Rather than strain to avoid stating the obvious, I'll just get it over with: Car Jack Streets is the mobile's answer to Grand Theft Auto, made by the same developers, in the same town, and featuring similar graphics and gameplay. There.
It's important to dispense with these glaring similarities early, because they don't tell the full story. Knowing everything about GTA will only get you halfway to knowing everything about Car Jack Streets.
You play as a chap called Randal who's just run up a $1 million debt to a Mafioso called Frankie. The game is all about getting Frankie his money by running a number of errands: driving an ambulance, a bus, or a taxi; delivering pizza; stealing cars and taking them to Kirk's chop shop at the docks; racing around a track; and engaging in a number of specific criminal activities, from bodyguard work to assassination.
The gameworld is subject to a diurnal cycle. Not a compressed one, like you'd see in most open-world games, but exactly the same one we're all subject to in Real Life. If it's five past nine in your bedroom, it's five past nine in the game. If a virtual associate tells you to get to a certain location within two minutes, he means two minutes.
Every day, you get a set of missions to complete. In true sandbox style, you can choose which one to accept and when. You might be driving around, knocking over fire hydrants, looking for a decent gun, and scouring the hedgerows for $50 notes when a face appears to let you know about a job. From then on, that mission is marked in your GPS, and you can take it on whenever you like. Fail it, however, and you won't be able to try again till tomorrow.
That's right: you get one shot a day. If you muck all the good jobs up, you're left driving a bus for pennies or delivering pizza. You can fail even these modest tasks, in fact, and you're very likely to because Car Jack Streets can be punishingly – sometimes unfairly - difficult.
Let's stick with the positives for now, though. The vehicle handling is excellent. You accelerate with '2' and brake with '8', and you steer left and right with '4' and '6'. Control is relative, so that if you're driving down the screen '6' sends you to the left, which is difficult to get to grips with at first – particularly when reversing – but it's an excellent control method once you get used to it.
Your car slides automatically, and the boffins at TAG Games have done a brilliant job of making it feel fluid and authentic. Not only that, but all of the vehicles handle differently, with sports cars barrelling at great speed and trucks lumbering along. When things are going your way, it's one of the most enjoyable driving games on mobile.
Unfortunately, no good thing in Car Jack Streets is without its caveat. The handling may be good, but the way cars stop abruptly on contact with anything more solid than foliage is infuriating. However differently the vehicles might handle, they all turn to paper when they hit something head on, leaving you to stab at the accelerate button or pull into a languid reverse.
Vehicles are astonishingly fragile. They explode after being shot a handful of times. If you manage to annoy the police enough – and you tend always be somewhere along the permanently fluctuating 'wantedness' spectrum without really thinking about it – then you'd better not get snarled up in traffic, or you're toast.
You can avoid being toast, of course. You can get out of your car, which precautionary measure ensures your safety even if you're standing beside it, apparently engulfed in flames. This harmless little incongruity is useful on the occasions when your car gets wedged into scenery – fairly frequently - and you get trapped – less frequently. As long as you have a gun, you can blow up your car and stroll through the flames.
The good game/bad game act doesn't stop there. The GPS arrow is useful, but the lack of a map means you can end up driving into dead-ends; the gameworld is big, but there's too little variety in the scenery; the passage of time is cleverly used, but some of the assignations your cohorts attempt to make are unrealistic. Not everybody can make appointments with their games.
You can fail a mission for a variety of reasons - killing the person you're supposed to defend, getting killed, losing a vehicle you're supposed to be transporting, getting hospitalised, getting arrested – and if you don't take a great deal of care you can feel like you're stumbling from failure to failure until all of your profitable missions have gone up in smoke and you have to grind to make a buck.
Fortunately, there's one permanent and fairly profitable grind to engage in: Kirk's Autos. If all else fails, you can keep bringing cars to Kirk for a relatively tidy sum, and I found myself seeing-out several bedtimes in this manner, cheerfully racking up the dollars while the wreckage of all my failed missions smouldered behind me.
For all that Car Jack Streets has lows, however, it has even more soaring highs, thanks largely to the ticking clock at its centre. Once you've got into the swing of it – once you've earned a bit of money and taken it to Frankie, reducing your debt by a fraction – the game starts to do something disarming: it seeps into your real world.
Your phone buzzes in your pocket and you think, "I'll do another couple of missions," forgetting to read the text message you've just got. It rings and you think, "ooh, I've just time to make a grand." Later, while your girlfriend shouts at you for ignoring her attempts at communication, you glance at the clock. "It's nearly midnight. I've got to make more money."
Although GTA is the obvious comparison, Car Jack Streets is in some ways closer to something like World of Warcraft (in what other kind of game do you agree to turn up at a specific time?). It's not much cop as an action game, and the flow of the otherwise excellent driving sections is interrupted by jarring dead stops, but it works because these elements are just the game within the game. As with World of Warcraft, how far you've got is always more important than how much fun you're having.
Take that for what it's worth. Car Jack Streets is not GTA on mobile. It's something completely different, and on its platform it's pretty much unique. It's fun, too, and while it won't fill a minute as well as many other games, it fills a week better than most – or twenty weeks, for that matter, which is how long it could take to finish.
For all that the game has problems, there's an enormous compliment lurking inside the following prediction: at some distant point, on my phone at least, Frankie'll get his damn money.