Reviewed: November 21, 2009
Released: October 20, 2009
This was not at all what I was expecting.
I really should have read the previews better, because I honestly thought that by downloading Chinatown Wars from PSN, that I was signing up for the newest chapter in Rockstar’s award-winning 3D open world 3D Grand Theft Auto action series. What I ended up with may in fact be the latest chapter in Rockstar’s open world GTA series, but it sure as hell is not the 3D action title I had become accustomed to since the release of GTA III. Nope, my thoughts immediately jumped to “Oh no! It’s the old Grand Theft Auto.”
Yes, that’s right, folks – the original GTA formula is back; the birds-eye view, the teensy-tiny people, the wonky smash-and-bash driving – yep, Chinatown Wars looks like stepping back into 1999. To be frank, I was not at all happy. You see, back in the day those original top-down GTA titles were kind of a joke among us gamers. We thought they were funny for their crude (text-based) humor and sprite based violence, but in the shadow of the likes of cutting-edge 3D titles like Metal Gear Solid and Syphon Filter, they were seen as little more than a passing novelty.
And if we want to talk about the GTA of today, we don’t look to those titles – we look to Reflections’ Driver series, because it was Driver that laid the first rubber on the gameplay that the GTA series now defines. Driver was the first to meld a 3D driving game with the deep and sordid story of reluctant anti-hero Tanner – undercover police informant – forced to be getaway driver in the shady world of organized crime. Driver 2 took it a step further, taking Tanner from the dirty streets of unnamed inner city to the sunny tropics of Miami and Central America, and for the first time allowed a driving game character to exit the driver’s seat, chase enemies on foot, and even carjack passing motorists.
Sound familiar? Remember, this was all before the now-iconic GTA III was even announced. Roughly a decade later – the Driver series is now widely accepted as a GTA “wannabe”, and the three-dimensional GTA series that we have all known to love (and I really do love it with all my heart) is considered the standard by which all other games are measured. Irony? Yes. Which makes it seem even more ridiculous for Rockstar to take a step back into their dark past, doesn’t it? Yes. Well, that is exactly how I felt before I finally stopped my whining and actually played Chinatown Wars.
Ok, we need to start with a little background on the game. It may sound strange to hear that Chinatown Wars is a port of a DS game – but that is exactly what we have. Built from the ground-up specifically for the DS, Chinatown Wars was designed to accentuate the DS’s unique dual-screen design, and touch sensitive input, all while working within the memory confines of the relatively underpowered processor. In order to achieve this, Rockstar Leeds made the decision to eschew the now-standard third-person perspective in favor of a top-down view similar to the original GTA series of the late 1990’s. I said all of this before, I know. But this new perspective – combined with a unique resource management mechanic – effectively transforms the straight-up action series into a bite-size action-RTS of sorts. One of those games I never thought I would like, but I do.
The storyline follows the exploits of Huang Lee – the arrogant son of the now-slain leader of the Chinese mafia, the Triads. Huang arrives in Liberty City delivering an ancient family sword to his Uncle, who is to take over the family business. Upon his arrival, he is immediately attacked, beaten, tied into the backseat of a car, and dropped unceremoniously into the river. Huang has to break out the windows of a car and swim to shore. The sword is gone, and our friend Huang is in trouble.
This scene starts the tale of Huang’s journey to find the sword and to avenge the murder of his father. In the process, Huang will meet a whole host of seedy crooks, low-life drug dealers, dirty cops, and even a couple of hot ladies – and all come with the unique GTA storytelling that leave you simultaneously loving and loathing each and every one of the characters.
As I mentioned numerous times, the action is once again played out from a birds-eye view. This definitely takes some getting used to, as any form of motion (either on-foot or by vehicle) is initially quite awkward and unintuitive. Turning, steering, acceleration, and braking all seem initially to be overly-twitchy and clumsy, and the fact that most of the vehicles and people are travelling at quarter-speed leads to massive and uncontrollable vehicular carnage at nearly every turn.
It is often difficult to discern barriers, walls, and other obstacles from the normal roadway, which isn’t helped by the fact that a large portion of view is often obscured beneath elevated train trestles, trees and other aerial obstructions. In fact, figuring out how to actually get around this birds-eye version of Liberty City nearly cause me to toss the game in frustration, and I ended up running everywhere because it seemed more productive. But once I got the feel of the driving controls, and learned to properly use my GPS, I quickly found myself cruising the city in style.
The gameplay comes in the traditional GTA style; with Huang accepting a series of missions doled out by the various characters and indicated on the map with a letter or symbol. Oftentimes, one character’s missions will conflict with those of another and Huang will be left with a tough decision. Most missions involve some kind of mass destruction – killing a group of thugs, firebombing a warehouse, etc – but there is a fair share of theft missions (cars, packages, etc), and a handful of escort missions which actually play out better then on the consoles.
