around to make you explore every nook, cranny and rooftop – this is a good thing, as it’s this sort of total exploration that kept a lot of people playing the GTA games, the “I wonder if/how I can get up there?” factor is strong with this one...
So Total Overdose has lots of GTA’s good bits, and a lot of its bad ones too. Graphical glitches, clipping, disappearing enemies, cars and all sorts of other problems too (including dodgy vehicle physics) - the graphics do their job, but little more, although there are some flourishes with shiny cars, explosions and smoke effects. But TO has a charm all of its own, and something that kept drawing me back. Maybe it’s the ‘rewind’ mode? - Collect a rewind token and you can rewind time Prince of Persia-style and replay an action sequence – this will save your life on numerous occasions as the game progresses. Maybe it’s the combat? – The Max Payne bullet time-inspired ‘shoot dodge’ feature (hold L1) that slows down time as you dive through the air, opens up loads of freestyle acrobatic combo moves (over 60!) and means the shootouts become something akin to a gory slo-mo Tarantino-style sequence.
Ah yes, the combo moves - as you complete the missions you find a score will be racking up in the top left corner, and it’s infuriating to get close but just fail a mission for the want of a few points – but it’s obviously a feature designed to encourage you to replay missions and it doesn’t happen often. “Combo moves?” I hear you groan – well yeah, but listen, here’s a typical example: Drive a vehicle at full speed to use it as a ramming weapon on an enemy’s roadblock or just someone you don’t like the look of. Hold L1 to lean out of the door and then press R1 to bail out at the right moment, then keep L1 held to perform a diving shoot-dodge and finish off anyone who survives the explosion – it sounds complicated but it works superbly, and feels cool as ice.
Or maybe it’s the music? – The “cutting-edge soundtrack” featuring Molotov, Delinquent Habits and Control Machete (who? – I hear you say, but honest to God, it’s good, appropriate stuff for the setting, and mostly falls into the Latino-Hip Hop category that I just made up) – and I find myself whistling or humming the title track CONSTANTLY...
What really lets Total Overdose down is its loading routines. They’re never very long but TO’s maps are kind of piddly compared to GTA’s massive environments, and the way the game has to load each district at a junction is intrusive and feels kind of shoddy, like the developers ran out of time.
Whatever you think of Total Overdose and the entire GTA-led genre, you can’t deny there’s some quality gameplay in here and a sense of fun that oozes from the game’s every pore, including a cool, self-deprecating sense of humour. If you’re a fan of this genre then you tend to accept its frailties and glitches and just go and have some fun. TO is better than Mafia and True Crime, and more fun to play than Driv3r or Mercenaries, and pushes many of my ‘GTA buttons’ – it just doesn’t push them hard enough – but then, after the amazing San Andreas how could it? To sum it up, and as an old friend of mine often used to say:“you’ll like this if you like this sort of thing”, and it’s never been truer than with Total Overdose.