Gangstar Rio: City of Saints is out, hands on below

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Gameloft is at it again with the third installment of their Grand Theft Auto clone, Gangstar. This time the city is Rio, and you’re a “poor” criminal who tries to survive in the city. With a 3D world in the style of GTA 3-San Andreas, a wide range of missions, and weapons and vehicles to play with the game looks very good on paper. Read on to see how that holds in once you’re in the game.

It was recently announced that GTA 3 would make it to iOS and Android. As the first true GTA game on the device (not counting the top-down Chinatown Wars) the game got a lot of attention and will no doubt be a top seller when it hits. Gameloft has been blatantly copying GTA for a year and a half though, and Rio is the third game in that short period of time.

The game starts you off as all these games do; here’s a car, no money, no useful weapons, and a mission to complete. You then follow the storyline and complete missions and gain rep to progress through the game while using your hard earned cash on more weapons, clothes, and so on. Sounds familiar? yeah, it’s not just the Gangstar games that follow this recipe, so it should be familiar to most. The story starts off somewhere along the lines of “I want to quit the gang but am afraid to be killed”. I kinda dozed off after that and started skipping all the cutscenes. The reason for that is that the game has some ridiculously poor voice acting, that aside from clearly reading (and not well) from a script is recorded with equipment that makes it sound like they’re always on the phone.

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The missions themselves are pretty familiar territory as well. Drive to X, kill mr Y, escape the cops. by default, driving controls are tied to motion sensors, which makes it a pain to use. Before I even finished the first mission I had accidentally ran over enough people to have half the city’s police force chasing me, and I quickly realized the need to switch to a more old fashioned on-screen steering wheel mode for driving the vehicles. That gave me a bit more control, but I still managed to kill more people on accident than on purpose. At least the mission to scare a passenger was easy enough, as all I did was drive normally and he was screaming for me to stop in no time.

Part of what makes the driving difficult is the physics in the game. Cars in general handle fine, with some semi-realistic drops in speed and difficulty maintaining control if you turn at too high speeds. That experience isn’t consistent though. During one mission I was tasked with stealing a car from someone who was trying to escape me, and while my car was following physics to some degree, the other car wasn’t. It acted as if it was on rails and made 90 degree turns without ever slowing down or indicating that it was thinking of turning. It resulted in a lot of missed turns for me, as I didn’t have the luxury of doing the same. When I jumped into a water jet however, the physics aspect was suddenly gone. It turned on a penny and was extremely weird to drive compared to similar vehicles in “real” GTA style games. When I jumped from the water onto the airstrip it also let me continue steering until all my momentum was gone, so I essentially drove around an airstrip in a water jet for a few seconds. That airstrip is a lie, btw – there’s a picture of a player controlled plane in the iTunes screenshot, but it’s apparently tied to missions as the airfield is otherwise empty of any objects you can interact with.

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The game is also a bit random in what is breakable and what’s not. Ramming full speed into a plastic garbage bag will wreck your car while parking in front of a 3 meter tall giant street light and then very carefully bumping it will send it flying off in a predetermined pattern that is based on someone setting off a nuclear weapon underneath it. Since it’s hard to know exactly what you can just run down and what will stop you dead in your track it becomes a bit annoying to navigate the streets (or rather, the sidewalks, which we all know is where they want us to drive in these games).

As for as graphics go, the game looks both beautiful and ugly all at the same time. There’s a lot of Spongebob Squarepants going around, i.e. characters and items with low polygon counts which means they’re mostly made of of overly straight lines. Buildings are mostly square boxes with textures that are both high res and fails in convincing you that something is sticking out from the side – a lot of things look like low res stickers.

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On the positive side, the game is impressive for a mobile game. It’s a 3D city we’re talking about after all with an open world sandbox dynamic that lets you explore the city as you please. It’s not big, but it’s open to you. Some of the special effects are also quite good. Water looks nice, if not overly realistic, and makes the areas near water look very good from a distance. The lighting engine is also extremely good, blinding you and givnig the world around you an orange tint when you drive towards the sun. It just looks very peculiar to have awesome lighting effects on something that otherwise looks like Spongebob Squarepants in low resolution.

All in all this isn’t a bad game for $7 in the iTunes store, and it’s gotten a lot of positive feedback. As far as an iOS game goes, it looks very nice and for kids who have more time to play games than they have games to play it’s worth picking up. I’m not quite sure how well this type of game works on mobile devices though, at least until some proper games like GTA 3 are released. These games rely on the sandbox experience, being able to take a break from missions and just go nuts with driving, flying, or blowing up stuff. In such a scenario, this game like the other Gangstar games become very tiny sandboxes. Once you’ve made the entrance to a sand castle you’re out of sand. The GTA franchise has been a great success on the PSP, proving that the game form has a future on the platforms, but this is a bit too half assed to really compete with what I think will be the standard when GTA 3 comes.

PS: The game should also make it to Android before too long!

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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