“ Develeoper: TagPlay „
I think it's fairly safe to say that the developers of Car Jack are rather large fans of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series. In particular, they seem to have very fond memories (as many of us do) of that very first game which was one of the must-own titles on the original Playstation One.
Everything about GTA has been lovingly recreated for the iPhone/iPad. The plot, graphics and gameplay have all been faithfully revamped for a new generation of gamers. Still, let's not be too hasty about condemning it. There are plenty of example of games which "build" on the work done by other games, and actually improve them.
As in GTA (three words that are likely to feature a lot in this review), you play a small time hood who needs cash fast. When a gambling debt is called in, you have to raise £50,000 a month until your debt is paid off. You can do this by undertaking driving jobs for other criminals (the more successful you are, the higher paid jobs you will be offered) or by car-jacking vehicles and then selling them on. Of course, you also have to make sure that you fly under the radar and don't attract too much attention from the police. Otherwise, they will chase you as soon as they see you, and the criminal fraternity will refuse to do business with you, making raising that cash very difficult.
When the original GTA came out, it wowed people with its unique open gameplay, overhead perspective and range of cars. Reproduced in 2013, the 2D overhead graphics now look rather dated. The combination of mission-based gameplay and an open ended world is pretty old hat, so one of the defining features of the original GTA has lost some of its shine. Despite this, the core gameplay is still surprisingly strong. Whether you want to try and raise some serious cash by undertaking specific missions or just race around the city in as many different cars as possible, the underlying game behind Car Jack remains appealing.
As in GTA, the city is viewed from an 2D overhead perspective which works very well. Buildings, cars, roads and people are all clearly defined and there is a good view of the city, so you can plan an escape route should the police start to chase. The various vehicles in the game all look different, so you don't accidentally get into a family car thinking you've nicked a sports car. Despite a lot of the buildings being grey, there's a good amount of colour throughout (mainly through the different cars) and, if you wind your mental clock back to 1996, it looks pretty good. I would say this is definitely a game for the iPad. On the iPhone's smaller screen, the graphics look far more cramped and it's much harder to navigate your way around the city.
Sound, I have to say, was rather disappointing. Again, Car Jack replicates a (for the time) novel feature of GTA in that each type of car has its own type of song, which carries on playing until you get out and swap cars. These songs are great and give the game a really strong identity. However, the music is rather loud and tends to drown out the other sound effects. Car engines are weedy, whether you are driving a sports car, a family car or a 10 ton truck. When you run over pedestrians, they make a feeble squelching noise instead of the full-on splat from GTA. For the game to work properly, the cartoon-like approach needs to be applied to everything and not enough attention has been paid to the sound.
There's a nice range of cars to drive too, and crucially they all handle differently. Grab a sports car and the handling is twitchy, threatening to send you careering off the road, but with a speed that makes it ideal for getting away from police. Grab a truck and it is much more sluggish, but can take a lot more damage before it blows up, so it's useful for bashing your way out of trouble. Even before you tackle the game proper, it's a whole lot of fun just jumping in and out of different cars and taking them for a test drive.
The downside is the speed. Even the very fastest cars don't feel quite as nippy as they should. In the original GTA, the speed differential between driving (say) a bus and high end sports car was massive; in Car Jack it's not so pronounced, and this does have an impact on the sense of realism and on the game itself.
What really lets Car Jack down is the lack of a physical controller. Whilst the developers have done their best to create a touch-screen friendly game, it's not entirely successful. A variety of buttons are scattered around the screen (to control things like getting in/out of cars, firing your gun etc.) and these are fine. They are well-placed, easy to access when you're in a tight spot and need to do something quickly, and they don't obscure the screen.
The real problem comes when driving. arguably the most essential element. An up and down arrow controls acceleration/braking/reversing, whilst a small steering wheel is used to set direction. It's this latter which proves problematic. It's a little on the small size and you find your finger tends to slip off it at crucial times. Mostly, though, it's because it is so sensitive, requiring exactly the right amount of pressure . Don't press hard enough, nothing will happen; use the tiniest bit too much pressure and you'll find your car careering all over the place. The controls feel very twitchy and I spent too much time no really feeling in control of whatever I was driving.
The twitchy controls are more than a minor irritant, they have a serious impact on the gameplay. All the time you are wrestling with them you are hitting buildings or other vehicles (causing damage to your car and taking it closer to the point where it will blow up), running over pedestrians (attracting unwanted police attention) or just wasting time (I've lost count of the number of missions I've failed because I didn't get to the rendezvous point in time). The overly sensitive controls all to often make Car Jack an exercise in frustration.
In fairness, if you are willing to persevere , you can master the controls and they become a lot more instinctive. You start to know exactly how much pressure you need to exert for each type of vehicle. It's just a real shame that the controls are such an issue because despite being a GTA clone, there's actually a rather good game lurking beneath the awkward controls. I just fear that many people will be put off by the amount of effort needed to master them.
The controls really are the defining issue for this game. If you're willing to persist with them, then you will start to enjoy Car Jack more. It provides both short term and long term fun and will take a fair old while to get through all the missions. Whilst it's not in the same class as the original GTA, it's probably about as close as you're going to get on an iOS device. It's worth investigating; just be aware that the controls are the core issue here.
[Note: if you are interested in Car Jack, now might be a good time to try it as it's currently available to download for free (March 2013), a reduction on its normal 69p price]
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013