Gameloft's highly anticipated Grand Theft Auto -esque free-roaming sandbox game Gangstar: West Coast Hustle [App Store] hit the streets today with a bang. The thread in our forums exploded, and after spending a hefty amount of time with the game since its release, I'm happy to report that I'm in agreement with the feeling of our forum members in that overall the game is extremely solid despite a few weak areas.
Originally a J2ME game, Gameloft has given Gangstar a complete face lift. The SNES-looking graphics of the original have been completely replaced with a full 3D city complete with cars, pedestrians, and plenty of opportunities for crime. The game opens with a fast paced full motion video cut scene of a bank robbery with getaway chase, and after starting a new game the story of Juanito and P. Thug continues as you stash your SUV used in the robbery and look for some help from a nearby friendly gangster, L.C. He naturally has a job for you, it turns out his boy Lil' T got in to some trouble down at the beach and needs your help.
The rest of the game continues like this, very similar to Grand Theft Auto games. You take missions, complete them, and eventually meet new contacts who will also give you missions. The story is basic at best and downright silly at times. They really lay the whole Mexican gangster stereotype on pretty thick with everything from character names that border on ridiculous to the dialog where "S" is freely interchanged with "Z". The good thing is though, most missions are very quick and really lend themselves to a great portable gaming experience where you might only play for a few minutes at a time.
Along the way you'll run in to various side missions such as street races, and a variety of different cars can be stolen that each have their associated mini games. For instance, stealing either a burger delivery car, ambulance or a taxi gives you a sub-set of challenges that all have to do with driving around as fast as possible delivering food, saving patients, or picking up customers.
While outside of a car, your movement is controlled with a joystick on the left and a button on the right that handles attacking. Tapping the screen locks on to a target, so you never need to aim. When you're near a car, another button pops up that allows you to steal it. There are three options for steering. By default, cars are controlled by tilting the iPhone. Other options include a steering wheel that works similar to Gameloft's Asphalt 4: Elite Racing and a virtual joystick-like slider that is my personal favorite. Accelerating and braking can either be done using an on-screen brake and gas pedal or yet another virtual joystick-like slider. The direction the camera is facing can be changed at any time by swiping in any direction on the screen.
Overall the controls work well, but similar to most games with virtual controls, they don't feel very precise. Thankfully, driving around is fairly forgiving as there is no collision detection in the game between your car and most small objects like street signs, trees, and stop lights. This strange collision detection does create some issues though as there are some odd irregularities in that you can just be cruising down the sidewalk sailing right through trees when you run in to a planter that brings your car to a dead stop.
These inconsistencies can be rather annoying when running in to an immovable potted shrubbery ultimately leads to your apprehension in a fast-paced police chase, but other than that tooling aound the city is enjoyable. There are even ramps scattered around to get huge air off of like most Grand Theft Auto games.
A mini map guides you to different objectives as well as serving as a button to pause the game. On the pause screen, you can see and start available missions as well as purchase weapons and ammo. Some weaponry, however, is only available from a local gun shop. These gun shops are also shown on your map along with areas that you can get your car repaired if it's too banged up.
One of my major disappointments with the game is how poorly the police response scales up with your wanted level. One of the first things I did after completing a few missions outside of the tutorial was see how much trouble I could stir up by just murdering everyone walking down the street. I was able to stand around, basically farming the constantly spawning police officers for money, ammo, and when my health got low I was able to just pause the game and buy a health pack.
In comparison, most Grand Theft Auto-like games have police forces that significantly ramp up with each wanted level. In Grand Theft Auto, there was almost no way to survive in a five star wanted level against the onslaught of tanks and other insane police forces that come after you without some serious planning and an inventory full of weaponry. In Gangstar, the police simply drive up, stop their car in front of you, get out, and allow you to shoot them to death while maybe firing a few return shots.
The graphics in Gangstar are great, and performance across the board seems to be decent on all devices although obviously better on the iPhone 3GS. Some forum members have been experiencing crashes or inconsistent performance, but by and large most people seem to find the game completely playable, even on the first generation iPod Touch. The draw distance of the game does seem obviously low at times, and it would be nice to be able to increase it on the 3GS, but other than that the game runs great. Unsurprisingly, load times can be fairly significant even on the 3GS and it would be nice to be able to disable the intro movie instead of skipping through it with every launch of the game. (But the same thing can be said for most Gameloft games.)
The in-game music stations are fantastic, and even feature fake advertisements and DJ's like the radio stations in Grand Theft Auto. The different stations add a lot of atmosphere to the game, and I find myself preferring 42.0 FM, "Legalize-It" that features instrumental gangster rap style music. There is also a rock station, an electronic station, and even a few others. You can even select a playlist in the options to add another radio station that selects from your own music.
For the amount of content you're getting in Gangstar the current price of $6.99 is pretty crazy and even though the game has its flaws, I've still found myself really enjoying it. Included are a total of 50 missions across 6 chapters, all the side jobs, an entire city to explore, achievements to earn, and a mobile experience surprisingly similar to a slightly watered down Grand Theft Auto 3. If you enjoy these types of free-roaming crime sandbox games, you really need to get Gangstar.
App Store Link: Gangstar: West Coast Hustle, $6.99