Feeling less like a GTA title in its own right, and much more like a port of a DS title to the PSP (has the world gone topsy turvy!?) Chinatown Wars is still a must have for owners of either handheld system. We reviewed the DS version when it came out earlier this year, and now the good folk at Take 2 and Rockstar games have flung a fresh UMD our way. The differences are subtle, and much of the action is just a slap-bang reproduction, but when you're working off such great source material, it's pretty difficult to fail.
To cut a long, previously-told story short, you play as Huang Lee, a Chinese playboy who heads to Liberty City following the death of his father. Huang is to meet up with his uncle and hand over a certain sword - a legacy from his father and a symbol of leadership among the gangs that run the city. Touching down at the airport, Huang is jumped by a crew who steal the sword and leave him for dead. The game starts as Huang kicks his way out of a car that has plunged into the frigid harbour of Liberty City.
As I watched the car go into the water, I started metaphorically feeling around at the side of the PSP looking for a stylus. That is to say, I wondered how things would have been changed up when it came to kicking out the window. Pressing L and R alternately lets Huang escape the vehicle; in the DS version, you'd have tapped the touch screen. This is probably as good an example as any of how the touchscreen functionality in the original (which was so so good) has been stripped to fit the different machine.
So is that a good thing or a bad thing? Probably neither. Each system has its own quirks, and while the touch screen of the DS really made Chinatown Wars a joy to play - twisting a screwdriver in an ignition, one touch course plotting on your GPS, touch placement of molotovs - not that much has been lost by converting each of those actions to the PSP's buttons and joystick. Some of the actions are a little more cumbersome, but I'm aware that it could be my familiarity with the DS title (which I have played to death) rather than any real issue with the PSP's controls.
You'd expect that the game would look rather different with the much larger screen of the PSP to play on. You'd be right, but the differences, while noticeable, aren't going to make you feel like you're playing a whole new game. The graphics are better, but the world-view is still top-down, and the cars, characters, buildings and other miscellany of city life are much as they appeared on the DS. The animated, comic book style cut scenes of the original are back, but bigger and in what I think is slightly better colour.
I could go on comparing the two, but what of the game itself? I don't expect everyone to have played this on the DS, after all. GTA : Chinatown Wars is more like the original Grand Theft Auto games that everyone had pirated to their PCs back in the mid-nineties. Before everything went 3D on the PS2, the top-down format was all we had. And it still works really, really well on a handheld system. The streets are easily navigated on car or on foot, and there's always your friendly GPS to guide you. Like all GTA games, the action is focused around a series of connected challenges, where you perform criminal odd-jobs for a range of Liberty City low-life. Of course, the cool thing about the GTA series is that if you weren't that keen on following that semi-linear flow, you could always go find yourself a flamethrower and start ripping things apart.
One of the objectives in any GTA title is to earn cash, and things aren't any different in Chinatown wars. You'll always get a bit of cash for completing missions, but the real money lies in other activities. In this game, the best way to earn fast money is by dealing drugs. Through your PDA (aka, the game's menu system, in which you'll find a range of tools for in-game, as well as the predictable options and save functions) you'll sometimes get emails from drug dealers, who'll send you a hot tip about who's buying and selling what contraband. You might hear from the Rastafarians that they've got too much weed, so they're letting it go at bargain basement prices. Later, you'll hear that some other faction is in the market for it, and want to pay handsomely. Provided you bought enough, you can turn a huge profit.
Cash always comes in handy, but the main reason you'll want it is for buying more drugs, and for buying guns. That Ammu-Nation sure stocks a heck of a lot of pretty bang-bang.
I love that Rockstar managed to package up everything we love about Grand Theft Auto and deliver it on handheld systems that can go with you anywhere. There's a whole criminal underworld in here - perhaps not as impressively rendered as in the console versions - but it fits right in your pocket. Stealing cars, shooting up the bad guys (at least, the badder guys) and leaving a trail of criminal mischief is what these games are all about, and any doubts about whether the format could make the shift from your couch to the bus should go out the window pretty much as soon as you boot it up.
One thing I do miss from the home consoles is talk radio. Like the DS version of Chinatown Wars, the PSP has a range of radio stations to choose from, but none have any lyrics, and there is no talkback option. For some reason, this always made me feel I was playing a game with real life to it. Without that, Chinatown Wars does feel a little smaller in scope. I suppose that's to be expected, but I was hoping that the PSP version might have added this in and taken advantage of some of that extra storage space.
Let me just go back to the graphics for a sec and say I was incredibly impressed with the lighting effects. This might seem like a small thing, but everything from streetlights, to headlights, to the fading light of dusk has really added something to the mood of this game on the PSP. Yes. Yes... I have to say I like the way the PSP version looks better than the DS (even though it kills me to do so).
Have I actually helped anyone here? I better make it real simple just in case...
Got a DS? Get the DS version, and don't feel like you're missing out by not playing it on the PSP (again, see our review for a full breakdown of the great functionality the DS offers Chinatown Wars).
Got a PSP? Awesome! Strike now. This is well worth your time and money. You won't be disappointed.
Got both? Get the DS version. Better graphics don't trump the touchscreen.
But all that said, it's a game of two platforms and Chinatown Wars is the winner on the day.