Payback GP2X Review

Payback is a Grand Theft Auto clone featuring a 3D engine, top-down camera angle and a varied mix of cars. It’s on sale for £22.99 and comes on a 512MB SD card. Released back in 1998, GTA has since been regarded as a classic; unfortunately from the outset it is clear Payback seeks to copy Rockstar’s game, personified by having to answer the payphones to get your mission details.

There are 3 modes of play – Story, Challenge and Rampage. In story mode you take on the role of a criminal trying to accumulate as much money as possible in order to advance to the next level. Three cities are on offer, with 2 different sets of missions on each; Freedom City is very much like Liberty City in GTA, Los Francos appears to be in cold Russia and lastly Corona city features a harbour and a large off-sea prison island.

Each game starts with you seeking out the payphones to get the next mission from the boss. Initially you are unarmed, aside from your trusty punch, but weapons can be found in crates scattered around the city, mostly in parks or alleys. Pistols and shotguns are common though it’s possible to get your hands on grenades, a minigun, flamethrower and rocket launcher. Ammo levels are spot on and switching between your inventory is quickly done via the shoulder buttons. The violence in the game is nicely done with injuries inflicted resulting in satisfyingly over the top blood spatter.

Mission types include assignation, street racing, protection, picking up briefcases, stealing experimental cars and blowing stuff up. If you are successful at reaching your target goal – typically $2million – you’ll unlock the next city. The missions are fairly exciting and varied, though some are a bit rough around the edges; one time I had to follow someone on foot and he got stuck behind a fence meaning it was impossible to complete the mission. Lack of polish was particularly apparent in one later mission where you have to escape from a large prison; some more direction would have just finished it off. Inexperienced gamers might find Payback inaccessible or confusing at times. In particular the exceptionally low time limits to reach certain destinations are impossible unless you know the way – something you’d only find out after repeating missions. Challenge mode features a mix of the original cities plus less polished additional arenas, which are fun for a quick game. Rampage mode offers no set target score to complete the level; instead you’re after the highest score possible and each difficulty level has its own score board.

It’s easy to pull the driver out of passing cars and jump inside, bizarrely the game copies GTA’s bug where if the car starts driving off before you get in you’ll still be able to get in as if by magic. The cars all look good and vary in speeds, with the police and sports cars being suitably fast. You can even get into an Ice Cream truck – the ultimate form of both coolness and disguise. Cars handle well, though manoeuvring at slow speed takes some practice. The hand-break works superbly at fast speeds, allowing you to power slide and spin around corners. When damaged, a car’s engine starts to smoke and if you’re not careful the whole thing will go out in a big bang. The explosion effects are very satisfying.

After committing a crime your police wanted meter increases and it’s not long before the squad cars arrive to tackle you. On lower levels they’ll attempt an arrest but if you’ve committed major crimes, expect them to give you the shotgun treatment. I found it easy to run them over once they are on foot as they do not take cover and cannot shoot out of the squad car. In the first city this was a real annoyance but in the second the police are much tougher with a tendency to arrive 2 or 3 at a time, guns blazing. Rather infuriatingly, if you ram or shoot at a police car this does not provoke a reaction, so you don’t have to worry about hitting the police cars when driving around. In addition your wanted level quickly falls unless you are constantly committing offences; 1 minute after a killing spree you are forgotten and the police start to ignore you again, lessening the impact of your actions. Even if you commit a crime with no witnesses the omniscient police will know. Cars you left abandoned will disappear if you stray too far away, despite the potential for storing temporary data on the SD card. This was annoying back in 1998 with GTA and should have been improved upon since. In Payback everyone has the memory of a goldfish.

Graphically this game shows what the GP2X hardware is capable of. The 3D engine moves along at a decent framerate, textures have sufficient detail and if you look closely you’ll spot real-time lighting effects. From this point of view it’s worthy of 7 or 8 out of 10, but unfortunately it lets itself down. Despite being hours into the game I never felt comfortable with the perspective, it’s just unnatural to use a 3D engine but see it from a top-down view. You can adjust the camera height but only the mid-range one is really suitable for both driving and shooting. It’s not possible to zoom without pausing the game so it’s not easy to adapt it yourself to fit the situation. No matter which camera height you select it’s near impossible to see fences as they have no depth from above and can only be seen side on. It’s intensely annoying to walk into an invisible fence every time you attempt to leave the pavement to enter a park; you’ll often have to walk along the pavement for a good 20 seconds until you find a gap, making car travel essential for your peace of mind. Even once in a car you’ll struggle to find the way out of a car park because they’re mostly enclosed inside a fence. This is such a basic flaw and could have been fixed by making the fences 2-3 pixels deep or removing them completely. This would have made navigating across the city far less irritating, especially when your mission timer is ticking and you can’t even get onto the road.

