Gangstar Rio: City of Saints ($6.99) should, on the face of it, be excellent. A sandbox game set in Rio De Janeiro, it’s the latest in Gameloft’s line of Grand Theft Auto-esque explicit Gangstar series. It involves driving and shooting and lots of jokes about sex. A potent combination when done right. Yet, City of Saints is a long way from excellent, settling instead on merely ‘quite good’.
City of Saints is my first venture into the Gangstar series, and, having heard lots of good things about the games, I was excited to give this app a go. That excitement soon faded when I heard the game’s atrocious voice acting. It’s more robotic than Siri. A yawn-filled cutscene later I got into the game proper, and found that when I tried to drive a car, the tilt controls were terrible and I kept crashing into unresponsive civilians. Thankfully, I then discovered that the game offers six different driving control techniques and, settling on a far more efficient control scheme (a slider bar to angle the car left or right and pedals for accelerating and braking), I found that the game might not be as bad as my first few moments with it had suggested.
Driving can be fun. Speeding through city streets in some pumped up sports car, motorbike or quadbike, finding yourself ascending steep, slightly jagged and badly textured, hills and then plunging back into the city via some unplanned jump is somehow liberating. Similarly, driving into the sunset and admiring how its glare colours your screen orange, kicking back to the radio without a care in the world, is unexpectedly moving. But driving into other cars isn’t fun, and unfortunately, it’s not uncommon either. Because of the game’s relatively short draw distance, cars can suddenly appear in front of you, giving you little chance to avoid them. It’s not a major issue, but can be a little frustrating, especially when driving into oncoming traffic.
The combat system is clunky. You just press a large shoot button to automatically lock on to whichever enemies you are facing, pressing the button again to shoot them. Changing weapons requires a simple swipe. Simple enough. But Gameloft have complicated the combat mechanic with a pointless cover system. Enemy AI isn’t intelligent enough to realise that it’s not a good idea to stand out in the open all the time. Because the enemy is always in the open, there’s no tactical advantage to using the cover system, so you’ll end up settling with standing and shooting. Essentially, the person that comes out unharmed will be the one with the bigger gun or the bulkier armour. No tactics, no aiming, no skill required. Consequently, being injured enough to be taken to the hospital (and resultantly losing your weapons, some cash and having to restart whatever mission you might have been taking part in) feels less like your fault and more like a case of ‘oh, I’ll get better weapons next time’.
Missions themselves are fairly entertaining but not very imaginative. Generally, they involve driving somewhere and shooting something or someone. Sometimes, the driving and shooting are done simultaneously. To be fair, there are a few more interesting jobs like flying helicopters, but these more interesting missions are the exception, not the rule. On the plus side, there are enough missions to last a long while – I’ve been playing the game for several hours and am not particularly near to completing it. Adding to the longevity of the game, there are a few optional missions like food delivery that reward you with a little extra cash.
Most notable about the city is how boring it is to explore. Pedestrians all look the same, there’s little unique character to buildings, many landscape textures are pretty naff (though overall, the graphics look good) and the weather conditions don’t really vary – apparently, it’s always sunny in Rio. In fact, the city isn’t really a sandbox to play in, it’s more just somewhere to do missions. The idea of having the world at your fingertips is a nice one, but when the world hasn’t got much to it, it’s also an inconsequential one. This is reflected in the ability to skip straight to missions via the pause menu rather than driving to them – a convenient feature which I was sadly relieved to find.
Overall, Gangstar: City of Saints is impressive for its price. It’s difficult to explain its positives when they are so enveloped in negatives, but when you’re playing the game, the positives do come out just as much as the game’s more frustrating elements. These negatives are neatly exemplified by the way that overly sexually explicit dialogue frequents the game. It’s not funny, it’s not clever and it’s not necessary. City of Saints tries too hard to be edgy whilst feeling too sterile. Nevertheless, it’ll appeal to those who are a fan of previous games in the series, or fans of Grand Theft Auto. For its low $6.99 price tag, the app is great value, offering a not-quite-console-level experience for a not-nearly-console-level price. As an added bonus, the game requires so much power that it’ll turn your iPhone into a nice little hand warmer to get you through the cold winter weather.