Reviewed: January 8, 2005
Released: October 25, 2004
Long before Rockstar started offending senators and conservative parents with their ultra-violent next-gen renditions of Grand Theft Auto the series enjoyed a solid foundation on the original PlayStation as well as the Dreamcast. There was even a sad attempt at releasing a portable version for the original Game Boy, but after much therapy I have put that out of my mind.
Rockstar and GBA experts, Digital Eclipse, have joined forces to bring Grand Theft Auto to the GBA in all of its original retro-glory, and the end result is nothing short of amazing. There were times during my three-week crime spree that I had flashbacks to my days playing a similar top-down version of this game on my Dreamcast.
Grand Theft Auto features:
For those who never played the original GTA games the 2D perspective and graphic novel-style cutscenes might surprise a few gamers. Movies consists merely of character portraits that slide in from the sides of the screen and text balloons on top of backgrounds that represent the location you are currently at.
The city is huge, especially when you consider it is twice as large as GTA3 and you are only viewing it three inches at a time. There are dozens of vehicles and each has their own unique weight and handling properties that makes it very important to choose the proper one for each mission, assuming you arenít assigned a specific vehicle.
Despite everything being 2D and really small there is a surprising amount of detail that brings the driving experience to life. You can actually see cars tilt up on two wheels or even flip over if you hit the e-brake and slide around turns too quickly. The sensation of speed if surprising and varies greatly between something like a Mini Cooper and a Fire Truck.
When you arenít driving around Liberty City in your latest stolen ride you can walk or run around on foot. Considering the city is divided into territories and rival gangs are quick to pounce on intruders itís best to stay in a car unless a particular mission requires a foot assault.
Attacking on foot is made much easier with a slick control system that has the D-pad moving your character and the shoulder button locking your facing direction so you can strafe with whatever weapon you have readied. There are plenty of rampage icons scattered about the city that will test your lethal capabilities.
There are a few setbacks in the control scheme, mainly because of the twitchy nature of the steering. Speeding through town is exhilarating but the traffic can be thick at times and striking any car, even lightly will bring you to an instant halt. Itís also way too easy to swing wide on turns and take out a few innocent bystanders raising your wanted level unexpectedly.
The game is fairly lenient on the star wanted level and rear-ending a black and white wonít get you busted right away, but killing a cop will bring down the wrath of the Liberty City police force. The standard police bribe icons are scattered about but hard to memorize their locations, so the Paint and Spray is your best bet for a fast escape, assuming you have a thousand bucks to blow.
Mirroring the concepts of the console version of the game, there are plenty of mini-games and side missions to keep you occupied and add to your nest egg. You can drive taxis and deliver people around the city, rescue people in the ambulance and play ďfiremanĒ in the fire truck. You can even jack a cop car and bust some thugs if you want to see how the ďother halfĒ lives. There are also street race challenges and the famous 100 hidden packages. If you get really desperate for cash you can jack cars and deliver them to the crusher at 8-Ballís for recycling money.
The only gameplay annoyances I found were the save system and the overall lack of free time. It just seemed that I was going from one mission to the next and never had time to drive around on my own without consciously avoiding a pending mission. Iíd complete one assignment and my phone would ring telling me to go somewhere else.
The save system was problematic in that you could not save during a mission and to save the game you had to go to your safe house, of which there is only one per city. The game auto-saves your progress, but this is a soft save until you actually save the game onto the cartridge RAM. Itís definitely a problem if your battery goes dead or you want to just play a quick impromptu game without having to drive across town to save your progress.
GTA uses plenty of tricks to give this 2D game a 3D feel. There is a real sense of depth and perspective as you gaze down upon Liberty City, and the camera dynamically pulls out as your speed increases to give you greater reaction time to what lies ahead in your path. There were a few locations where it was hard to see what you could and couldn't drive through. There is a nice transparency effect when you drive under bridges.
There are several unique car models and color variations for each so it looks like there is a lot of varied traffic on the road at all times. The people models use the same style to differentiate cops from gang-bangers and pedestrians flatten with a sickly squish as you run them down turning them into temporary greenbacks.
Nice touches like blood, bloody footprints, fire, smoke, and explosions all help bring the gritty realism of crime-ridden Liberty City to life. The city itself is massive in scale and complexity and trying to learn the layout and memorize key locations is next to impossible. The game does come with a nice foldout map of the city but chances are you arenít going to carry it around with you.
The HUD displays all of the pertinent information neatly in the corner of the screen while the circular mini-map gives you a radar perspective on the surrounding area and any key locations. The map isnít as accurate as I would have liked, and most likely intended to get you within a 1-2 block radius of your target. I would often drive to a destination then have to drive or walk a few screens in either direction to actually find the trigger point.
Oddly enough, the only thing that really bugged me about the entire game was the stats screen that was so big you could only see a few stats at a time and this game tracks an insane amount of gameplay data right down to how many miles you have walked and driven. Considering the perfectly legible and smaller font used for the cutscenes, Iím not sure why I have to go through ten minutes of scrolling stats, or at least let me control the scroll speed or page flips.
While there is no voice acting the developers have managed to pack the GTA cartridge with a substantial sampling of radio stations that pales to the console version but is impressive by handheld standards. Thereís no talk radio but a few of the songs actually have lyrics. Another subtle touch is the ample amount of radio dispatch chatter youíll hear during police pursuit that is accurate right down to the color of your car and the section of the city you are in.
Sound effects are simplistic with a few variations of engine pitches based on the size of the ride and the guilty pleasure of a pedestrian that goes ďsquishĒ under your tires. Weapons have unique but unimpressive sounds that start to get repetitive by the end of this massive game.
Liberty City is bigger than itís ever been with three sections and 300 missions. Throw in all of the mini-games and side missions and the unenviable quest for all 100 hidden packages and you have a game guaranteed to take the better part of a month to finish.
It took me just under 47 hours to finish the story mode and I still have 13 packages to track down before Iíll feel comfortable putting this game away. This is truly one of the longest GBA games I have ever played and one that remains fun and challenging from start to finish.
If you are a sucker for pretty graphics and a rich narrative then you had better stick with the console versions of Grand Theft Auto, but anyone looking for an excellent handheld version of the game will delight in the complexity this title has to offer. And if you have ever played the original versions of GTA, either on Dreamcast or PS1 then you can relive some of those fond memories as well.
All of the core elements of the console version have been carefully worked into this title for the ultimate GBA crime spree and Iím really looking forward to seeing what Rockstar can do with this franchise on the more powerful DS and PSP systems.