It’s hard to look at screenshots of Car Jack Streets (CJS) and not draw comparisons with the original Grand Theft Auto title. Thankfully, rather than just selling CJS as ‘GTA for the iPhone’, developer TAG has incorporated a real-time game mechanic that does a fine job of propelling CJS far enough away from the unrelenting GTA gravity well and sets it apart as one of the most individual titles for Apple's handheld to date.
The game's story hinges around Randall, a serial gambler who finds himself on the wrong side of a one million dollar mafia debt. Rather than dish out justice Soprano style, the mob bosses decide to let Randall pay off the debt in $50,000 a week instalments. From the moment the cutscene ends your commitment to CJS starts. The weekly repayments represent real seven day weeks meaning you’ll either have to play CJS for short bursts everyday or chuck your lot in with a mammoth weekend session. Missions come in varying shapes and sizes, from legitimate pizza delivery/taxi driver jobs to downright sociopathic murder sprees. How you pay back Randall's debt is entirely up to you - the more conscientious of you may even want to try and earn the money entirely as an honest citizen.
CJS handles control with a series of context sensitive touch screen buttons. On foot you’ll have an analogue d-pad for navigation, a shoot button (represented by a handgun icon that appears when you’re packing heat) and a car jack icon that appears when in range of a vehicle. Driving takes the form of a four-way directional pad spread out over the screen that actually feels pretty natural; for an extra boost in speed there’s even a turbo button that temporarily increases your speed at the expensive of control. While the interface stands up to scrutiny, the vehicle handling doesn’t. The cars feel great under the added duress of the boost but normal speeds just feel tame and unrewarding. To make matters worse colliding with anything indestructible just feels ungainly and unnatural, like the vehicles don’t weigh what they should. The immersion so lovingly achieved by the real time clock mechanic is unceremoniously undermined when you find yourself bouncing off other vehicles bumper car style.
Obligation-style gameplay is a relatively new concept in gaming but it’s one that CJS executes well. Killing 30 minutes driving cabs while you wait for a bank heist never gets old in theory, it’s just all thrown to the dogs by some ugly control mishaps. If you can put your faith in Tag sorting out the relatively easy to resolve control issues through updates (one due very soon) then Car Jack Streets is definitely worth a look.
Car Jack Streets was reviewed with version 1.0.