Gangstar: West Coast Hustle
It’s hard to avoid the comparison: Gangstar: West Coast Hustle feels like a portable version of San Andreas with an added Spanish flair. That ought to be considered a high compliment, as San Andreas is held by many to be the pinnacle of the ever popular Grand Theft Auto series. Similarities are apparent in the main character, the setting, and the gang-centered storyline, with the game doing little to differentiate itself. Without taking too many liberties with the formula, Gameloft presents their entry as a straight-up free roaming affair, meeting almost every pre-requisite on a list of what makes a good sandbox-type game, and if for no other reason, is only set apart from the top of the heap due to a few core issues.
The first of which is the atrocious written dialogue. It’s flimsy, the jokes fall flat, and as a whole, none of the characters, nor their need to take out opposing gangs seems to be tangible. Of course, it may be a reality that a lot of gang warfare is centered around reclaiming turf and eliminating anyone with a different ideology than your own, but one would hope that a game would explore the underlying social issues, rather than simply marking targets across a GPS and employing the gamer as a hit man. Perhaps there’s more of a necessity to control areas in the Grand Theft Auto games because gangs seem to wither away as you plow through their membership and higher ranking thugs with all manner of explosives, but in Gangstar’s case, the hit man missions often feel unprompted and irrelevant to the game’s already thin storyline.
Maybe it’s too much to expect that kind of depth so early on in the App Store’s lifespan, though. As is, Gangstar does show plenty of promise. In particular, I could see myself throwing down money for some more varied mission packs, an expansion to the city, or some other sort of DLC that could make use of the game’s highly promising initial set of six chapters. Interspersed throughout these chapters are a good number of light mission types, typically with the focal point of delivering something/someone, or taking out your target. Most enemies are fairly easy to take out, with a sensible difficulty curve which eventually warrants the use of heavy weaponry, which can be obtained at the ammo and gun shops, for a small sum.
Reprising the role of “P. Thug”, you’ll be tasked with taking down any and all pedestrians whom have chosen not to wear shirts. Shirtless citizens all happen to be enemy gangsters, from rival gangs. In spite of the lack of creativity, it does make spotting enemies fairly easy. Gunplay is easy to get the hang of, except for the dual wielding aspect, which does not allow for an auto-lock aiming reticule, often leading to lame gunfights where you just can’t line up the trajectory of the bullets with your target. Otherwise, once the mapped on target button is cued, P. whips out his pistol, brandishing it sideways (you know, in an effort to look badass). Occasionally I found that while dual wielding, P.’s right hand refused to produce a gun, although it still fired as though the gun were there.
Targeting follows the same basic mechanic on wheels, allowing for efficient drive-bys. On ground or in a vehicle, your target reticule is displayed for each target, expanding and retracting, with an indicator pointing out whom your currently aiming towards. This formula works well until there are multiple targets on screen. As the game tends to present clusters of enemies at once, its of utmost importance that the aiming system is fine-tuned and accurate. Unfortunately, the best case scenario’s often to fire at will and hope to connect. Switching to nearby targets requires tapping their reticule, although due to either unresponsive controls, or occasionally aggravating camera angels, its sometimes hard to switch as you watch P. getting pummeled by a gang of shirtless combatants, while he’s still aiming at a target that’s on the other side of a building. I only encountered several instances of this and thankfully the mediocre draw distance usually prevents P. from locking on to far-away targets.
Gameloft is well-versed in crafting good racing entries on the iPhone, so it’s no surprise that Gangstar’s strong suite is the vehicular gameplay. Translating their exceptional Asphalt 4: Elite Racing controls into the driving segments of the game was a wise choice. Three control functions are presented for the Race and free driving bits, each of which are far more intuitive than what’s found in many titles. The problem with most iPhone racing titles seems to be the insistence on utilizing the “accelerometer“. Even when properly calibrated, it’s a shoddy gameplay mechanic and is only used in one of Gangstar’s options, for turning.
Also impressive are the variety of cars included. Similar to the series which inspired it, the game ditches licensed cars in favor of close knock-offs. Whether you’re behind the wheel of a tricked out sports car, or a heavy truck, the handling simulates the weight and performance of the vehicle accordingly. All this praise is not to make this portion of the game out to be perfect. One of the few problems I encountered was exiting my vehicle without first coming to a complete stop. Even if the car had barely been rolling, the moment I’d try and jump out, the character would go rolling out dramatically and the car would occasionally continue accelerating, picking up speed. Fairly odd. For the most part, however, Gangstar‘s driving segments are effective enough for the brand of automotive homicide and gang drive-by shootings which it promotes.
One of the great things that’s never brought up often enough in the conversation as to why GTA is so awesome is its replication of modern radio programming. Not only is each of the later games capable of conveying the idea that you’re listening to a lively, realistic broadcast, but if you were ever to sit and listen to the content, it is genuinely entertaining, as well. Gangstar’s radio happens to be a bit scaled back, but attempts to emulate the idea. For example, the fake station 42.0 FM (how’d they come up with that frequency?!) happens to be named Legalize It, and predominantly plays cuts from the hottest reggae tracks.
One thing that’s enjoyable about the fictional radio stations are the advertisements. Almost all the advertisements are connected to in-game businesses. The barbershop ads, for example, inform players that price specific haircuts are available at the barbershop, while ads for the gun store play out as skits in which the voice actor’s placed in a precarious situation and the only solution is more firepower. There’s also multiple car shops scattered about the city, where you can unnecessarily dole out cash in turn for a hot ride – each of which can otherwise be stolen. Unfortunately there’s no garage to keep your car(s) in and no benefit to sporting a fresh hairstyle, aside from cosmetic differences. It won’t change the opinions of the city’s female denizens, as the only time citizens respond to your presence is to either run, get thrown out of their car and try to reclaim it, or to try and kill you. This may represent the biggest difference between Gangstar and San Andreas, as the later happened to be the first (and perhaps last) time in the GTA series where your appearance had much of an impact on the gameplay.
If there’s anything which ought to set Gangstar apart from other games on the iPhone, it’s the visuals. It nearly plays like a console game, which says a lot for a release on a platform that more often than not, performs beneath its indirect mobile competition (DS, PSP). Although the storyline may suffer from its familiarity and the cityscape may be generic, refusing to introduce new ideas, the visuals and organized control interface make up for the faults which would otherwise suggest a rushed development cycle, or lack of detail. There are clipping problems at times and on my 3G phone, the game does tend to crash when there’s a high level of on-screen activity but otherwise, I’m thoroughly impressed. It feels and looks close enough to GTA and that seems to be its main concern.
As hard as it may be to imagine, Gangstar works exceedingly well given the platform and its set of strict limitations. Stretching the platform to the limit, it delivers about what you’d expect from any handheld Grand Theft Auto game, in a very similar fashion. I won’t debate that the idea’s unoriginal or at least derivative, as a whole, but its definitely a good early conversion of the sandbox formula onto the iPhone.
Version reviewed: 1.1.3