Chinatown Wars relies heavily on mini-games to progress the story – right from the get-go Huang must break free from his watery grave by smashing the right and left bumpers then hot-wire a car by following a series of onscreen directional cues. There are mini-games for deactivating car alarms, mini-games for filling Molotov cocktails, mini-games for hacking locks, and mini-games for anything in between. It’s fairly obvious that these mini-games were designed with a stylus and touch-screen in mind, but Rockstar Leeds has done a solid job of translating the motion-based input to the PSP’s directional nub.
But the most important mini-game – actually it would be better to call it a sub-game – is when Huang becomes a drug trafficker. Almost like a mini stock-market simulator, Chinatown Wars’ drug trading mechanic runs persistently in the background, with Huang receiving constant PDA updates on who is buying and who is selling at different locations throughout the city. Between the normal story missions, Huang can stop off at neighborhood dealers, buying what’s available and selling what is hot. The drugs are stored in Huang’s personal satchel, which – when full – can be transferred to the stash boxes at any one of Huang’s safehouses. There is a huge amount of coin that can be made by buying and selling drugs, but the timing and the location are key factors to making cheese, so gamers have to track their PDA updates constantly.
For a top-down game, Chinatown Wars looks surprisingly detailed. The cityscapes are absolutely fantastic, and the game camera does a solid job of quickly reorienting itself to allow visibility in narrow alleyways and between skyscrapers. The cars may appear blocky and primitive at first glance, but upon closer inspection they have shading and reflections that give them depth and shape. And the fact that the on-foot pedestrians are roughly 150% the size of the vehicles they ride in is a bit off-putting, but you soon learn to overlook such nonsense.
The game features excellent visual effects for smoke and fire, and the cars and locations take on damage and deformation (to a limited extent). During on-foot firefights, the camera zooms in a click to highlight the action, but it is still difficult to determine the good folks from the bad in the heat of battle. Not being able to find your Triad buddies is one thing, but when you lose Huang in the crowd, it can be a tad frustrating. You pretty much resort to the pray-and-spray method of cleaning house in those cases.
There are a ton of weapons to be found scattered around the city hidden in dumpsters or garnered from fallen foes. Weapons can also be bought online from Ammunation, which offers free delivery to your safehouse. It is kind of nice to be able to shop from the PDA rather than wandering around looking for an Ammunation store – and the fact that it can be done immediate after earning money (before the police confiscate Huang’s cash) is nice.
We have to talk about the police. Of all the GTA games, Chinatown Wars features the most hardcore police yet. You so much as nudge a police car and the heat is on – and by heat, I mean heat on the order of a three-star wanted level in any of the previous games. I’m not kidding – boost a car with an officer in view, fail to deactivate an alarm in time, or simply bump a police car, and the lights go on and they are immediately out for blood crashing and bashing Huang around like a pinball.
This brings up the new method for eliminating a wanted level – the new tactic is to knock the police cars out of commission by running them into walls off bridges, into other cars, or whatever you can do to render the police car useless. Depending on the “new” wanted level, you may have to destroy one, two, or more cars – each eliminating one star at a time. While these chases are exciting, accidentally triggering a police sequence during a timed mission can be a devastating time suck.
GTA has always been known for great musical soundtrack, and while Chinatown Wars seems a bit hobbled in the audio department (no voices in songs or the storyboard cutscenes) the instrumental music is at least enjoyable. The sound effects are solid, if repetitive, but you can’t beat the atmosphere that is set by the excellent sounds of the streets.
Other than the odd point-of-view, Chinatown Wars is every bit as complete as a full sized console game and will easily consume 10-15 hours to complete all of the story missions, and many more if Huang spends time trading drugs or performing taxi missions around town. Then you have the whole online Social Club with all sorts of leaderboard tracking and online interaction such as exchanging GPS locations, text messages, or even trade items. There is also an Ad-Hoc two-player mode offering various racing and drug-related mini-games and even a "defend the base" game.
As with all PSP games since the launch of the PSP GO, Chinatown Wars is available on UMD as well as a download from the Playstation Store. While the UMD version gets you a nifty manual and a fold-out map of the city, the downloadable version completely installs itself on your PSP and offers really fast load times compared to the non-stop, sandpaper-grinding sound of the UMD. I can say that Chinatown Wars consumed about 700mb of my memory stick, which is quite a chunk for owners of older PSP's and smaller memory cards. I was able to delete, re-download, and reinstall Chinatown Wars without affecting my save file, but the process took around 10 minutes in total – a far cry from popping in and out a UMD disc. On the flip side, the fact that the game was loading off the internal memory rather than a disc extended my battery life significantly.
I definitely got off on the wrong foot with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars; I absolutely hated the game at first, but after three missions I was definitely feeling the love. This is the perfect example of not judging a book by its cover. If you are a GTA fan and never got to play Chinatown Wars on the DS then you won't want to miss this next exciting installment that takes a whole new look at Liberty City and its cultural underground.