Review: Gameloft's GTA-style Gangstar for the iPhone is "hella phat"

img_0285phat [fat] adj. slang.
1. <abrev.> Pretty Hot and Tempting.
2. 1990’s slang largely used today by gangster wannabes and 13-year-olds.
3. The best word to describe Gameloft‘s Gangstar: West Coast Hustle.

If you liked the Grand Theft Auto series, and you have an iPhone, you absolutely have to buy Gangstar: West Coast Hustle (iTunes link). Even if you’ve never heard of the GTA series (ergo, you’ve been in hibernation since 1995), you’ll still want to buy this game. With sweet graphics, engaging gameplay and a surprisingly interesting storyline, Gangstar will keep you entertained for hours and keep you wanting more when you’re done. It isn’t without its faults: the rendering of far-away objects takes too long and there aren’t a lot of side missions (unlike the GTA series), but they pale in comparison to the pluses. This may be the best game in its genre of the summer, and a steal at $6.99.

img_0274In Gangstar, you play as P., a gangster in the streets of LA and you’re in an open-world sandbox in which you can move in any direction and go anywhere inside your environment. You just got outta the joint and the justice system failed you. Instead of becoming a reformed ex-con, you’re just a hardened gangster recidivist who is going to continue to F shit up like you always have. No worries, you’ve got plenty of help on that front. Go strap on a couple of pistols and an AK-47 and feel free to wreak havoc on the streets of LA. The story mode of the game has you walk through 6 chapters. Each chapter has a number and variety of missions that you must complete, along with some street racing for good measure. The missions vary widely: sometimes your job is to tail a shady crime lord and take pictures catching him snorting coke off a stripper’s back, other times you are shooting up a funeral. You’ll feel like a bonafide Norteño after this game is over.

First things first: don’t expect this to provide you with near the freedom nor variety of Grand Theft Auto. An iDevice game that costs $7 should hardly be compared to a $50 console game. That said, you’ll get a lotta the same stuff. There are 6 different types of guns (don’t wet your pants, but that includes a sniper and a rocket launcher), loads of missions, a dozen or so street races, and at least 16 different types of cars (who’s counting?). The cars drive differently and you use a combination of on-screen gas/break pedals and the accelerometer to control the vehicle. Unfortunately, there are no Apache helicopters or military jets, but what’d you expect on the iPhone?!

img_0322My biggest gripe with GTA was always that the missions were too easy and that killing enemies was a joke. That didn’t change much in Gangstar, but the missions were more challenging than I expected. It makes me red in the face to admit that I died more than a few times throughout Gangstar; there were a number of times I got out-hustled by the swarms of enemy gangsters or cop cars heading my way. Still, the missions rarely required a three-peat to complete and killing bad guys was easy peasy. The storyline, on the other hand, was baller (so to speak.) It was unpredictable and flowed fairly well. Considering it’s a video game on a 3-inch screen, the cut scenes were solid and the dialogue was worth reading. The makers tried a bit too hard to emblazon Gangstar with a truly West Coast thug-life feel, but honestly their errors in mimicking gangster-style lingo merely added to the entertainment.

The controls were intuitive and fit the classic Gameloft iPhone mold. An on-screen joystick allows you to move around with ease. A button pops up on your screen when you’re near a vehicle so you can rip out the driver and go in yourself. You fight by tapping on the target and hitting an on-screen attack icon. While sniping, you hit attack once to enter the scope and then pinch to zoom. You move the camera by swiping the screen, and that was probably the only annoying part of controlling P. The auto-movement of the camera was slow and so I found myself frantically swiping the screen in combat mode to get a peek at my enemies. All told, controls were a breeze and the Gameloft wonderfully ported the console-style 360 degree movements onto the iPhone’s touch screen.

Production value, as with all Gameloft games, was off the charts. The graphics are stunning, the environments rich with detail, and the audio damn-near perfect. The only graphics-related issue was that far-away objects took too long to appear. I was often driving on the left-side of the road and it looked all-clear ahead when, BAM! out pops an Escalade maybe 20 yards in front of me. You eventually get used to it and get fairly quick on the wheel, but obviously it would be ideal if you could see objects on your screen as they entered your field of vision. The environment is extremely well-done; there’s a small chinatown, a beach area, some scenic palm tree-laden roadways, and even a shipyard.

img_0320The lack of side-missions is probably the biggest downside to Gangstar. Traditionally, games like GTA provide such a wide breadth of activities that you could get lost in GTA for hours. Whether it’s trying to see how much you can piss off the police before they kill you or test-driving the numerous airplanes and helicopters or driving around in a taxicab picking up and dropping off passengers, GTA is replayable for days on end. Gangstar, though a great game as previously mentioned, hardly has that type of replay value. Gameloft substitutes that with a solid first-time playthrough experience: so, don’t expect to play this more than once, but you’ll get enough kicks outta it the first time that you won’t feel bad about dropping it afterwards.

The final verdict is YES you should buy Gangstar. For $7, you get plenty of bang for your buck and it may just be one of the best titles on your phone. It’s the best and most complete sandbox game for the iPhone. If you’ve got an iPhone 3G, restart your phone before you fire this bad boy up because it is graphics-intensive and won’t perform well otherwise. With knockout graphics and kick-ass gameplay, this is just about the closest thing to GTA you’ll get on your iPhone until GTA: Chinatown Wars later this year. Regardless, there’s no point in waiting for what Rockstar’s got in store for you: Gameloft delivers a full-fledged open-air crime thriller with Gangstar.

What we like:

  • Overall experience. Gangstar is forreal, and we love it.
  • Gameplay. Zooming around the streets of LA blowing shit up has never been so fun, especially not when the experience is right in your pocket!
  • Graphics. As usual, Gameloft delivers on the graphics: crisp, clean, and elegant.

What we don’t like:

  • More, please? Side-missions were lacking, which really hurt the game’s replay value. Some will still enjoy blowin’ up cars and gunnin’ down street-whores, but I doubt most will revisit Gangstar much after the first pass.
  • Cars pop up outta nowhere. A minor graphics issue, but it affects the gameplay: it’s hard to race through the streets when you can’t see what’s in front of you until it’s too late.