Gangstar Hands-On

Gangstar has just launched in the App Store at the “street price” of $6.99. We’ll have a full review for you soon, but based on our time with the game for this preview, we know that if you like GTA3, you’ll probably want to buy this game.

As we walked back through the streets of San Francisco after our hands-on time playing Gangstar: West Coast Hustle, Gameloft’s iPhone answer to Grand Theft Auto 3, the people and vehicles around us took on a different appearance. The bustling sidewalks became an invitation to muggings, beatings, and harassment. The heavy traffic beckoned us to pick a car, any car, and drive away like a madman. Yes, we’ve been infected, corrupted with those violent tendencies once again.

Aspiring video game hooligans will be pleased–overjoyed, actually–to learn that Gangstar is as true to Grand Theft Auto 3 as possible, and that the iPhone surprisingly allows for the same versatility GTA: Liberty City Stories showed us on the PSP. You can jack any car in a beautiful open-world environment, deviate from your missions, slaughter pedestrians at will, and incur the wrath of the LAPD.

Gangstar has a few distinct differences from GTA 3, some due to the iPhone’s hardware limitations, but others are just minor oversights. Auto-aiming allows you to draw a bead on people just fine, but you’re currently unable to target cars with weapons. You don’t get to choose which story missions to take next, which keeps the game on a steady pace but limits your gameplay options. And while you can join in street races or hijack a taxi and pick up fares, that’s about the entire extent of non-story missions.

While Gangstar lacks a few features compared to GTA, it makes up for it with an original storyline, interesting characters, and a very finely tuned control system.

Gangstar’s story takes place in Los Angeles, including swank Beverly Hills and the Santa Monica pier, with a few flashbacks to your character’s time in prison. You play as a lone thug who has just crossed into California from Mexico. In the typical GTA manner, you have to use your ruthlessness and amorality to make a name for yourself in your gang, Los Locos de la Muerte, the Crazies of the Dead.

Your rival gang is called Los Matadores, and while you’ll be going to war with them eventually, Gangstar has a host of other characters for you to meet and take missions from as well. One of the more colorful characters is Señora Butcher, or as she prefers to be called, Old Abuelita (Grandma). She asks you to drive around a limo, while rich men and their hired girlfriends get it on in the backseat. In missions like this, you want to keep your speed low and avoid the police, so mayhem is not your best option.

For other missions, you can go a little more loco. In a prison flashback scene we played, you have to “interrogate” some jailbirds to find out who’s hiding the wire cutters, a critical instrument in your planned escape. You’ll pummel more than a few inmates, but then again, nobody expects you to try to get time off for good behavior.

While inside the prison, you obviously can’t go carjacking and joyriding, so you’re forced to play through a couple of missions that are important to the story. In one, you must endure a series of fights as part of a gang initiation. In another, you have to protect your future gang leader from attack. While both sets of fights required a lot of button mashing to throw punches and kick downed enemies, the intimidating, high-walled courtyard and spreading pools of blood in the dust make these missions memorable.

We also got to play two missions from much later in the game, called Finding Passion and VIP. In Finding Passion, you come across a group of fine-suited gents putting the moves on a provocatively dressed woman outside a strip club. They push things too far, and you’re forced to protect the lady. She introduces herself as Elenita, aka Passion, and for the next mission you find yourself speeding around town in her tangerine sports car, picking up her “stuff.”

Sex and drug references are everywhere in Gangstar, though none go quite as far as GTA: San Andreas. Ladies will make kissy noises instead of moans, but there are still unambiguous references to hookers and strippers in the game. And while Passion coyly refers to her drug pickups as “stuff,” you can tune into the in-game radio and listen to 42.0 FM: Legalize It, one of five themed radio stations with a handful of original tunes and commercials. Alternately, you can put on your own iPod music with as much explicit content as you can handle.

All of the humor, violence, and creativity would be muddled by a broken control scheme, but in our time playing the game, we had no issues with the controls. Like in Terminator: Salvation, Gameloft has managed to squeeze a two-stick console control scheme onto a device with touchscreen controls only (although you can toggle tilt controls for driving if you want).

Moving around on foot uses a virtual analog stick in the lower left corner, and punching or shooting is set to a button in the lower right corner. Context-sensitive moves like carjacking appear when you’re close to a vehicle, and that button pops in and out right above the fire button. You can access the menus, which will let you purchase cars, guns, set checkpoints, and select missions, by tapping on the map in the upper left corner, and in the upper right you can see your character’s health, weapon, and wanted level.

On foot and in cars, you can move the camera by touching anywhere on the screen–a thoughtful addition that negates the need for a second analog stick. Unfortunately, you can’t use this to target your weapons; it affects your view only. While driving, you have a few options: gas/brake pedals or a slider for acceleration, and a wheel, slider, or tilt controls for steering. The wheel was a bit clunky, probably because it is only a half circle on the screen, which means you can’t spin it all the way around. We preferred the steering slider with gas/brake pedals, but the tilt controls worked pretty well also.

These controls may sound complicated, but they took us approximately two seconds to learn. Once we started the game, we jumped right in, beating up a bikini-clad onlooker who had the unfortunate fate of being the first person we saw in this game. Then we jacked a car, jumped it over a cliff, and ran over a few unlucky pedestrians. Urge to kill… rising.

We can also be the first to announce that Gangstar contains Gameloft Live!, its own network will let you earn and compare achievements with your friends in Gangstar and compete in online leaderboards for other games. That’s right–another developer with its own online iPhone social network.

Gangstar seems to be what we’ve been waiting for: a full-on, original game very similar to Grand Theft Auto 3, built to take full advantage of the iPhone. It looks stellar, controls exactly as well as we’d hope, and while it lacks a few of the bells and whistles that have made it into the GTA series over the years, it’s no less of a ruthless gangster on its own. You can try your own hand at causing chaos on the streets of LA when Gangstar hits the App Store in August.