Reviewed: March 26, 2009
Released: March 17, 2009
The first time I ever played a Grand Theft Auto game was on the Sega Dreamcast. I remember that it was pretty amazing, even if it was 2D. It was like driving matchbox cars around a miniature city, occasionally getting out to kill people; meanwhile you had all these radio stations and cool music and you could play the game forever.
Well, that was 15 years ago and GTA has grown up quite a bit, both as a franchise and in the scope and scale of each new release. So when I heard that GTA was coming to the DS I was intrigued and a bit cautious. Then again, back in 2004 Rockstar released GTA on the GBA and it was awesome, or at least as awesome as you can get on the GBA. It was certainly an homage to the top-down game I played on the Dreamcast.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars shrinks the vast world of Liberty City down to two small screens and a tiny SD chip but donít think for a minute that this game doesnít have content or originality. Whereas most developers usually have to think of ways to force their games to use the inherent abilities of the DS, Rockstar Leeds actually allowed the DS features to create new ways to play the game. There are so many cool features in Chinatown Wars that it might be hard to play another GTA on a major console, especially considering that the coolest new features are only feasible on the DS.
First off; the story. GTA has taken us to several places and even classic eras, but in Chinatown Wars we revisit Liberty City and a whole new secret underworld of the Chinese Mafia. The opening cutscene introduces us to Huang Lee flying into the city on the family jet to deliver a ceremonial sword to his Uncle Kenny, but upon landing he is immediately ambushed, the sword is stolen, and Huang is shot and thrown in the backseat of a car that is dumped into the harbor. Break out that stylus because youíll have to tap on the rear window to smash through and swim to survival Ė just the first of many creative uses for the touchscreen.
After meeting up with Uncle Kenny we learn that the sword was an important symbol required for Kenny to maintain control over his territory and without it rival gangs and even street thugs are taking over the city. Huang will need to step up and restore the family honor and dominance in the city by undertaking all sorts of criminal missions around town. Admittedly, the story is not as strong as console games, mostly because cutscenes are static panels and you have to read the script rather than listening to top voice talent, but such is the limitations of a DS card.
In every other possible way Chinatown Wars is classic GTA in both gameplay and irreverent attitude. The game is played from a top-down view with just enough tilt so you realize that this is a true 3D world scrolling along in the top screen. Even cars and objects are in 3D and respond accordingly. No sprites here! The bottom screen is home to your radar, which can be turned into a full GPS map, as well as weapon selection and access to your PDA.
The interface for the game is totally immersed in the gameplay so you are always clicking on in-game objects like the computer to read mail, the sofa to save your game, the corkboard to replay missions, or the strong box to access your drug stash. The in-game PDA allows you to online-order weapons that will be delivered to your hideout, check out gang territories and get updates on the most profitable drugs that week. Messages that arrive via email come with a link that will automatically plot a GPS waypoint for you on the map Ė very slick!
Controls will take some getting used to, especially for movement and driving. The game almost instinctively plays at an isometric viewpoint and moving diagonally with the D-pad isnít as easy as it could be Ė sometimes itís actually painfully on your thumb. Driving and turning with the D-pad is rather abrupt and it will take some practice to master the art of high-speed 90-degree turns without smacking a building or flattening a few pedestrians.
As the initials GTA imply, youíll be stealing a lot of cars and this can be easy or challenging depending on a few factors. You can steal cars driving by but you risk get shot if you jack the wrong guy. You can steal parked cars but rest assured that in this game most cars have some sort of security, and this is where it gets fun. You might only have to twist a screwdriver in the ignition to start the car but other times you might have to unscrew a dashboard plate and actually twist wires together to hotwire a car, or you might have to jack your PDA into an alarm system and hack a digital lock. These little mini-games are incredibly original, totally intuitive, and only possible on the DS. They also add a bit of realism and tension to the experience of stealing a car.
There are dozens of vehicles types and they are a little harder to identify in this game than others, but you can usually be sure that cars with racing stripes go fast, boxy sedans are speedy and durable, and trucks and vans are slow, cumbersome and resistant to a lot of gunfire. They even have motorcycles and a variety of watercraft in this game. Much like previous games, you can put your favorite cars in the garage of your hideout and save them for later use.
