The announcement of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was met with some justifiable skepticism. Shortly after the critically acclaimed Grand Theft Auto IV released, it was unveiled and given a release date only a few mere months away. Very much shy of what most triple-A titles do: provide a release date a year or two away and then delay it. This was furthered by the fact that gameplay footage was only released a month ago; was Rockstar trying to hide something? Would Chinatown Wars being the rotten egg of the series, the proverbial ugly duckling?
Now that it's out you can put your skepticism to rest. Chinatown Wars is a triple-A title, without a shadow of a doubt.
While the GTA games on the PlayStation Portable format simply followed the formula made famous by GTA 3 in 2001, Chinatown Wars goes for something more original. It's almost a celebration of the best aspects of the original top-down 2D GTA's mixed with the now standard free-roaming 3D style.
The setting is Liberty City, a very familiar one, and while the game only has two of the three islands we saw in GTA IV you will still speed around a corner and say “Hey! I remember this place!” It's not a bad thing, mind, as the game is rendered in a pseudo cell-shaded style so it's different while retaining the spirit of Liberty City you know. The engine the game is built on has obviously had a lot of work put into it, as it's able to produce a city teeming with pedestrians, police, traffic, and some-times, even a little carnage, without any slow-down whatsoever; an issue which has plagued the other 3D GTA games since GTA 3. Having only played this on the DS Lite I can't wait to see how good it looks on the DSi. There's so much detail in the game world that a bigger screen, I hope, will be able to do it a bit more justice.
You play as Huang Lee, a bratty son of a murdered gangster arriving in town to primarily find the killer and end him. Typically, the plan goes awry when he's jumped at the airport and left for dead. But hey, if things worked out for the guy, this wouldn't be Grand Theft Auto.
If there's one drawback of the engine, a limitation more likely to do with the system and the cartridge format, it's that there is no audio dialogue during cutscenes. These are presented with stylised panels reminiscent of GTA box-art with text lining the bottom of them. Now, Rockstar were very clever here. You see, Huang is a smart-arse. He's constantly providing lippy commentary which surprisingly doesn't get him shot in the mouth. You will find yourself chuckling a fair bit, and perhaps moreso when he encounters the game's cast of clueless gangsters. But because of this elevated level of dark comedy, it's not boring reading the dialogue. A smart move to be sure. In game one needn't worry, though, as you'll be getting cussed at in full audio dialogue by pedestrians all the time.
Radio stations too lack the classic licensed music of past series but the original mixes are highly addictive and you'll no doubt be picking a favourite station quite easily. Maybe in future iterations of the series they could make use of the DSi's SD card so we can play our own tunes. Just a thought, Rockstar.
Chinatown Wars is really about the core gameplay of the series and makes sure you can have fun on the go. There's no annoying buddy system where people will fall in and out of favour with you, there are no morality choices, no dating - basically, it's GTA without the fluff.
The touch-screen functionality is bit of a mixed bag but welcome nonetheless. You have a PDA which allows you to create waypoints to make travelling around the city a little easier. Basically, you bring up the PDA, double tap your destination, and the map will mark our your best route to this point. It's quite handy, if you're like me, and tend to want to load up on ammo, make some money and do naughty things between missions, and can save a lot of time.
You're also able to defuse bombs, hot-wire cars and tattoo new recruits using the the touch-screen; it's all rather charming, and though sometimes it feels tacked on, it's nice to see Rockstar take advantage of the platforms unique capabilities. Oh, and if you see a cab, try whistling into the DS mic to see what that does.
Missions are like those you've played before but the characters and way you play them make them feel fresh again. They're also made more enjoyable by the fact that the controls are perhaps the tightest in the series. This time, unlike GTA IV, driving motorbikes is a delight. You won't be fishtailing all over the road or flying off your bike at every corner, you'll be driving as normal people drive. There's also a new optional feature where the game straightens you out on the road called auto-assist. It's quite handy in a jam but veterans may feel this takes away from the fun panic of a GTA getaway. To counter this, though, handbraking no longer has the same effect when turning corners like it does in the movies.
Of course, the missions are complimented by the vigilante, taxi, fire and ambulance side-missions which are made available after 'jacking the respective vehicle the mission-type relates to.
In a series first, once you've completed a mission, you'll be able to go back and replay it. Long overdue, I say, as there are some classic missions you'll want to replay as soon as you finish them.
Like in GTAIV there are a larger number of police cars roaming the city than in previous titles, which is kind of fair since Liberty City is considered “the worst city in America”. Unfortunately, they don't provide much of a challenge until you raise your wanted level beyond 4 stars; even early in the game it's easy to get the 5-0 off your 6 without firing a single shot or spraying your car.
A new feature to Chinatown Wars is the drug dealing. Now, don't get me wrong, it's pulled off very well, but I have to admit that it made me feel a little uneasy trading weed and other illicit paraphernalia for profit so many times throughout the game. The Wi-Fi features are linked to this too, meaning that you can trade drugs with your real-life buddies. It's quite an integral piece of the game, so you will have to become a drug-dealer, no bones about it. It just feels like Rockstar were taking it a bit too far. Where recent GTA games have been about astute commentary on corruption and violence this reneges it a little. Again, it has been pulled off well, and it can be fun, sure, just be prepared to possibly feel uneasy.
There are a few omissions which may have some up in arms, most notably the lack of handbraking, but it's important not to lose sight of the tight package Rockstar have crafted. It's impossible to mention everything Chinatown Wars has to offer because there's just so much. All that's there, every bit - even the drug dealing - is an incredible amount of fun and represents some of the highest production values seen on the Nintendo DS.
It feels strange playing such an adult and violent game on the Nintendo DS, but at the same time, Grand Theft Auto feels right at home here. If future titles are announced for the DS then Chinatown Wars is proof enough that skepticism of Rockstar's ability to deliver on the platform is completely unjustified.