Buildings are fairly tall and can get in the way when you go inside or travel underneath one; you disappear from view and it’s impossible to see where you’re going. Dark alleys are so dark the graphics start to look grainy and it’s impossible to see yourself. In fact it’s often hard to see a policeman come up to you when you’re not out in the open. Also some roads – complete with yellow lines – lead right up to a building, so it looks like there’ll be an underpass but you’ll crash straight into the wall. Because of the limited viewing distance this is a constant annoyance and more variety of textures would have been nice. Likewise the cities have no contrast from block to block making it very hard to remember where you are. An arrow points to your destination like a compass and without this you’d be lost, but it would be nice to recognise where you are by the colour and style of the buildings. There’s a mini-map in the top-right corner but it’s tilted and very hard to see effectively on such a small screen. Strangely the mini-map was absent in the last city so navigating around became more hit and miss. Back in 1998 Rockstar provided lovely maps alongside the packaging to assist the user, it’s a shame such a step wasn’t taken here as they would have been a welcome addition. Payback’s menu and interface are otherwise slick and load times are barely noticeable.

Missions can usually be accomplished or failed within minutes, and they’re all in the GTA style – pick people up, kill a gang, deliver a car etc. Bite sized missions are fun at first but tedium quickly ensues, though accidentally running over the person you intended to pick up always brings a smile. There’s not much of a story and those wanting something for their brain to think about will be disappointed. There isn’t quite the depth found in GTA, pedestrians offer no interaction and don’t fight back. It’s all very predictable. Unfortunately it’s not possible to save mid-game so your only option is to complete the city during a single session; it would have been nice to have a frequent auto-save option. You’ll need at least a 45 minute session if you plan on completing a city. For a shorter play you’re basically forced into messing around, which grows tiresome. Lack of mid-game save is also a problem if you realise your battery is on the verge of running out.

Once you’ve completed a level there’s the option of saving the replay, so noteworthy situations you get yourself into can be shown to friends and family. Best of all the action now takes place in a cinematic 3D perspective, this finally shows what a good game engine this is. The addition of fast-forward and re-wind options would have been welcome but I loved the replay feature and I wish it was present in every video game. It’s such a shame you’re restricted to a top-down view when actually playing the game as the 3D engine is almost a hindrance; viewing 3D objects at low resolution makes it harder to see what’s going on when compared to more 2D styled games. Introducing a few flyby sequences of the mission target at the start of each mission would have added some much needed contrast.

The sound is undoubtedly the best aspect of the game. In missions you’ll hear people speaking on the phone which is much better than the text-only format you still find in many games. Payback features a good soundtrack of unknown music that I had not heard before and it’s possible to add your own tracks. As in the original GTA you can set the music to radio style, to kick start a new tune each time you get into a car. This really improves the atmosphere.

Payback is being sold at £22.99, a comparable price to Nintendo DS and Sony PSP titles, though the SD card format must increase costs somewhat. What the game has going for it is that it’s a showcase of what the GP2X can do, but from a gamer’s perspective it’s hard to recommend Payback due to the total lack of innovation. Payback is the original GTA re-done in real 3D but still played from the top-down perspective. It retains some original GTA limitations and adds some of its own. Paypack’s gameplay is no deeper and the city environments could do with greater attention to detail in order to make surroundings more engrossing. The cities were more convincing in GTA as it offered a more polished experience; Payback feels like a more limited cops and robbers sandbox where every road looks the same. It wasn’t until the 2nd city when the difficulty increased that I started to have some real fun, but the story mode was over after 6 levels, without any end credits or even a thank you message. Make no mistake there is fun to be had here and I did feel compelled to play through the missions, but most will feel they’ve done and seen everything once they reach the 10 hour mark. Missing were the little things like being able to sell cars for money, pedestrians giving you lip and gangs strolling the streets.

As a fan’s pet project to recreate Rockstar’s classic, Payback is impressive, but such blatant copying of the GTA license cannot be condoned in a commercial product. Effort has gone into this in terms of duplicating what GTA did, but no time has been spent in developing something new, which is such a shame. When you look back at such games as Syndicate Wars, which played in a similar way to GTA, yet offered a totally different experience, Payback is a real missed opportunity. Why they’ve gone down this path I have no idea – GTA is a great game and re-using the same formula 9 years later is going to be a fruitless exercise as everyone has already experienced everything on offer. Had Apex Designs tried to do something original with their promising game engine it would have scored higher.

If you’re going to clone GTA please add something new.

4 out of 10
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