Combat is pretty slick with a right-trigger lock-on and then you can punch or fire any equipped weapon. I did notice that it is much more difficult to punch out a pedestrian as they will scream and run away. If youíre looking for easy money lying on the sidewalk youíll have to engage in some vehicular manslaughter or start popping caps Ė either way the cops are sure to arrive.
Speaking of cops, the star wanted level is back but now you have a new way to break off the pursuit. The designers have created a more movie-like chase atmosphere where you ram into cops and plow them into traffic, buildings, or anything else that will stop them. As you smash more cops and pull away from them your stars will slowly go down, or if you want, you can always head for the Paint-n-Spray and lose that wanted level instantly.
There is also a whole new dynamic in play in Chinatown Wars, drug trafficking. This has been done before in other games but not nearly as complex or seamlessly integrated into a larger game design. You have dealers buying and selling drugs all over the city; anything from coke and heroine to grass, downers, and ecstasy. Buy low and sell high and try to turn a profit but watch out Ė the bigger deals can attract unwanted police presence and there are even sting operations in place. Drug dealing is all handled with the touchscreen interface between you and your dealer and you can offload any extra drugs back in your strongbox back home just in case you get arrested.
The touchscreen is used for so many creative elements in Chinatown Wars. Youíll need to get your gang members inked so get ready to use your stylus as a tattoo needle. Youíll also use implements of destruction to sabotage cars, youíll play scratch-off lottery games, youíll dig through dumpsters for weapons, and youíll disarm bombs, break padlocks, go fishing, assemble a sniper rifle, and of course, steal cars. You even need to use the stylus for ranged weapons like grenades and Molotov cocktails. My only minor complaint is that all of these inputs do require a stylus Ė you canít use your finger with any accuracy, so you are constantly having to go from finger and button gameplay to stylus gameplay and back again quite often.
Chinatown Wars offers a solid 15-20 main story campaign with plenty of side missions and gang related activity including races, drug deals, and other diversions like driving an ambulance or taxi, delivering Chinese takeout, or street racing that will easily keep you playing for 40+ hours.
There is even a wireless multiplayer component that allows you to IM friends and trade information and items online. If you find a cool secret in your game you can send the GPS location to a friend so he can find it too. There is also head-to-head multiplayer and stat tracking with six different game modes like racing, defend the base, and my favorite, Stash Dash, where both players are trying to get the same van back to their own hideout.
GTA: Chinatown Wars packs all the amazing gameplay of the console games and then enhances it with cool touchscreen nuances and fits it all in the palm of your hand for the true gangster on the go. You can even put your DS into sleep mode and resume a game or even a car chase with no effort. You even get a cool comment each time you open your DS.
The visuals are obviously not nearly what you can get on a major console but they remain stylish and keep with the themes of the artwork in manuals and box covers from past games. The 3D engine is exceptional and you get smooth 30fps gameplay at all times. The camera pulls back the faster you go then zooms in when you slow down, and you can always tap the left trigger to re-center the camera. There is so much small detail in every part of Liberty City that you really have to analyze each screen to appreciate it all.
The audio for Chinatown Wars is great but I do miss my fake radio commercials and talk radio. Instead, we get midi versions of licensed music and even more generic music lumped together by theme and presented as selectable radios stations. The fact they crammed this much music onto the DS card with everything else is a testament to some crazy compression scheme. The rest of the game is mostly engine noises, quips from pedestrians, and all sorts of gunfire and sirens. Liberty City remains very much a living, breathing metropolis, even on the DS.
My one and only complaint, and itís more of an observation than a complaint, is that as with any GTA game, Chinatown Wars requires a substantial time investment and I simply donít play portable games that often. I almost never play them at home, what with three consoles and a big HDTV, and I had to force myself to play this one just to experience the WiFi elements. And then when I am at my day job Iím lucky to get a solid hour of gaming in between lunch and my breaks, so a game this size can become rather formidable for the casual handheld gamer. You might want to save Chinatown Wars for your next big car or plane trip.
Regardless of how dedicated you are to your DS, either at home or on the go, anyone who enjoys the GTA franchise should waste no time in picking up this game. Rockstar Leeds has done the impossible and brought over everything that makes GTA what it is and then added so much extra content specific to the system. Chinatown Wars not only redefines DS gaming, it will very likely redefine GTA when the next installment hits major consoles.