Payback from Apex designs is the iPhone’s answer to the GTA series. It’s a sandbox style game where you play a wannabe British gangster rising up through the ranks of the criminal underworld. To get there you must punch, shoot, kill, steal, and speed your way through 6 chapters, which in turn will take you on a journey through three cities each with various illegal activities.
In freedom city (hmm sounds like liberty city!) you’ll meet a cockney gangster who thinks he’s Vinnie Jones. He issues missions to you from payphones. You’ll be taking out cops, picking up packages, dropping off gang members, stealing ice-cream trucks and ram raiding shops… to name but a few. Completing missions successfully will earn you enough money to unlock later levels and chapters.
I was lucky enough to receive a cheat code that allowed me to unlock all levels and chapters, to get a feel for what the game has to offer (sorry I can’t share it). Overall the missions are a mixed bag with the action based one’s being most fun, including a tank based rampage. But some missions such as the drop off/retrievals can become a bit tiresome. That’s not to say that driving around the city isn’t fun, but the small map and lack of graphical variety in the levels can lead to getting lost now and again. The mission mechanic of having to find a pay phone each time you want to start a mission can also get frustrating. In a mobile title such as this, the game should at least drop you by the payphones at the beginning of the level, or even adding a quick mission select screen would be more suitable.
Graphically the game looks pretty good, and a definite step up from the GBA version of Payback.. The viewpoint for the game is top-down 3D, similar in style to GTA 1 and 2, using a flat texture for street level, with buildings and other objects stretching up towards you. It works well, particularly in motion, adding to the feeling of a real, tangible living world. Unfortunalty, there is some slowdown during explosions and when many objects on screen at once, but it’s not a huge factor.
As is often the case in sandbox games of this type there isn’t a great amount of detail in the textures and 3D models. The cars are blocky and a little basic, and characters are very small and mainly all legs! Textures are simple and lack variety, with the odd distortion when close up and in perspective. But, this simplicity has its plus points, because it’s uncluttered it’s easier to make out your objectives, too much detail could be overkill. And with some great lighting including shadow and bloom lighting effects. It’s certainly not an ugly game.
The UI presentation is fantastic! From the stylish intro movie, down to the easy to use menus. These are rendered as a transparent layer over your current level, which when paused is given a cool looking blur effect and the camera begins to pan automatically giving you a tour of the level. It’s nice to see some thought and polish put into such things, as it can make or break a games appeal from the outset…and I’m stickler for good UI design.
So, how does it control? For a sandbox game where you can do what you want and when you want, controls are probably the most important factor. If they don’t work, then that freedom will soon become a drag. Thankfully the controls work well. As with many of the more ambitious iPhone games Payback takes a little getting used to, but they soon become second nature.
Momentum for walking and driving is controlled via forward and back buttons on the bottom right of the screen. Turning is done via accelerometer, with you twisting the iPhone left or right to turn your character or vehicle, as I mentioned it takes getting used to, especially for quick turning and shooting etc. On the left side you have a button for entering a vehicle, and above that a button for punching, firing your weapon (if selected) and if in a vehicle, it works as a horn. Weapons in your inventory appear top left, and you tap the area to cycle through them. The weapons icons are tiny so it’s a bit had to see what you have at a glance. Weapons include, a pistol, shotgun, grenades, mini-gun and rocket launcher. The latter is great fun, locking on to enemies is automatically, so all you need to do is point your character in the general direction and let rip!
Driving works well for the most part, but big trucks and buses are a bit cumbersome with a large turning circle, and the high performance cars a little too sensitive on turns. Best bet is to grab a medium speed car, for better handling. Much like GTA, if you car takes too much damage it will blow, so keeping it on the road is critical, especially during a mission. A good test of your driving skills can be found in a race mission in Los Francos, a slippery snow covered city. You are given a particularly twitchy rally car, which slips and over-steers all over the place.
The sound in Payback is great. Just like GTA you have various types of music playing in the game, from drum and base, rock, pop and hip hop. And while these are not commercial tracks that you’ll recognise, they are well produced and fit the game perfectly. Music can either be on continuous or in radio mode which only plays when you enter a vehicle. The game features full Voice work which is to be commended, as it really is expected in a game like this these days. While I’m not a big fan of the hero’s voice, which you don’t hear too often, I do like the Vinnie Jones like London gangster who issues you the missions, and also the Russian and German voices in the other two cities work well too. It’s a bit cheesy and stereotypical but that’s all part of the fun. The sound effects are good too, especially little details like the screaming passengers when you take a bus for a spin!
As far as added features go, the dev has added a few extras. As well as the story mode you have various challenges including rampage mode, and killing sprees. You can also view replays of entire levels if you save you progress to a file. Replays are shown through various camera angles and viewpoints which is a nice touch. And should you quit the game or answer a call, on return you can resume the action exactly where you left off.
Presentation and Graphics
While the models and textures are nothing special, and there are few graphic glitches here and there, it’s a good looking game with some nice effects such as atmospheric lighting, and great UI design.
The sound in this game is spot on. Full voice over work in the mission briefings and in-game and a fantastic soundtrack which really adds to the atmosphere and the GTA like experience.
A mixed bag of missions, but the overall combined experience is a good one. Controls work well and the universe of Payback is a fun and well thought out place to spend a few hours.
The missions will keep you occupied for a while, even if some of them are a bit tedious. Sandbox style gameplay of this kind has a lot of legs, so there’s plenty of replay value. Extra rampage and challenge modes add life.
I’m a big fan of this type of game which is why I may have been a bit overly critical of some of the negatives, and may have not pointed out many good points. But the main positive is that, as an overall package, Payback is a solid effort, and until we see what Car Jack Streets has to offer, then as the only game of it’s kind on the iPhone, I would recommend picking this up.