So. Gangs of London. Lahndan Taaahn. Time to pepper this review with cockney cliché and a smattering of Dick Van Dyke: Gor blimey gavnah! Stown the bleedin' crows! Up the apples an' pairs, dahn the rab-a-dab-dab. Ah's abaht a stoik'n'kidney poi an' sam jellied eels, 'ey? 'Ello Meery Pahp'ns! Chim Chiminy Chim Chim Chiree Chim Chiroo. Shat it yoo slaaaag!
I know, I know - that's how all the other reviewers will start their reviews too. But Sony started it. Specifically Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's London Studio. They're the ones who've dusted off The Getaway's Cockney Wanker world for an outing on the PSP, dutifully peppering it with characters and settings drawn from a cartoon version of England's capital city, and including plenty of foul language (even, on occasions, the dreaded c-word).
But don't be fooled by the potty-mouthed protagonists into thinking that this is a game for adults. It's not. In fact, in many respects it's idiotic and puerile - lacking the sophisticated humour of similar videogame series, and featuring childishly rudimentary game mechanics. But but, don't be fooled by that last sentence into thinking that it's entirely devoid of intelligence or imagination. It's not. It does have moments of inspiration. And like most moments of inspiration, they all happen down the pub. More of that later though. For now, let's focus on the broken bits. There's a lot to get through.
At its heart, the game will be familiar to anyone who's played The Getaway or its sequel. The core part of the game consists of a series of missions, on foot or in a car, across a mostly authentic recreation of Central London. The principal differences are that, unlike The Getaway, you control a squad, not an individual (switching between members on the fly effectively switches your weapon); you get to choose from one of five gangs (Morris Kane Firm, Cockney; EC2 Crew, Yardie; Talwar Brothers, Pakistani; Zakharov Organisation, eastern European; Water Dragon Triad, Triad); and the missions are suitably bite-sized for a handheld system.
And at its heart, the game is disappointing. While the mission select screen divides missions into several types (kidnap, assault, chase, defend, escape, etc.) they actually boil down to either on-foot missions, in which you wander down a corridor and shoot everyone, or sneak up on everyone; or in-car missions, which boil down to chasing someone, or evading them (or beating them in a race, which is basically the same thing, right?).
The on-foot sections are purgatorial: the control scheme is unwieldy, aiming is haphazard, enemy AI seems absent (except for their instantaneous reaction times), and level design quickly becomes repetitive. In general, the only real challenge here is to turn to face your attackers before they shoot you, and with the absence of a second analog stick to swing the camera round, it's difficult to see very far ahead. This might not matter so much were it not for the fact that every mission consists of a series of rooms that are at right angles to each other - resulting in the, frankly, silly process of clearing rooms by laboriously turning side-on to the entrance before strafing in, all guns blazing, hoping you're facing the right way. As for the obligatory stealth sections, they're utterly, utterly idiotic. Take the inability to look round corners, chuck in a radar that doesn't display enemy positions, and a sneak attack that randomly fails to execute after you've snuck up on your target, and the result is horrible and pointless.
Things don't get any better during the in-car bits - mainly because the game's vehicles handle like bricks. They're slow and unresponsive, difficult to turn, and grind to a halt upon merely grazing an obstacle (sure, there's an argument for realistic car handling in games, but trust us, this isn't realistic). During one mission, in which you're expected to evade a much faster pursuer, the game taunts you with the following message: "Try taking some sharp corners. That'll shake them." No it won't. Driving around till they get stuck on a piece of scenery will.
But - and here's where we start to talk about the less broken bits - there's a lot more to Gangs of London than just the story missions. For a start there are the Free Roaming game modes: Free drive, in which you can, um, freely drive; London Tourist, in which you view London's areas of interest via public transport; Cause Havoc, in which you, um, cause havoc; Riot Control, in which you, um, prevent havoc; Speed Trap, which forces you to maintain a minimum speed; Getaway, in which you evade the police (sorry, the filth); Four Weeks Later, a zombie mode in which the game's weirdly underpopulated streets finally make sense; and The Knowledge, an uncrazy take on Crazy Taxi.
Now, because these extra modes feature the same broken game engine, a lot of them are pretty awful. But some are perfectly decent, and in any case, they're not the only extras.
And here's where we talk about the actually brilliant bits. First, there are the pub games: skittles, 8-ball pool, darts, and an arcade cabinet that features variants of Snake are all excellent - with darts and pool both proving to be hopelessly addictive. Second, there's Gang Battle: a simple but compelling turn-based strategy game in which the aim is to take over a map of London, territory by territory. The catch is that you only have three moves each turn with which to move your men from your headquarters to other territories - making it a game of skill, bluff and chance that's much more compelling than the main game content.
It's a shame, however, that these modes feel a bit tacked-on. The presentation of Gang Battle is especially rudimentary, and the pool games could have done with better camera control, for example. Indeed, if they'd received the same presentational polish as the main game, Gangs of London could have been a resounding success. Without it, they're not quite worth the two-score saucepan lid you'll have to shell out if you want to buy the game. So Gangs of London is unlikely to be the killer app that gets people swapping their DS for a PSP. But if you're looking for a compilation of pub games, and a simple, quirky, turn-based strategy, you could definitely do worse. Just wait till the price comes down to a pony.