The definitive iPod touch Fans MR Team review of the hottest game of the moment, Gameloft’s third person 3D crime fest, Gang$tar: West Coast Hustle.
Gang$tar is a third-person sandbox game set on the USA’s West Coast in 15 blocks of a Los Angeles based landscape. The game pays homage to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series and has many direct comparisons, though Gang$tars is a stripped down customised version of the concept modded for the pick-up-and-play gaming style of the iPhone and iPod touch audience.
Full review and scoring after the break.
You play as Mexican gang banger P. Thug fresh from a big L.A. bank heist gone wrong and looking for help and cash from relatives and contacts.
There’s 50 main storyline missions in total, ten from each of the five main contacts you make during the game, plus numerous vehicle specific side-missions and races. The game is played on foot or in-car and, aside from playing through the mission storyline, you can kill time in the sandbox environment rampaging on foot or cruising the city in any of the game’s vehicles taking in the mad corner drifting and jumps.
Whatever anyone thinks, Gameloft have done a great job with Gangstars. They’ve crammed a relatively large playing field and a full 3D environment together with sharply programmed and well optimised code to bring a real treat to the iDevices. Despite it’s general simplicity and minor flaws it’s an enjoyable and entertaining game and probably worth more than the money it’s being hawked on the App Store for.
Graphics – [rating:4.5/5]
Basic textures abound in Gangstar’s 3D environments but the abundance of small details helps bring a richness to the environment. Tattoos on models, road signs, sun flare, distant city skylines and GTA-esque amusing shop names all help pull you away from the monotonous cardboard cut-out feel of the city.
There’s a decent number of vehicles in the game and their models stand true to the GTA tradition of being based on renamed real life car models to avoid the royalty payments. Minis, Humvees, Mustangs, Chevie SUVs, Dodge Vipers and many others are represented with name changes.
Shadows and light box considerations are absent and there’s just a West Coast sunflare effect and some lighter toned textures here and there on buildings to help you feel the depth of the 3D environment. A lot of attention has been put into making sure the graphics in the game look more that they are and when you stand it up against any of the 3D GTA titles on any of the Playstation systems they’re not much, but given the general limitations of the iDevice range that’s not unsurprising. All the subtle tricks that can be used to make you feel as though you’re experiencing a rich 3D environment have been used and no stone has been left unturned in optimising the graphics in this game so that you’re getting a solid and flowing 3D gaming experience across the range of iDevices.
There’s been some obvious juggling of near-object graphic quality against draw distance and, while the low draw distance isn’t exactly pretty, it only hampers game play marginally and that’s when you’re hurtling along at high speed and suddenly have a sharp turn upon you. Character models and cars stand out as having more detail while textures on closer buildings and roads are fair.
Menus, maps and other interface graphics use a strange inappropriate font and an 80′s style colour scheme. Possibly a nod to GTA Vice City but it doesn’t meld well with the sharp headstrong Gang$ter logos and the superbly rendered CGI video opening sequence. Nevertheless this is a small mute point and the menu infrastructure is well laid out, easy to follow and covers all the option functionality you’ll need.
Similar to GTA titles the city map can be zoomed and shows your position, mission targets, race locations, close proximity enemies and points of interest (weapon shops, car rental and repair shops). If you are being hounded by the police then the map also displays the location of badge pickups to reduce your wanted level.
So graphics, videos, cut scenes and the menu interfaces are great but I would like to have seen some options to allow you to increase the relatively low draw distance and texture quality on the faster and more memory tolerant devices. A ’3GS mode’ to allow users to take advantage of the new iPhone’s 3D capability, faster processor and larger RAM would have been interesting, though probably not cost effective at this juncture and is something we are more likely to see appearing in games when the new iPod touch is released. Another small issue to note is the fairly lengthy game start up load time, though again it’s not unsurprising given that a whole city is being loaded up.
Audio – [rating:4.5/5]
Game sounds and music are superb. In line with the tradition of this game genre there are a number of radio stations you can cycle through when in a vehicle. You can also opt to listen to one of your iPod playlists. Pedestrians curse at you when you drive too close, there’s ambient sounds and every vehicle has a different engine rev. The only thing that is really missing is voice acting for the cut scenes.
Gameplay & controls – [rating:4.5/5]
This is where the game really sets itself apart. A lot of time and effort has obviously been spent tweaking the control scheme and the gameplay to get it right.
Lets start with the controls. On foot you use an on-screen virtual joypad to move around, which has two sensitivities allowing you to walk or run. In-vehicle you have three control scheme choices for steering (control stick, steering wheel or accelerometer motion control) and two for acceleration (separate accelerator and brake pedals or a stick) so everyone will find something to suit their taste.
Most gamers seem to gravitate towards the stick option for steering as the steering wheel doesn’t have enough play and the accelerometer controls are just downright difficult. You’ll probably want to play around with both methods of acceleration though as both have their place as viable methods to sliding your car around. While the pedals would appear to be optimal, the stick seems to give you more control over your speed and braking power. Even so the stick steering controls themselves take a little while to get used to but you soon realise you need to tap the steering to make small corrections and hold it at the extremities for hard turns and drifts.
The accelerator is less well done. Pedal to the metal and release to coast into corners seem to be the way to play as the brake brings you to a rather abrupt halt. The control learning curve is relatively sharp, though obviously driving takes a little getting used to but the more you play the better feel you get for handling the different vehicles. After a few hours playing you should be able to perform bootlegger reverses and long drifts like a pro.
