Sony’s London Studio provide an awkward, clunky crime caper with some interesting ideas it never really manages to capitalize on, leaving a rather lackluster package.
World-building & Story
Gangs of London takes place, as the name suggests, in the underworld of England’s capital, ruled by rival gangs each fighting for control of territories. You’re tasked with assuming control of one of five different gangs (each from a certain racial background) and doing missions to take control all of the territories in London to wipe out the rival gangs.
The story is told through comic-book esque cutscenes that are visually impressive and almost universally amusing and that’s something I can definitely praise the game for – it’s sense of humor is definitely in the right place. While it often shows the serious side of gang violence – beheadings, car bombs etc., it’s equally happy to send you on a mission escorting the leader’s mum on her shopping trip.
Sadly, there’s very little tying the story together – it feels like a series of disjointed missions without any links to one another. It doesn’t help that the characters are never developed – you have four gang members who stick with you throughout the game but I could hardly tell you any of their names, let alone things about their personalities. Side-characters tend to appear for a single mission during which time you barely learn anything about them, meaning their development is left to being a broad stereotype.
Aside from through the brief story sections, world-building is done by exploring London while undertaking missions – and it’s an impressive sight, as a large amount of the city is explore-able here, including many famous landmarks you’ll recognize. The problem with this again comes down to the mission structure – you’re flitted all over the map at various points rather than utilizing the open-world to get to your next target and as such it never really seems connected, making the world feel smaller and less enjoyable than it could be.
Presentation & Sound
Generally, presentation in the game is fairly poor – although as previously mentioned the comic-book style cutscenes remain a highlight. These are stylish, often have minor animations that bring them to life and are generally fun to read through, going a long way to set the tone and atmosphere for the title.
Sadly, the rest of the game does not live up to this standard. Character models are blocky and have very few animations; car models are often duplicated many times as you drive down a street and textures are often extremely blurry. It doesn’t help that the general art direction in the game is so bland, with characters and objects having no real defining characteristics to make them stand out.
While I understand concessions would have to be made to get what is otherwise an impressive open world running on the PSP, it feels like the title is running in a beta state and needed some extra time to get the presentation up to par. I’m not really a fan of drawing comparisons as I prefer to look at games on their own merits, but it’s worth pointing out that this originally released one year after GTA Liberty City Stories on PSP and one month before Vice City Stories, both of which absolutely put this game to shame in terms of graphical presentation.
In terms of sound, the actual soundtrack isn’t much to write home about – the opening cutscene features a very catchy track, but things go downhill from there and there isn’t anything noteworthy. Although levels do contain music, it’s rarely anything other than background noise and not anything you’ll remember after playing. Sadly when you get in a car there’s never any radio or music playing, making driving a rather barren experience (and again, something which GTA provided).
Voice acting, however, is on a different level. Now don’t get me wrong – this is cheesy, ham-fisted, stereotype pandering VA at it’s finest, but that’s really fitting with the tone of the game and feels perfectly judged. It’s a shame, then, that the only voice acting is during the comic-book cutscenes at the start of every mission rather than being throughout the game, but at least all of these are plentiful and all of them are fully voiced.
Gameplay & Content
The game is comprised of a number of different parts, but in general you’ll be selecting whatever you want to do from a menu and then heading out. It’s worth noting that there is a full open world here to explore – but the ‘story’ mode makes little use of this, instead giving you a map and asking you to pick missions.
Generally the missions involve one of four things – chasing down another vehicle; escaping from being chased; assaulting an enemy building or defending a friendly building. Undoubtedly the assault/defence missions are the most well thought out, often involving fun set pieces like assassinating someone at a funeral or defending a scrapyard. The driving missions were less enjoyable often relying on luck to escape a pursuer, although I later found out that you can cheese these by getting out of the car; waiting for your pursuers to get out to shoot you and then getting back in and driving off (as the AI didn’t have the brains to get back in their own car).
While the team attempts to keep the missions fresh by putting various spins on the four basic designs, it gets repetitive fairly quickly. While you can play through the story mode with any one of the five gangs, it’s unlikely you’ll do more than one as you’ll have seen basically everything the game has to offer on the first playthrough.
While the open world isn’t utilized during story mode, you can explore it in some of the variety of other modes the game has to offer. There’s literal free-play where you can just drive around; a tourist mode where you can take pictures of landmarks; mayhem mode where you have to cause as much damage as possible within the time limit etc. These all provide various distractions but wear thin relatively quickly.
The game packs in even more modes beyond this though – there’s various pub games you can play, but the stand-out is ‘gang wars’, which plays like Empires Mode in Dynasty Warriors or Galactic Conquest from Star Wars Battlefront. In this, you assign gang members to assault or defend territories with the goal of taking over the whole of London on a board-game style map. It’s one of the more enjoyable things about the game, but sadly it’s little more than map & stat management – there’s no opportunity to actually go and get involved in the battles.
All of these different modes are alright on their own but really feel like they should’ve been integrated together as part of a bigger experience. If the story mode was open-world, with side missions to cause mayhem or fight zombies you could stumble across while exploring the map then it would’ve made a more compelling package. As it stands, there’s little reason to play the other modes once you’re done with the story.
On to gameplay then, in which you’ll either be driving or doing things on foot. The driving is alright – while nothing special, the cars handle well enough although there were some occasions where I was doing things like handbrake turns and the car would just keep skidding into a wall when I’d pulled off the maneuver ten times previously with no problems.
There are little touches with the driving that actually show a really nice attention to detail – for example when you’re following a waymarker on the map and you have to turn a corner, your car’s indicators will flash showing you where to go. When chasing enemy gangs down the streets you’ll sometimes come across learner drivers who panic and swerve trying to get out of the way, which always made me chuckle.
What makes the driving problematic is the other cars – these move erratically (particularly if they’re part of the mission you’re on), have no regard for whats going on around them and are generally a pain to interact with. While this could be argued as part of the design (the game is about gang wars after all), in practice it just feels like little effort was put in to making other vehicles behave in a somewhat realistic manner.
The on foot sections fare much worse than the driving. For starters, your character’s movements are incredibly clunky and there’s no camera control – your aim is constantly forward, meaning you’ll have to move the character around to get a better view of your surroundings.
Combat is even worse – hand-to-hand can be daunting enough thanks to hitboxes that often make no sense, but the gunplay is a particular hassle. For starters you can’t aim up or down, meaning you’re often just panning across the horizontal while moving your character to try and find an enemy. The addition of lock-on targeting should make things easier, but this only works if you’re aiming almost directly at the enemy anyway.
One of the game’s gimmicks is that you’ll often be in a gang – meaning you’ll have team-mates to back you up, who you can switch between at any time. This was an idea I liked at first as you can give them basic orders and each one often characters a different weapon, meaning you’ll often have to switch on the fly. In practice it was a nightmare to manage them – they either lag behind you or run off fighting enemies you haven’t even seen yet and get themselves killed.
In fact AI is a constant problem throughout the game – enemies are no better, particularly in the ‘stealth’ missions where I regularly ran straight in front of them un-noticed, meaning you can usually just barrel your way through these levels. Enemy placement often meant that stealth wasn’t worthwhile anyway – if you engage is a loud gunfight, there’s rarely any backup nearby to support them even in an enemy stronghold.
Gangs of London is like a showcase of missed opportunities – while there are some things it gets right, there’s so much it gets wrong and the game clearly needed longer to be polished into the great experience it’s trying to be. There’s fun to be had here and there’s plenty to do, but you’ll forget all about it among the many frustrations on show.