Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Review
I don't know what it is about portable Grand Theft Auto games, but every one released in the past was just a disappointment. Maybe it was the timing of the releases, or with the titles' relatively high quality making me expect home-console quality out of the games, but both of the PSP games as well as the GBA edition released years ago just didn't work for me. But this time, I'm hooked. GTA Chinatown Wars on the Nintendo DS brings in just enough new gameplay to make this title feel like it belongs right where it is, and delivers a signature style that differentiates itself not just from most other action games on the DS but also past GTA entries. Still, at its core, this is a great game with some fantastic M-rated scenes and few compromises when it comes to the plot and grandeur we expect from Grand Theft Auto.
The first thing you'll notice about Chinatown Wars is that Rockstar has made the DS' second screen, something few games make great use of, just as vital to getting by in the new Liberty City as having the first screen. Not only is it used for a multitude of options and controls that you might have seen versions of in GTAIV - but wouldn't expect to get from a DS game - but you also get a large and detailed mini-map. Things like the GPS routing system, emails through your phone, drug trade tracking, and more all feel like natural parts of the game that were either expertly ported over from past games or created entirely anew.
In Chinatown Wars, you play as Huang Lee, a Chinese national who has just arrived to clean up the mess that led to his father's death. There's the issue of a sword that was in his possession, now stolen after having spent about five minutes in Liberty City, that he'll have to recover to keep his family's honor. But Huang quickly finds out his father was not as honorable as he thought - his peers were crooks and thieves, drug dealers and scumbags, and now he himself has to deal with them in order to try and right his father's wrongs. While triads and other Chinese gangs have played a role in GTA games for many years now, this is the first time you'll get to play from their perspective.
And what a perspective it is. Chinatown Wars is one of the most graphically demanding games the DS has seen - almost a little too much. You get a top-down view of the action, but unlike the old days before GTA3, the perspective is shifted just enough (yes, everything really is drawn in full 3D) that you don't feel limited by it. And many of those little details that endeared people to the franchise over the years: car damage, taillights, newspaper stands that billow out newspapers when hit, fire hydrants spewing water after being run over - almost all of that attention to detail is here in miniature form. The only bad part is that the game engine sometimes falls a bit behind when you're moving quickly, so every so often you'll notice some pop-in or slowdowns. But while issues like these have killed the fun of many games, they're not nearly as disruptive to gameplay as one might expect.
The controls are just a little strange and will take some getting used to. Driving with the d-pad is easy enough, but throwing molotovs and grenades can be tricky, as you do a specific flick on the touch screen. (Yep, this is one of those games where you keep the stylus between two fingers even when using the D-pad and buttons.) There are quite a few touch-based mini-games for GTA-like activities that you might have taken for granted in past games, like hotwiring cars or disabling bombs. And hey, you can always drop by a convenience store and buy some scratch-off lotto cards! Overall, Rockstar has added just enough diversity with these touch-controlled intermissions to make it unique and fun without overdoing it and weighing the experience down.
One thing that had to get severely sacrificed for the move to the DS was sound. Sure, we do get some passable sound effects and even the music really isn't bad - we get radio stations like before but they're all MIDI-style instrumental tracks - but there's almost no speech whatsoever. You'll hear a pedestrian yell something out once in a while, but things like cutscenes are text-only (although the graphic novel-style cutscene images are great) and mid-trip conversations are completely gone. If you found this stuff to be some kind of vitally important part of what makes the GTA series so great, then you'll be disappointed here. But frankly, the DS isn't made for an experience where you sit down and play a game straight through, and Rockstar made Chinatown Wars a little more accessible, handier to play while on the go (you can save your overall progress at any time here, but mid-mission saves aren't allowed), and they didn't make audio a vital part of the game. All of this is pretty well in line with what DS players expect out of their games - even if hardcore home-console GTA players might be a little annoyed.
Liberty City itself is recreated in tiny form on the DS, and considering what Rockstar Leeds had to work with, they did an impressive job. One island - Alderney - had to be axed, but the rest of the city from GTAIV has been reproduced in a kind of stripped-down style that may not give you that uncanny feeling of actually being in NYC, but it's still got more atmosphere than five average DS games combined.
For some reason, though, Rockstar decided to mess with the police formula that they've used (and many games have mimicked) for years. Now, getting two police stars or more will result in quite a few cruisers coming after you, and you'll have to force them to crash or smash into them yourself, almost in the style of Burnout, to get them off of you. It is kind of a fun system, but it's also a lot less realistic and if you are a little unlucky, will also take you longer to shed those stars and get back to what you were doing. It's fun for the first several hours, but winds up being a bit of a drag later on.
Online multiplayer is alive and well in Liberty City this time around as well, although the need to go through the DS' ridiculous friend code system is still necessary. It's a fun online game overall with multiple modes and even the ability to track your stats in the single player against your friends', but what we get here is a lot like GTAIV's online play. It was a fun distraction, but it's not quite fun enough to pull people away from the single player mode for long. Even if you complete the game, you'll probably have more fun just playing drug runner here and buying more properties instead.
Besides re-adding in features we started to get used to in Vice City and San Andreas that were missing from GTAIV - like buying property or participating in Rampage missions - Chinatown Wars also includes an interesting drug economy where you'll be buying low and selling high all around the city. The game spices up this system with surprise drug busts, and getting arrested means losing all the product you had on you, so stash it at one of your safehouses if you plan to hold on to some stock. Overall I really enjoyed this system, and considering how hard it is to come across cash by doing missions, most players will need to do a good amount of drug running by the end of the game. (Check out a trailer show off this system here).
Rockstar has done a fantastic job packing a large amount of content onto a tiny DS cartridge. Not only is there a ton of stuff to do in GTA Chinatown Wars, but all of the little touches add up to an experience that's greater than its parts. Compromises had to be made for Nintendo's portable, but none of them hurt the overall feel of the game which is still very much GTA at its core. It's easy to recommend this one to any gamer who needs to get their car-stealing, thug-shooting fix while on the go. And yes, it's also still worth playing at home as well!