Version tested: GameBoy Advance
While the discussions continue to rage over the relative merits of GTA: San Andreas, a rather less high profile release slipped out to rather less fanfare last week - the long overdue GBA version that finally brought Rockstar's mega-franchise to the handheld after extensive delays and developer changes. But since the transition of the brand from its top down viewpoint into 3D, would the old style gameplay still stand up to scrutiny after all these years?
Given some of the hideous attempts at 3D on the GBA (Driver 2 springs to mind), no-one was expecting anything other than a simplified version based on the original premise from the series' early DMA-days seven years ago. And so it has turned out, with Digital Eclipse turning out a functional, if unspectacular edition that does the job without really tapping into some of the core values of the series.
The 41-mission crime orgy kicks off with Mike and pal Vinnie running a few errands for the Mafia in an attempt to earn enough cash to get out of Liberty City. But just as the two of them are about to leave to set up their new lives outside of this 'stinking island' Vinnie is blown into little chunks, and Mike finds himself on the run from the cops, vowing to get revenge on the murderers responsible.
The first thing to come to terms with, apart from the restrictive top down view is how much the GBA appears to struggle with rendering the visuals with any degree of efficiency. Any chance of adequately replicating the original style goes out of the window as soon as you realise quite how jerky the scrolling is, and that any sense of speed is practically rendered redundant from the beginning. To be fair, you do get used to it quite quickly and the game is no less playable as a result, but we were expecting a lot more after all these years. It makes us wonder what the previous attempts were like.
Next on our list of disappointments is that the trademark humour has apparently been replaced by the sort of stony faced seriousness you'd expect from a Driver game. Little effort, it has to be said, has gone into the storyline or script and no attempt is made to infuse the kind of charm, wit and character into the proceedings that the first two in the series were famous for. Scenarios are described with the minimum of colour and dialogue, and very quickly the game descends into a series of linear fetch and carry missions, with the obligatory buckets of claret as you take out one goon after another.
Spoilt by the present
Maybe it was a conscious decision on Rockstar's part to cut to the chase and deliver more of a quick fix-style GTA, but for the purist long term fan, it feels an oddly cold, somewhat bland experience, not especially helped by the forgettable tunes that play in each different type of car. You won't really care too much about what you're doing or why you're doing it. Like the polar opposite of San Andreas, which feels as close to a living breathing city as we've seen, you come to the stripped down 2D Liberty City and it illustrates just how far things have come. Not all of it is Rockstar or Digital Eclipse's fault - in fact most of it comes down to technical limitations, but progress is a harsh mistress.
Naturally, no-one would expect anything even approaching what San Andreas has to offer given the technical gulf here, but you certainly would reasonably expect a conversion to match the charms of the 1997 original. In some respects there are obvious improvements, though. For a start, the on-foot control has changed for the better, with direct control rather than the horrible rotational control of old, and this makes the game instantly more playable and precise. Add to that the countless side missions; the taxi driver missions, paramedic, vigilante, fire fighter, street racing and of course rampage. Taking these into account there's almost countless hours of potential gameplay available - as ever, they're a great means of giving you a sandbox of games to dive into at any time, and offer the sort of between story mission break that most game could never offer.
On the other hand, most of these side missions quickly lose their novelty value, and it's particularly galling that the racing missions aren't even against CPU cars, being little more than time attacks. And when the missions included are as forgettable as they are here, the incentive to progress ebbs away, with issues such as the inability to see a full version of the mini map sure to eat away at your resolve. Sure, in time you gradually get access to better weapons, (progressing from baseball bat, to pistol, shotgun, SMG, assault rifle, mini gun, flame thrower, hand grenade, rocket launcher, Molotov and katana) and an associated level of Smash TV-style claret as a result, but we can't remove ourselves from the fact that it's not actually as much fun as we recall it being back in the day. Thanks to the limitations of the frame rate, even top speed driving with the very best cars is relatively sluggish. You want more from this; we deserve more. It seems surprising that the GBA should struggle with pseudo 3D, but struggle it does, and as a result the game is less fun for it.
Maybe if we'd never seen the last three GTAs we'd be more impressed, but the whole concept and implementation has moved on to such an extent that going back to something that feels so hollow by comparison, and isn't even as faithful to the original vision as you'd wish was always likely to garner a muted reception.
Having said all that, and trying desperately to take it in isolation, Grand Theft Auto Advance isn't a poor game by any means. It's actually one of the better GBA experiences you'll have this year - but whether by technical, design, or developer limitations or a combination of all three; itís just not the Grand Theft Auto experience most people will be gunning for, and certainly not for this price, not a chance in hell. If you really hanker after some old-style, top down GTA the way DMA intended, just head to Rockstar's website and download the whole thing for free. This is definitely a case of 'try before you buy', but if you really must have a GTA for your handheld, then for the time being this is as good as it gets.
6 / 10