Mike’s a hard-luck citizen of Liberty City who’s trying to get straight with his dubious friend Vinnie. All he wants to do is get the hell out of the city that has infected him, for too long, with an existence under the thumb of a criminal lifestyle. Aside from Vinnie’s penchant for acquiring “one more” job from the mafia and his subsequent murder, things seemed to be pointing Mike in a safe direction. Don’t worry – Vinnie’s death is not a spoiler, but rather the catalyst for the drawn-out itinerary of vengeance Mike exacts in looking for Vinnie’s killers throughout the rest of the game.
Grand Theft Auto Advance, as a game, is a lot like Mike and his endeavors. No matter what the title tries in order to create its own little pocket of distinction and escape repetitive examples of the series’ past, the gameplay keeps getting dragged back by stuff that is inevitably made quite a bit harder by the smaller nature of the game’s medium. I found myself lurking between sentimentality and disappointment at intervals, inspired by my love for the original GTA and the shortfalls that reared their ugly heads in making the traverse from my big ass TV to the very tiny GBA.
For the eight of you that aren’t at all familiar with the GTA series, what we’re talking about here is a game scope of grand proportions, and unmitigated freedom. GTA has always been about thick story elements, decisive/imaginative/rampant violence, and an environment in which the player can create his/her own experience. It didn’t matter if you weren’t into the go-fer duty you had been assigned to by a shopkeeper, or the omnipresent assassination of key antagonists. If you wanted to drive around at high speeds and slam into police cars, it’s all you. Hop into an ambulance or a fire truck to acquire side missions involving actually *gulp* helping people. This is the genius of the GTA series, and it’s surprisingly intact in the small form of the GBA.
However, those core elements don’t seem to add up concretely to some assumed entertaining end in GTA Advance. Much of the let down has to do with controls, and the fact that the thick aesthetic is crammed (although very competently) onto that tiny screen.
One of the hardest things to accept is that this was a game I used to play on the PSOne; every visual setting in the original has been recreated for the GBA. GTA Advance moves back to the top-down perspective (from the fully polygonal fields of crime we know today), featuring some faux 3-D building landscapes and car/people/tree sprites. Those sprites don’t have a huge library of movement frames, which makes for a bit of a choppy visual flow, and may or may not be a product of the GBA’s technical limitations. Picture Pitfall Harry in an urban setting, occasionally driving like a crazed orangutan and shooting civilians, and you’ve got the general idea.
That same frame rate is what knocks the graphics score down a bit, as it affects control in many instances, specifically when things get a bit fast and furious. After watching more than two seconds of my car’s harried, barely-controlled meandering, I found myself pressing my face against the tiny 2-inch screen, eyes dry and crossed, and lamenting the slower response of my vehicle at higher road speeds. Attempting to anticipate traffic or a turnoff is almost a moot venture, and is a lot like careening through an inhibiting fog while blinking rapidly. After a while, I gave up trying to be at all adept, and drove with a sloppiness that belied my actual abilities, honed as they were by the latter-day GTA games.
Likewise, foot missions suffered a little, with inaccurate and twitchy gunfire, melee combat, and even simple movement. I wouldn’t be so testy about all this, except that I’ve played some first party titles on the GBA, and I know exactly how good the control (and the corresponding graphical throughput) can get.
I reserved a special bitterness, as well as a grudging acclaim, for the number of controls that were included in GTA Advance interface. I swear, every button on the machine has a double usage (A button to attack, B to sprint, both to jump?) and memorizing the primary usage, not to mention the secondary, can get a bit hairy. I will say, though, that it is something you can get used to, and it’s somewhat impressive to think that not a single action was lost from the original game to button limitations. It is more than apparent that the game started off being played on a controller with ten buttons instead of five.
Sound is a bastard. Much of the music is well done for a little 32-bit handheld system. I even found myself half-enjoying some of the music, when it’s not dropping tracks out to play an audio bit of an angry pedestrian or jilted driver yelling soft-core obscenities at me. For the GBA, I don’t expect a fantastic world of aural bliss to explode around me, but working within the limits might have stemmed the choppy and distorted music and dialogue during play.
What can be said for GTA Advance that is positive is less definitive, but certainly notable. All the usual elements you’ve come to expect and love are still here. Vehicle varieties run the gamut from car to bus and just about everything in between. The spectrum of weaponry is moderate, but you’ll find everything you need to do your jobs, from baseball bats to assault rifles. As always, there are inconsequential activities that can garner money in street racing, or the simple satisfaction of hunting down the many hidden packages scattered about the city. And of course, there’s the raw tales that the GTA series is known for which, while dulled by a less cinematic presentation than we’re used to, is still very much alive in GTA Advance, beating the drum and pushing you on to the next dialogue plot point.
What person won’t enjoy GTA Advance? Probably the average, discerning gamer. GTA Advance is clearly founded on a series that has fame, notoriety, and a foot firmly planted on the neck of the free-roaming action genre. Those that have fond memories of GTA past and a deep patience for moving a bit backwards in the control and visuals department will be fine here, with familiarity and a good deal more than two dozen plotline missions to complete. Putting aside residual prejudice, there is a great number of gameplay elements that deprive the game of its heart and flow, like sloppy aiming and sloppier frame rates. Playing it really isn’t the thrilling drive-by I’d expected, but nor is it a substantial loss to the GTA universe. Anyway, it might be a useful, cathartic tool for those that have to travel and commune with annoying relatives this holiday season.
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