It certainly seems like Rockstar has the golden touch when it comes to translating their series to new consoles. The talented development group always finds a way to leverage what’s there while sidestepping whatever limitations might be raised by the hardware. And Rockstar Leeds’ (developers of the PSP GTA entries) Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is certainly no exception—it’s an impressive overachievement (by general gaming standards) that represents not only a valuable first installment for Nintendo’s handhelds, but also a solid entry in the franchise, platform notwithstanding.
Of course, it’s just as vulgar and uninhibited as usual, so parents, be warned: this game is absolutely not meant for your kids. Riddled with strong language and violence, and sporting comparably-shocking new mechanics (which include the options to buy and sell hardcore drugs for profit and wreck pursuing cop cars to help reduce your wanted level), the game definitely deserves its M rating, even on the seemingly harmless Nintendo DS. But if you’re among the many adults who interpret this content as tongue-in-cheek and don’t take things too seriously, you’ll find that Chinatown Wars provides some amazingly addictive gameplay in a remarkably expansive sandbox environment. It’s certainly a one-of-a-kind entry on the DS, and it can be the source of many, many hours of entertainment if you’re willing to let it.
When his father is unexpectedly killed (well, he’s a mob boss, so I suppose the interpretation depends on your perspective), Huang Lee heads to the famously dangerous Liberty City, USA to deliver a family memento (an ancient sword) to his uncle. En route from the airport, however, he’s ambushed, and when a bullet grazes the side of his head and opens up a horrible wound, he’s assumed dead and dumped into a lake. Naturally, his life of crime has only just begun, and thus you assume the role of the morally-bankrupt and always-sarcastic Mr. Lee in an effort to track down your ambushers and earn the status and wealth that he (allegedly) deserves.
And that’s where the freedom begins. As with the rest of the games in the franchise, just after the opening, you’re turned loose on the city and can then choose to do pretty much whatever you wish thereafter. Of course, the main objectives are the only thing that will further the storyline (and thus your actual progress in the game), but if you want to steal a random car and zoom recklessly around the city with law enforcement in tow, that’s your prerogative. Sure, you’ll have to deal with the repercussions of your actions, but even those are appropriately muted to help enhance the appeal of the experience. It’s the ultimate risk/reward playground, and it’s this liberty that defines the Grand Theft Auto series and truly sets it apart from all other games in the sandbox genre (maybe that’s where Rockstar got their name for Liberty City). In retrospect, then, perhaps my title for this section (“Bloody hell”) wasn’t so clever after all; this violent city is yours to manipulate and explore (heck, you’re contributing to the violence), and that’s what makes GTA what it is.
But is the game world up to the standards set by previous titles in the series? Absolutely. Sure, everything’s presented in overhead isometric fashion, but this is no regression of the formula: the city is entirely rendered in 3-D and the frame rate is mostly rock-solid. Plus, objects still interact using three-dimensional complex physics, and each of the 30-something vehicles in the game features its own unique attributes. So in essence, Chinatown Wars is a bit of a hybrid of the best mechanics from the GTA franchise, optimized specifically for portable play thanks to its more accessible interface and top-down perspective.
Windows Mobile 6.5 < iPhone < GTA’s PDA
Seriously, what other device is so good about keeping you in touch with your gang buddies? Not only does Chinatown Wars’ PDA represent the hub from where all of your in-game logistical decisions stem (giving you e-mail, GPS, the ability to buy weapons online at the new Ammu-nation.com, and the like), but it also features a revolutionary innovation: the ability to save your progress (eat your heart out, Apple).
Getting around in Chinatown Wars couldn’t be easier thanks to the slick and cohesive interface of your PDA, which seamlessly melds the touch interface of the Nintendo DS with many of the common amenities unique to such devices. New missions/objectives are sent to you via e-mail, which immediately appear on your PDA, where you can then choose to set a GPS route to the sender’s location directly from the message. Main storyline messages are highlighted as Urgent, while all other noncritical communications, such as those with drug dealers, are simply regular messages. Plus, you can filter your mailbox by sender, making navigation a cinch. Thanks to Rockstar’s trademark sense of humor, you’ll even find spam messages occasionally make it through your filter (marked inquisitively as “Spam?”), and frequently warn you against such pressing threats as new “worst-ever” malware infections that should send you “running and screaming from your office.” ROFLcopter.
As you progress, the game gradually introduces new concepts to you so as not to overwhelm you all at once from the start (though it doesn’t take long to have all of the major functionality unlocked). These introductions are cleverly presented in the form of on-the-fly software upgrades to your PDA; when it’s time for something new, the PDA notifies you with “Installing Application”, complete with a faux-progress bar and everything. This is just another example of how obvious it is that the development team had fun building the GTA game world on the DS.
