I never really got into the PSP's previous Grand Theft Auto entries. They were technically impressive, streamlined for mobility, and, for all intents and purposes, accurate in their rendition of both Liberty and Vice City, but they lacked any semblance of an identity. Both were, from a pure gameplay perspective, inferior to the latest and greatest console entry, San Andreas, and both felt relatively docile and restrained as a result. They weren't bad games (and I'm sure if you hadn't played the console entries, they would have blown your mind), but their hook was a replication of the console experience; they weren't designed for the PSP, they were copied to it, and as such they failed to engage series veterans who were looking not for another GTA, but a new GTA.
In the wake of GTA IV, even a simple replication of the GTAIII formula would no longer suffice in the current market. Rockstar needed to conjure a ground-up iteration of its popular franchise - something that not only played to the strengths of the series, but would also feel unique to the platform. And what do you know; they actually pulled it off - with a surprisingly good DS entry. Last March, Chinatown Wars was released to outstanding critical praise (it sits atop both Meta Critic and Game Rankings for the DS), and, apparently, disappointing sales. In spite of that (or maybe inevitably), Chinatown Wars has been ported to the PSP with the expected visual upgrades, a few extra bells and whistles, and, in a roundabout way, an original Grand Theft Auto experience for Sony's handheld platform.
Steve Schardein awarded the DS entry a stellar 9.4 last March. I'm not going to regurgitate his review or explain the basics of Chinatown Wars (it's already been done, and Steve did a fantastic job of fleshing it out), but, instead, I'd like to convey the brilliance of Chinatown Wars’ finer points, try to expand on the ridiculous amount of fun I had (even after buying the DS original), and, of course, relay what's new for the PSP edition of the game. I'll assume that (like myself); most readers will already have a passing familiarity with the game.
We Live for Weed and Money
More so than any of its other aspects, the primary source of engagement in Chinatown Wars is its drug trade. My original feelings were lukewarm; I perceived slinging cocaine all over the city as a distraction, a waste of time injected into the formula and a failed attempt at cultivating extraneous content. Eventually, needing $5000 when the average missions were cranking out around $50, I was forced to comply. Downers were getting me an extra $20 or so, but then I unloaded 15 hits of ecstasy for $7000 and, kaboom, I understood the beauty of capitalism. Shortly after that attractive experience, I became obsessed with Chinatown Wars' drug trade. I fervently anticipated emails detailing who needed to unload and who needed their fix, and, due to its time sensitivity, it often took priority over the narrative missions. Soon I was dealing only in extravagance, not even wasting my time with low investment crap like Weed. Eventually I had to tell my real life mother that I would be late coming over for dinner because, "some douchebag at the Fishmarket South needs some coke," which, given that I was being chased by the cops at the time, seemed like a higher priority. Needless to say, Chinatown Wars' drug trade, despite its latent simplicity, does quite well to exploit your inner venture capitalist and/or high risk, sensation seeking behavior.
Another facet unique to Chinatown Wars is its method of police evasion. Both the previous PSP entries required you to hide out or drop under the radar for a bit, but Chinatown Wars offers an entirely new and far more gratifying method of evasion; wrecking the cop cars. While it makes near zero contextual sense and is a bit on the easy side, smashing into a cop car and rendering it immobile is a tremendous amount of fun. I've always considered evading the police to be a necessary evil, and, more importantly, a thorn in the side of the series’ otherwise marvelous pacing, but integrating it into the driving process, and not killing the pacing by forcing you to hide out or go to a safe house, is a great step in the right direction. I didn't pay tolls or avoid driving on the sidewalk in principle, not because dropping the police was easy, but because it was fun and engaging.
Chinatown Wars’ narrative is also at the beneficial end of GTA's recent portable transformation. GTA IV, for all of its advancements in storytelling, struggled with the paradox of trying rationalize allowing a regretful, solemn Niko to occasionally transform into a sociopathic killing machine. It was a huge disconnect, and, as the plot pressed on, it got in the way of feeling any form of sympathy toward the character. Chinatown Wars’ Haung Lee, on the other hand, has no delusions toward his surrounding absurdity, and often weakens the seriousness of the situation by making light of his increasingly ridiculous circumstances. The entire narrative, while still full of consequence and gratuitous sex and violence, has it's tongue more comfortably planted in its cheek than usual, and it does well to poke fun at the more bizarre facets of American culture (along with erectile dysfunction, porn-laced hard drives, racial stereotyping, colorful profanity, etc). The lack of voice work, especially after the added space, is a bummer though.
A significant portion of the DS entry revolved around the myriad of tasks you had to do with your stylus (giving tattoos, punching through windshields, assembling rifles, etc). These processes have been rearranged on PSP, with most now featuring the L + R buttons and a few rotations of the analog nub. In some cases, such as the frequent hotwiring of vehicles, the process feels streamlined and expedited, but others, like filling up molotov bottles with gas, feel pointless and just there for the sake of surviving the translation. It’s a bit awkward and, but it’s the only part of Chinatown Wars that feels out of place on the PSP.
Another minor issue lies with the ever-present problem of UMD gaming; load times. The long autosave after every completed mission is an annoyance, but the gateway to the pause menu is the biggest headache. Three or four seconds may not seem like a lot, but when you're constantly getting emails or in need of recalibrating your GPS, pausing the action to cycle through your PDA is kind of a drag (note: these problems may be somewhat alleviated if you're downloading the game off PSN. The copy of Chinatown Wars I reviewed was on UMD). Weapon selection, on the other hand, has been assigned to a quick press of the select button, and feels greatly improved over the DS' clumsy framework. Aiming still isn't perfect, but, with stuff like molotovs and grenades, I found the new means of aiming to be far more accurate and way less suicide-prone.
On the plus side, and this is stating the obvious, the game looks a hell of a lot better. The DS game was a technical marvel in its own right, but the added horsepower of Sony's portable device really makes Liberty City shine. The environments no longer have that cartoony, cel-shaded feel to them, and all of the textures have been relieved of their sloppy, muddy appearance. Additionally, the added screen real estate, extra particle effects, enhanced lighting, more vibrant color pallet, and smooth finish help support an already impressive translation. Chinatown Wars honestly looks and feels right at home on PSP and, even with its DS roots and overhead aesthetic, is as technically impressive as the previous portable entries in the story.
And then there's all the extra content. Melanie Mallard, a reporter trying to get the inside scoop on Liberty City's seedy drug trade, comes with a handful of extra missions. Most involve setting up some sort of crime, which of course goes bad and involves Huang executing everyone in sight, much to the simultaneous horror and satisfaction of Melanie. Cute stuff, to say the least. Then there's also the content that comes with linking your game with the Rockstar Social Club, which could be fun if you have the time or desire to do so. And, while still not featuring talk radio, Rockstar did go to the trouble to add six new radio stations to Chinatown Wars' eclectic, mostly instrumental mix. Lastly, it's worth noting that the PSP entry carries over the DS ad-hoc co-op and versus multiplayer modes, but I was unable to test them due to the single review copy we received.