It's easy enough to praise a game, pointing out its merits and its shortcomings, but to slate a game from beginning to end takes a tad more effort. The problem with Gangs of London isn't something you can pin on one or two different attributes, but more a case of the whole thing not coming together at all. I sat in front of my PSP for hours, trying my best to pluck some kind of enjoyment from a game so desperately trying to please, but failed at every attempt. But how does it step over the line that separates an average game from a poor one?
To understand the root of the problem, we need to assess the concept itself. Gangs of London isn't quite a GTA-by-numbers, but in most respects, it tries to be. If any among your have played either The Getaway or its sequel Black Monday, you'll be familiar with the game world. London's underworld is a turbulent beast, with more squabbles than the 'less than ten items' checkout at your local supermarket, and it seems that everyone's jostling to become the biggest and most feared collective of cockney criminals in the heart of the capital. The triads of course, retain all their culture and secrecy, making them so much scarier, apparently.
Each mission sees you on foot or driving around the streets of London, carrying out various duties for the crime syndicate you elect to join. These include the EC2 Crew, Morris Kane Firm, Talwar Brothers, Zakharov Organisation and the Water Dragon Triad. None of the above changes the story-arch to any serious degree, but adds a different slant to the game. The next 8 hours were frustrating to the extent that my PSP almost became a footrest. The game is just so dull to play and feels incredibly dated.
Gangs of London differs from the Getaway by having you control a squad of criminals, rather than a single person through the game. These can be switched to at any point via the touch of a button, whilst the rest of your squad can be called upon to back you up or, as per the norm in the genre, follow or stay. A nice touch, something that's standard these days but does get overlooked on handhelds, is the ability to order each member of the group individually. This risks the controls becoming overly complex, but it works well enough.
As you progress through the story, you'll come across the same missions, renamed and rehashed over and over again. Even the all-important free-roam mode, which fans request in every game of this type, isn't such a big draw. It all boils down to one simple fact - it's just not fun - and it's a fact that all too many impulse buyers could stumble upon.
Gangs of London tries to use the London setting to its advantage, but the sheer lack of commitment in the voice acting and the overuse of 'colourful' language reeks of a game trying to fake its roots. I'm all for uncensored content in videogames, but not when used as it has been here, disregarding background story in favour of a few swear words. The game's presentation woes don't end with the audio unfortunately. As the world's most graphically able handheld, I expect more from my PSP than bland textures, blocky character models and a frame rate that on occasion crawls along. It's not the worst looking PSP game, but it's almost depressingly plain.
As a last ditch attempt to save face a number of mini-games have been included, with the idea being to reproduce the kind of games that Londoners play in their local. It's hard to tell if this is purely a reaction to the pretty awful main game, but the majority of these mini-games are excellent. Not in the same way that something like WarioWare is excellent, but more akin to the smile that crosses your face when you get home from work and there's a parcel waiting for you. Darts and pool respectively both rank highly on the mindless fun-o-meter, but it's Gang Battle that steals the only spotlight of this review. It's a London-centric take on the Risk game mechanic, and is a solid gold addition to the game. Had it been playable online, it could even have been something to ignore the rest of the game for.
Alas, I can't simply ignore Gangs of London, much as I'd like to. When you boot up your PSP and you side-step the main story for the mini-games, you know you've got a problem. Gangs of London is a poor attempt at a game that could have been so much more. Let's hope Sony has a good hard look at the series before the inevitable sequel rears its, hopefully not ugly, head.