We’ve been grappling with how best to describe Gangsta Paradise, the latest from Prison Games. What we’ve come up with is Plants vs. Zombies: The Shooter, which doesn’t really help when Plants vs. Zombies has its own, rather successful series of shooters. But imagine that the original, single-screen Plants vs. Zombies was a shmup, with hoodlums instead of the walking dead, and you’re pretty much there. It’s a tower defence where you’re a moving, firing tower.
On the left-hand side, there’s you: the one-man gang who is looking to take down the mob. You’re protected by a wall of sticks and barb wire, which isn’t going to hold for long. You’ve got a pistol with infinite magazines, but reloading takes just that little bit too long. On the right-hand side, you have approaching waves of ‘gangstas’. Like Plants vs. Zombies, they attack in different rows, so you are sliding your character up and down in an effort to fire at them. Headshots are the real damage dealers, so you’re trying to line up accurately with their eyeline. Waves and waves come at you, and – should the goons reach the left-hand side – they will whittle away the barrier’s health bar until you’re unprotected and die. Survive until the end of a wave meter, and you’ll get rewarded with piles of cash.
That’s the pizza, but there are toppings to add a bit of flavour. You have the option, mid-battle, to buy what bizarrely seems to be an EMP grenade, which does damage but also stuns the surrounding enemies. You can also buy weapons with limited clips, at increasing prices. Rifles, shotguns and eventually a minigun are all available this way. To buy them you need cash, and you will accumulate cash through killing gangsters, so there’s an idle-game kind of scenario going on, where you’re stocking up money to buy guns to take down the bigger goons. Latter levels are all about managing your cash flow, as you upgrade all the way to the gun that everyone should aim for, the shotgun.
There are forty levels in total, stretched across four chapters, and you can duck out at any moment to access an upgrade store. Here your individual guns can be upgraded, including that starting pistol, as well as the quality of your fortifications. Most of the time, you’ll be keeping just ahead of the curve, arming yourself with weapons that are just good enough to get a three-star score for each level.
There’s not a whole lot more to Gangsta Paradise than that. The gangsters that come toward you get varied and slightly harder to kill, with some that hold car doors like riot shields (shoot them through their window), and others that stop in the middle of the screen to fire at you, so you have to clean them up early. Unfortunately, most are just different wrappers on the same themes: you need to hit them in the head, and early. Some will need more hits, and others will fire earlier than others, but they’re all ostensibly the same troop, which is a wasted opportunity. If there were troops that encouraged different strategies – the old gaming classic, the ‘exploding enemy’, would have fit snugly here – then Gangsta Paradise might have elevated out of tedium.
It’s the big, flashing weak spot on Gangsta Paradise: it can’t hold back the boredom. It starts well, as you’re gliding from headshot to headshot and feeling rather smug. But this is the pattern for the rest of the game, just with different guns and different sprites. You’re constantly growing more powerful – the game handily keeps throwing the rubbish enemies at you, so you can feel that power creep – and the guns and upgrades will keep dialling up the damage you do, but they don’t change the way you deal damage, how you attack the enemies, what the levels look like, or even introduce bosses (a mega-goon arrives at the very end, which is the closest you get, but it’s just a larger damage sponge). If Super Mario escalated its difficulty by offering you Level 1-1, over and over again, just with Goombas that take more hits and wear different hats, then we’d feel short-changed. It’s no different here.
Some way in, a little bit of strategy gets stirred in, as you’re managing when you upgrade to a better weapon. Out-of-game, this can mean strategising whether to upgrade your starting pistol, or whether to focus on improving your powered up weapons. In-game, it’s about how quickly you can accumulate enough wealth to afford a weapon that’ll actually start controlling the crowd. It’s welcome, but not really enough.
Gangsta Paradise is an easy game, and you’ll get to 900G, at the very least, within a couple of hours. If we died, which was rarely, it was because we’d neglected to pop by the upgrade store in a while. Still, getting three stars is a bit more of a challenge (although not a huge one: if you reverse back once you’ve fully upgraded your arsenal, they’re a walk in the park), so there’s a reason to play levels more than once. Whether you’d want to, with the boredom kicking in after about an hour of play, is another matter.
It should be mentioned that Gangsta Paradise can be played co-op, but it’s nothing more than another character added to that same left side. We found that it pulled the difficulty even further down, which in turn made the experience more boring. Still, it’s nice to have the option to drag a mate along.
£5.79 isn’t necessarily a wad of cash, and there are worse ways to spend that money than on Gangsta Paradise on the Xbox. The shooting is accurate and feels good, and it’s possible to reach a state where you’re chaining headshots and being crushed beneath a pile of Achievements. But, lest we forget, Gangsta Paradise has virtually zero ideas and variety, and it somehow manages to make its two hours feel thin. We’d describe it as a plain bowl of pasta with a sprinkling of cheese, then, but if you’re hungry for it, it does a job.