GTA has something of a checkered history on handhelds. Starting out with the woeful GBA version, things got better for the "stories" versions on PSP (although control issues, thanks to the hardware, plagued the series) before really hitting their stride with this very game - Chinatown Wars on DS. Announced as an exclusive to Nintendo's clamshell, the title tanked hard in the market, selling very small numbers and seeming to prove once and for all that there was no market for M titles on the kid-friendly handheld.
Not wanting to abandon what was a very good game, Rockstar set about porting it and (so far) they haven't stopped. First slipping over to the proven ground of the PSP, Chinatown Wars then surprised some by leaping over onto the iPhone. Despite being ostensibly touch-interface oriented, the sheer scale and production values were new to the platform. Given an iPhone version exists and that it appears to have been a success, that there's a higher res version available now for iPad should be somewhat less surprising.
So, first things first - this is the same as the iPhone version. Yep, it has higher res graphics but otherwise there's no obvious differences at all. Which begs the question as to why it's not a universal application (you need to buy it again if you want it on iPad and already have it on iPhone).
Chinatown Wars is all about the adventures of one Huang Lee, who comes to America after the death of his father. Huang's adventures begin on arrival as thugs attack his plane, kicking off another series-signature intro sequence. While hardly as grand as that seen in GTAIV, it's still a fun little cinematic that introduces the game and chronicles Huang's journey downtown. It also sets up the first basic control introductions, including a minigame where the iPad's touch screen is well leveraged to break you out of a sinking taxi.
From there, you need to get yourself to your Uncle's home base - which is where the problems begin. Chinatown Wars, while designed with a touchscreen in mind, was also designed to require physical buttons for the basic interactions - those being driving, shooting and triggering context-sensitive interactions. The iPad, as you know, has no buttons. As is the norm, GTA's designers elected to opt for "virtual" buttons to resolve this dilemma - that is, a little joystick graphic and a bunch of little buttons that you can touch in order to control Huang or the vehicle he's in.
As usual, this doesn't work. Sure, you can technically control Huang but it's a haphazard, random experience at best, while a hair-pulling nightmare of epic proportions should you need to do something precise under pressure. With no physical, tactile response to help you locate (and stick to) the controls, you swiftly slide your fingers to the wrong location and Huang goes the wrong way or does the wrong thing.
Arguably, these control mechanics could still work - if the designers made any kind of concessions for them whatsoever. Alas they did not, dialing the difficulty of an already fairly tough experience up over 11. Chasing and ramming cars is already hard enough without your car going completely the wrong way because your stressed out thumb moved just far enough to trigger the wrong side of the "controller". There are also very few options to customize the experience, with only the option of using analogue steering while driving making any real (extremely negative, as it happens) impact on what happens.
Why is there no tilt-based steering option? Surely some combination of tilt and touch (as in, "touch on the left" not "touch this tiny virtual button") would have worked better than this awful melange. This continued reliance on virtual replication of real-world controls is either a sign that the touchscreen devices of tomorrow need some sort of enhancement or that game designers are going to have to get a bit more creative. Until then, expect low review scores!
You do eventually become somewhat capable with the controls but they never (ever) become fully natural or an extension of your will. At best, all you can hope for is competency - at best.
Putting aside the atrocious controls, the core gameplay of Chinatown Wars is pure GTA. There are story based missions to pursue which drive the narrative along, as well as numerous off-book activities you can engage in to indulge your sandbox gameplay desires. New to the series is what is essentially the total integration of the old "Drug Wars" game. That is, you can now buy and sell drugs in an attempt to make some cash by buying low and selling high. Just don't get caught as your profits can take a big hit if you're busted for some minor crime while packing some serious drugs.
Another new feature with Chinatown Wars is the integration of what are essentially minigames. These sequences are triggered by performing certain interactions, like stealing a car or escaping from a sinking vehicle. Unlike the bulk of the game, these sequences are generally well controlled and fun to play - thanks, no doubt, to the fact that they were designed for a touch screen from scratch. Whether filling molotov cocktails by dragging the gas pump around, tapping on a windscreen to break it or using a screwdriver to jimmy an ignition, these little sequences draw the player in with a natural interaction. If only the rest of the game was as suitable to the interface on offer.
Visually the game is definitely a step up from the iPhone version, with the game engine simultaneously blessed by a higher resolution screen and unencumbered by having to perform on a variety of hardware configurations. Presented from an almost God-level perspective, objects at a distance to the camera (like people) are low in detail - something brought into sharp clarity by the occasional dip of the camera down into the realm of the low detail graphics. Still, it mostly looks good and always moves at a good clip, while looking comfortably similar to other 3D engine games on the platform.
The sound, as is typical with GTA, is very good - complete with multiple radio stations to listen to as you "thug it up" Triad style. You can, of course, add your own tunes into the mix which further personalizes the experience (something which becomes essential after playing the game for a decent length of time as download limits have limited the range of tunes available to lower than usual levels). Voice dialog is good as well, with just the right mix of solid delivery and slightly wry "tongue in cheek" character. Yet again, GTA proves that Rockstar takes game audio seriously.
So with yet another version of Chinatown Wars, we still don't have the perfect combination of features. The DS version is probably still the best, with its pairing of touch and tactile controls enabling players to engage with the title as was intended. Sure, the touchscreen parts are best on the iPhone / iPad (thanks to its capacitive touchscreen technology) and of course, the iPad has the sweetest graphics with a massive screen. But ultimately, what's the point in a good-looking game you can't really play without being frustrated? Only for die hard fans or those that have embraced virtualization of joysticks - here's hoping Rockstar sees the light and comes up with a sequel that better suits the control mechanics on offer.