If you weren't interested in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars but still hanker for some big city crime drama, you might be drawn to Gameloft's latest DSiWare release, Gangstar 2: Kings of LA. Taking the GTA template to a download title and offering it all for 500 Points should be a pretty sweet deal, but once you've spent a while with the game you develop a bitter taste in your mouth.
The first thing to say about Gangstar 2 is this: it does very little new. Story of a hard-up immigrant dreaming of carving a new life for himself in one of the Land of Opportunity's big cities? Car-hijacking, gang-shooting gameplay? Radio stations, cutscenes, clichéd dialogue and plenty of go-here, collect-this, speak-to so-and-so missions all make up the game's rich tapestry, though there's one major problem with that: it's completely insincere.
In GTA and most games in general, you root for your character: they have hardships to overcome, they learn about themselves and the world keeps turning. The main characters in Gangstar 2 are such ugly clichés that it's hard to care what they do, and the sexual and racial stereotypes throughout are appalling: even in the rain, nearly every woman walks around the city in a bikini, complete with bouncing breast animation, and the less said about what this game does for the Hispanic community the better.
That's not all on the insincerity front. For a game that apes GTA's gangs and guns gameplay, you'd expect the side missions that see you selling various items to be suitably gritty: GTA's drug-selling minigame may have been simplistic and controversial, but it was at least in keeping with the rest of the game. What Gangstar 2 asks you to sell instead is... sweets.
Yes, that's right, sweets (candy to you fine North Americans). In between stealing cars, shooting cops and running over pedestrians, you can pop down to your local sweet shop to pick up some chocolate bars, some lollipops and maybe a few sticks of rock. Take them to another store and hopefully you'll turn a profit which you can use to buy ammunition for your many, many guns.
If Gameloft were worried about "corrupting the children" by making them sell drugs they've failed: associating sweets with criminal behaviour is potentially an even more dangerous combination. Not only that, it completely removes any of the game's integrity and meaning: you're supposed to be a member of an LA gang beefing over territory, not Willy Wonka.
Confectionary issues aside, the game fails to recreate the gunplay with any sort of finesse either. Generally any confrontations boil down to mashing A until your ammo runs out then switching to another weapon and repeating. There's no ability to aim freely (though R changes targets) and gunfights are generally a chore. Shooting an unarmed pedestrian isn't much more satisfying as other passers-by continue about their daily business as if nothing has happened; in fact, the lack of cars on the streets contributes to this strangely empty facsimile of a bustling city. Granted, the limitations of DSiWare and the console itself may restrict the game's ability to fill a large map, but games such as this thrive on the structure of action and consequence: here, only the police seem to respond to your presence, and that involves more of the same tiresome gunplay.
The decision to use a top-down view with side-on sprites creates a similarly jarring sense of proportion and perspective, although it does allow the sprites to show far more detail than would be possible with a strictly overheard viewpoint. The running and fighting animations are generally smooth and everything's pretty clear, although larger sprites such as the cars would have benefited from being 3D constructions as they flick from angle to angle. There are some terrible graphics on display though: the backgrounds for many character portraits, particularly one for a garage, are horribly blocky, and the bushes that fill certain areas are just green squares.
The audio is similarly muddled, with repetitive MIDI tracks playing behind sampled speech and some admittedly well-crafted environmental sounds. You'll be muting the music in no time, but the other sounds aren't too offensive, unlike the game they accompany.
There's not much to recommend Gangstar 2: Kings of LA. The driving and shooting are both unsatisfying, the mission structures lack variety and the writing shows off every negative stereotype under the sun. The game's worst crime is the artificiality with which it is all put together: selling sweets to fund crime is the closest this game gets to achieving the corruption of gritty gang warfare to which it aspires.