In addition to all of that, the GPS interface rocks. You can drag to pan around the map, and getting somewhere is as simple as either tapping a location or searching your Points of Interest or Favorites. Since you’ll be working for eight different unsavory individuals over the course of the game, it’s handy to simply be able to choose them either from the GPS screen directly or from the link in their email messages. Ditto drug dealers, who tend to find the most unmemorable hiding spots possible (hence the nature of their work), but who are incredibly easy to locate via your GPS.
Speaking of drug dealers, the addition of the drug trading system in Chinatown Wars serves as a spectacular distraction from the main storyline. Throughout the adventure, you’ll receive regular updates from dealers wanting to buy or sell one of six different controlled substances, and being the suave smack salesman that you are, you can play this to your advantage by high-tailing it from one end of the city to the next, buying and selling substances at a profit (and thereby embracing the less legal side of capitalism). It’s an addictive diversion which can easily eat up hours of play time whenever you A) feel the need for a little break from the main objectives or B) you’re simply looking for some extra cash.
Meanwhile, you’re bound to end up with the fuzz in tow at some point—thus, it’s fortunate (for you) that Rockstar Leeds has implemented a new pursuit mechanic: cop car crash evasions. You can wreck pursuing police vehicles by luring them into heavy traffic or around tricky obstacles, and when you do so, you effectively shake off your pursuers (assuming you don’t run into any more cops along the way). This provides a more offensive (no pun intended) alternative to simply fleeing mindlessly.
As for the touch mechanics, they add depth to the experience which not only simplifies routine tasks (such as the aforementioned GPS and PDA operation), but also tactfully complicates others. For instance, stealing parked vehicles is no longer always as simple as it used to be; you might now need to quickly hotwire or hack into the security computer before you’re able to get moving, both of which are rather elegantly represented by short touch screen mini-games. Many missions require you to perform specific actions on the touch screen to help complete whatever task you’re assigned. And apart from that, plenty of other aspects of the game feature seamlessly-integrated touch mechanics, such as buying scratch-off lottery tickets, searching dumpsters for stashed weapons, or even just moving the magnets around on the whiteboard back at your apartment. It really does add to the experience.
With regard to basic gameplay, thanks again to the touch screen, switching weapons is fairly effortless (simply touch and drag). All of this takes place on the bottom status screen, while the rest of the action happens on the top screen. You’ll also find the rest of your HUD relegated to the touch screen, so the top screen’s real estate is free of any crowded indicators or annoying icons. Here, you can also change the music in your vehicles, pick from several different camera views, and check your map.
Fortunately, though, the development team was wise enough to leave most of the rest of the gameplay to the buttons. For starters, L centers the camera behind you at all times, which can occasionally be problematic (again, the city is actually 3-D, so it’s possible to be caught behind building and other structures). Meanwhile, you can lock onto targets with R and attack them with A, a system that works fairly fluently, but that can actually make combat a little too easy (who cares, though; it’s still fun). Y performs a rolling dodge and jumps over small barriers, while holding B enables you to run for a short distance. Vehicles control just as you might expect; using the buttons for gas/brake and the D-pad for steering. So don’t worry; there’s no touch-screen weirdness at play here.
Really the only exception to this rule is the use of Molotov cocktails. In order to toss one, you have to wield the stylus, tap the cocktail icon, and then flick it along the touch screen in the direction (and at whatever speed) you wish to eject the explosive projectile. This might sound like it works well, but the biggest issue is that when you’re in the middle of a heated confrontation, the last thing you want to do is bust out the stylus and start performing precision maneuvers on the touch screen. It’s one too many things to juggle, really, and this function might have been better served if left to the more traditional lock-on combat system.
What to do
All of this adds up to a massive, long-lasting adventure which, as is usually the case with GTA games, often feels more like a playground than a story-based game. But it’s equal parts each, and that makes it all the more appealing. Rockstar Leeds, with their overwhelmingly rational design decisions, have clearly focused on making the adventure as seamless and fun as possible, sprinkling the city with the usual extra missions (“Rampage!”, featuring flamethrowers and a smorgasbord of target gang members) and ease-of-use elements that you’ll take for granted (such as “Trip Skip”, where you can, well, skip any uneventful trip at the start of a mission provided you’ve already played it once).
Plus, the classic vehicular diversions make a much-welcomed return, and they’re as addictive as ever. You can play policeman, cabbie, ambulance driver, and Chinese food deliveryman, and it’s also possible to raid warehouses and hijack weapons trucks. The whole system provides all sorts of opportunities to spend time on random tasks. Or, if you happen to have friends (and my guess would be that you do), then you can engage in two-player multiplayer (provided both players own a copy of the game). Internet connectivity is limited to back-and-forth messaging, GPS location sharing, stats publishing and the like, so it’s hardly a major draw. But it’s understandable considering the hardware constraints why Rockstar couldn’t do more in this department.