The 3rd person camera floats behind you and corrects with a slight lag whenever you turn. Sharp turns in vehicle or on foot leave the camera hovering for a moment until you’ve put some distance in to let it correct and settle behind you again. If you need to make a sudden turn and want to maintain your sight line or are stuck in a fire fight and must scan for targets then you can simply swipe on the screen to manually move the camera view around, both when on foot or in-car.
You target cars and people by tapping on them and there’s a fire button constantly on screen. Targeting can be done both while on foot and in vehicle for drive by shooting. Tapping on the weapon icon at the top right hand side of the screen cycles your arsenal and you can pause and return to the main menu by touching the mini map in the top corner.
Gameloft know their target audience well. iDevice gamers are generally pick-up-and-play gamers looking for a quick blast when they have a few free moments. This is manifest in the gameplay in Gang$tars.
The game’s missions are short, punchy and fairly easy. You can rush through a mission in a few minutes and this lends itself perfectly to a quick game when you have a spare moment. However, with 50 main missions, side missions, races and achievements there’s enough content to keep you occupied, especially if you are aiming for 100% completion. You can also access the services menu and (re)attempt the pending mission at any time from any location on the map.
Driving around town can be fun but a little frustrating, especially at first. Once you’ve achieved a fairly competent level of vehicle control your only obstacles are other vehicles, buildings, fences, bollards, pillars and planters… yes plant pots! Roadsigns, street lights and other assorted eye candy can be driven straight through but hit a bollard, heavy incline, change in vertical height or one of the city’s many plant pots and you’ll be brought to an immediate halt. This makes the races a little frustrating if you want to win them cleanly (though there is always the option of nobbling the competition at the start of the race). Also it’s impossible to flip your car and easy to glitch into buildings. Take a launch off a ramp, grab some air and land straight inside a building model having had your car holding vertical for most of the flight. Or drive past a building, bail out of your car and find yourself glitch trapped inside a courtyard.
The game is extremely easy for the most parts. Even timed missions pose no major problem. If you do run into a difficult patch then you can often quite easily cheat in some way. Heavy gunfights can be won simply by flipping back and forth between the shoot-out and purchasing ammo and health packs from the Services menu.
As long as you have a healthy supply of cash you can just keep reloading and patching yourself up. The Services menu, the multitude of badges on the map that reduce your wanted level and the fact that an increasing wanted level only means a few more cop cars makes evading the long arm of the law relatively simple and never any real threat.
Despite these issues and the lack of any real difficulty, bar the driving learning curve and one or two of the later missions, the game is extremely fun to play and you’ll likely find yourself aiming for 100% completion and then still coming again back to race around the city or spend 5 minutes going postal on its residents.
Replay Value – [rating:5.0/5]
The map is fairly small on a GTA scale and there’s not really much to do in the sandbox, bar jumping in a vehicle and hurtling around town hitting jumps or peaking out your wanted level by rampaging against the police. Nevertheless the sandbox element is there and that’s important as it’ll make sure this game holds its place on your Springboard even after you’ve completed it.
Value For Money – [rating:4.5/5]
Gameloft launched Gang$tars at the $6.99 price point, a bargain given the development & marketing costs and considering the hype around the game. Although this is probably the subject of another more expansive article I want to touch on a few points about this here.
Gameloft’s previous new titles have been launched at the $9.99 price point and up until now this has been the general trend across the industry. Pricing Gang$tars at $6.99 looks to have been a major decision and will be a turning point for the industry going forward. A Gameloft representative I spoke to said they were not willing to comment on their decision to launch at a lower price than usual, which could suggest a key marketing decision by the house. My take on it is that apps have seen a natural compression in prices due to the extreme and somewhat unhealthy competition the App Store model pervades. These days a lot of great, well marketed and hyped pick-up-and-play apps are launched at $0.99; Harbor Master, PocketGod, MinGore, Inkvaders to name a few. So it seems only natural that in the face of this new competition and with iDevice owners now seeing more bang-for-their buck on the App Store that a launch price cut decision was necessary to ensure peak launch sales.
Whatever the reasoning, Gang$tars is a steal at $6.99.
iDevice Compatability & Performance Fixes
The big question prior to Gang$tar’s launch was whether this game would be solely targeted at the high end 3D proficient iPhone 3GS and, if not, how it would run on the other iDevices. Post-launch the general consensus on the forums is that compatibility on the full range of iDevices is excellent, though there are reports of some lag and long gameplay freezes. We tested the game out on an iPhone 3G, an iPhone 3GS and an iPod touch 1G. Needless to say the 3GS was smooth and suffered no problems. The iPhone 3G saw occasional gameplay pauses while the 1G iPod touch displayed some lag when there was a memory spike, such as in car crashes, but it was definitely playable.
To overcome the majority of performance issues and ensure a generally problem-free gaming experience you really need to restart your iDevice before running the game. Also iPhone users will probably find benefits in turning ‘Airplane Mode’ on to turn off background services. Jailbroken devices probably want to run the game from Cydia’s ‘Safe Mode’ to cull jailbreak installed daemons and processes. It’s probably also a good idea for everybody to turn off location services, Bluetooth, WiFi and any other background services to help preserve battery life as this little game is difficult to put down and the 3D tasking rips your battery charge to shreds!