Rockstar proved last year that an open world game could work very nicely on the DS with the excellent Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. But that was a full-on retail cartridge; how about the download realm, where size limitations are much more strict? Tag Games has taken a stab with Car Jack Streets, and while the game has a few glaring flaws it's certainly no slouch.
The game looks an awful lot like the original Grand Theft Auto from 1997, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell the two apart visually if it weren’t for the character animations and designs. This is certainly not a bad thing as Car Jack Streets looks pretty nice for a DSiWare download, and its good-sized world comes with a few different visually distinct sections to mix things up. The framerate is smooth and there are even a handful of full-length songs on the radio (although they start over every time you enter a vehicle, which can lead to some annoying repetition). The camera zooms in and out dependent on how fast you’re going as well, so anyone who has spent time with a top-down GTA will find it fairly familiar. It almost feels more like the first GTA than Chinatown Wars does, although whether that's a good thing comes down to a matter of opinion.
Where it differs the most is in its use of real time. Your character, Jack, owes a lot of money from crap gambling and is given deadlines to pay it off in chunks by his debtholder. These deadlines are set for real-world dates, and if you don’t have the money by then you’ll be in for Serious Trouble™: you'll be swamped by baddies out to rough you up. You can play and complete as many missions as you like before then, amassing a bankroll that’ll keep you in the clear for a while, but the design is more geared towards doing a few missions at a time on a daily basis. It’s a novel approach for this type of game and one that suits the platform quite well as it encourages you to pop in for a quick hit from time to time.
Mission types range from races to assassinations, and of course there are chauffeuring staples like pizza delivery and taxi driving. Most of the objectives are simple and clear-cut, like get from point A to B with car X in Y amount of time, but when they’re more advanced then mission failures get murky. Early on there is a mission that asks you to keep some gangsters away from a building without harming innocent bystanders, but once we made it over to the building and shot a clearly defined gangster we failed on the grounds of having let other baddies in, even though there were no others in sight. We chalked it up to player error and went about our merry way, but later when the same type of mission appeared and we failed yet again, we couldn’t help but suspect that the blame wasn’t exclusively on us; it might have been either bugs or the game doing a poor job of telling you what you need to know.
It turns out to be a little of both. Usually missions give you a precise location to trigger the next event, but “freeform” ones give you a general area and leave you to figure out exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. One mission told us to “lose” the cops, which meant shooting a set amount instead of fleeing like we did for five minutes. Taxi missions don’t take advantage of the GPS, instead settling for a directional arrow to point the way. It’s not a big deal, but since the GPS is staring at you the entire time it seems shortsighted not to mark the destination. And when picking up a character for an escort mission once, we saw them walk straight through a building to get into our car. There was no underpass or tunnel; they just zipped right through it.
One of the best parts about GTA-like games is messing around in and exploring the city, discovering new areas and finding cool stuff. While the Car Jack map is much smaller than the 2D GTA games (no surprise considering the DSiWare size restriction), there’s still plenty of stuff to find littered about its alleys and nooks. There are 50 hidden packages scattered around and weapons and powerups are strewn everywhere. One of our favourites is the Gang pickup, which gives you a couple of cronies to paint the town alongside. It's a smaller city, but it's still fun to cruise around and cause mayhem.
Another important part of these types of games are the physics, and here the vehicles all feel a little too floaty. Bumping into another vehicle will stop you dead in your tracks or, if you're being bumped send you skidding across the road. The sense of weight is a little off, and as far as we could tell most vehicles will careen off the road too easily, even the larger ones.
Car Jack Streets doesn’t reinvent the sandbox wheel, but it does a nice job of shrinking it down for a downloadable service. The interesting application of real time plays strongly to the DSi's portable nature and could potentially keep you going for a good while. It's ambitious, although not without its share of flaws like floaty physics, and the end result is an enjoyable little sandbox game for short sprees.