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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars iPhone Review

By Matt Cabral, 1/25/2010

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Rockstar Games' palm-sized Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was one of last year's best portable games. Scratch that. It was the best portable game of 2009—sorry, Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. Whether you love or hate aggregate review score sites such as, it's hard to argue with the numbers; GTA:CW pulled together scores of 93% and 90% for the DS and PSP, respectively. But despite the heaping critical praise, this latest romp through Liberty City failed to post the kind of sales numbers the blockbuster series was accustomed to. However, like a low level street thug determined to climb the criminal underworld ladder, Chinatown Wars isn't about to give up. With the DS and PSP debuts a distant memory, this ballsy entry now has its sights set on Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch.

This third iteration is a near-perfect port that again sees spoiled triad punk Huang Lee trekking through Rockstars' twisted take on New York City to avenge his father's death and deliver a mystical sword to his power-hungry uncle. Lee's arrival by private jet is almost immediately met by bullets, blood, and a desperate escape from a drowning vehicle. Soon enough, however, he finds his groove in the big city, and all the guns, girls, and gang-bangin' that come with it. Anyone who's played a GTA title should be familiar with the underlying structure; explore a large open-world (often in a high-jacked vehicle), accept a series of critical and side missions from a variety of colorful characters and, of course, blow up half of Liberty City in the process.

Where GTA:CW significantly differs from its traditional home console counterparts is in its presentation. The view is top-down, albeit with three dimensional environments, and the style is more cartoony than realistic. These stylistic choices allowed the developers to cram a ton of content into the game, while also giving it its own unique charm. And despite the more modest production values, it still packs plenty of cool effects and graphical tricks. Day changes to night, rain pours down on the city—and looks especially cool passing through the glow of a vehicle's headlights—and explosions stretch across the screen in bright red balls of destruction. Similarly impressive is the way civilians stride the sidewalks and realistic traffic patterns crowd the streets. Liberty City on the DS, PSP, and now the iPhone, is a living, breathing metropolis you can put in your pocket.

Complementing the inspired presentation are graphic novel-styled cutscenes driving the story, and a mission structure streamlined for the portable platform. Bite-sized goals can be completed relatively quickly, and the ability to skip intros and long travel routes ensure you're never out of the action for very long. These elements in no way take away from the experience though; on the contrary, the gameplay refinements actually strip away much of the tedium of the console games in favor of a more consistently engaging experience. Sure, you'll still endure the occasional fetch quest and mindless car chase, but plenty of inventive objectives keep the pace brisk and addictive. Whether you're evading trouble by disguising yourself as a parade performer, sniping a high-level target from a balcony, or giving chase in a speed boat, you'll rarely find yourself bored in Liberty City.

The iPhone port also brings back the DS version's awesome touch mini-games which were removed from the PSP to accommodate its traditional controls. Instead of using the stylus, gamers will now hot wire rides, scratch lotto tickets, ink tattoos, and assemble sniper rifles with a few finger swipes. While these touch games make a welcome tactile return, the other controls don't fare quite as well on Apple's touch devices. Driving can be a nightmare, as loose steering and cluttered streets combine for lots of collisions; not a big deal when you're seeing the sights, but brutal when you're attempting to outrun the fuzz. Similarly frustrating is the amount of on-screen buttons filling the display. This has become the platform's Achilles heel, as big-thumbed gamers spend more time looking at their digits than the action. This is somewhat more problematic in GTA:CW because there's a virtual joystick and up to three action buttons eating up screen real estate simultaneously. Despite my initial frustrations controlling and viewing the on-screen antics, though, I hardly noticed these issues an hour or so into the action. If you're accustomed to playing games on the iPhone, you'll know what to expect and will adjust accordingly. However, those still new to 100% touch gaming will definitely endure a steep learning curve.

Aside from the return of the finger-fueled mini-games, Apple device owners will also be treated to the bonus content from the PSP version. This includes some extra missions and a slickly produced opening music video. Don't get too attached to the idea of spoken voices, though, as the rest of the game's conversations are strictly expressed through text. It's a disappointment—as it was on the DS and PSP—but understandable given the technological limitations. It's actually a testament to the outstanding writing that GTA:CW manages to keep you entertained throughout even without the benefit of voice actors. Even the all-instrumental radio stations retain the series' signature edge.

On top of containing more content than you can shake a bloodied billy club at, this one also includes the PDA and GPS from the original game. These items not only prove invaluable in getting through your bullet-riddled adventure, they also help immerse you in a real-world experience. Whether you're scanning directions to a safe house, or spying an email from a drug-peddling buddy, these tech toys make for modern-day complement to all the car chases, shoot-outs, and street brawls. Also making the jump to this latest port is the ridiculously addictive drug-dealing economy. Like a junkie on a bender, I couldn't get enough of this game-within-a-game; as within the previous two versions, I found myself continually abandoning critical objectives so I could score a great price on a bag of dope. This buy low/ sell high meta-game removes the grind from earning money, while also keeping you on edge—get pulled over before you can store your stash, and it's confiscated by the fuzz.

One of 2009's most under-appreciated efforts gets a third chance at success. And while it's not the best version of the game (that distinction goes to the original on DS), due primarily to its finicky controls and cluttered HUD, it's still a must-play experience that shines as bright as a flame-engulfed gas station on Apple's hand-held gadgets. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that it comes in at only $10, a third of the price of the DS and PSP versions. Car-jacking, cop-cappin', and ho-slapping? Yup, now there's an App for that.

Overall: 90%



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