Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a port of the Nintendo DS title of the same name that was released earlier this year. The PSP version comes over intact, with a few new surprises to boot, and just as I enjoyed the DS iteration, I also really, really like Chinatown Wars on the PSP. The title makes use of Liberty City once again, this time in a top-down view using the current model that we've seen in Grand Theft Auto 4 and its spin-off stories. The PSP version ditches the cel-shaded look that was in the DS game, in favor of a slightly more realistic take on the tiny 3-D models.
Prior to playing Chinatown Wars, I had to ask myself whether I thought the title had any real reason to come to the PSP. Keep in mind that it's the only GTA title to have been released on the DS, and while it was well-received by critics, it didn't perform nearly as well sales-wise. I'd venture to say that this is the reason it's getting a second release on the PSP, but the PSP is also home to two other GTA titles, Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories, both of which are "traditional" GTA titles in every sense. They use the standard 3-D world view and open-ended gameplay that we've grown accustomed to from the PS2 titles and Grand Theft Auto 4, and they fit well with that play style without creating anything particularly new or inventive. They're both great GTA titles to have on the go, so what exactly does Chinatown Wars bring to the table that the two prior titles have not?
Obviously, the game doesn't compete in the visual sense. It takes a top-down approach to the action that's reminiscent of the first two GTA titles on the PlayStation 1 days, prior to the big renovation that Grand Theft Auto 3 brought about on the PS2. Chinatown Wars retains its open-ended sense of exploration by allowing you to drive around in Liberty City. It doesn't block off certain sections of the city like in previous GTA titles, so you have the freedom to fully explore your surroundings, even if you won't find much to do aside from the missions that are only there to progress the story. Along with that, the game also makes use of the multiple safe houses and property purchasing options that were introduced into the series post-GTA 3, so you can generate enough cash to purchase multiple hideouts spread across the various districts in Liberty City; this gives you quick access to places where you can hide from the cops when your Wanted level is high, or they could just be places to stash your current drug inventory.
A lot of other things also carry over from the post-GTA 3 titles to Chinatown Wars, including some slightly newer features, such as like the use of an in-game PDA to give you GPS routes to contacts on the mini-map and the ability to save anywhere using the PDA. There are also the typical variations of side missions involving the ambulance, taxi cab and police car to help you generate some extra cash.
One of the biggest new features in Chinatown Wars, however, is the drug trade system. This is your primary money-making system in the game, and while I could see it being a little controversial for some, it certainly fits in with the GTA universe that we know and love. As you move around the map, you'll occasionally see little blue dots on your mini-map, which hovers at the top right of the PSP screen, and these blue dots represent drug dealer locations. Walking over to a dealer and holding down the Select button will bring up his inventory, much like a shop screen that you'd see in a typical role-playing game. You're given the option to buy or sell, and depending on which one you pick, you'll pull up a screen that lists a series of drug types, like coke, Ecstasy, heroin, weed and so on. If the item is in stock, it'll be highlighted on the screen along with a plus or minus sign next to it, which lets you know whether the item could be profitable for you if you buy it. For instance, if the weed symbol has a plus sign next to it, it'll detail the amount of weed that dealer has for sale, along with how much money you currently have, and how many bags of weed you can purchase. It'll also break down the potential profit you can make from it or how much you'd lose if you try to resell it down the road.
There are tons of dealers situated in Liberty City, and certain sections of the city will be looking for different types of drugs, so it pays quite well to move from section to section and see what's hot and what isn't. To help you out a bit with your dealings, you'll occasionally get e-mail notifications from dealers to let you know if they're really looking for something or trying to off-load a particular drug for cheap. Making use of these notifications is tantamount to gaining cash in Chinatown Wars, and it's certainly the quickest way to make a buck or two. The only real disappointment comes from realizing that you don't need to spend a lot of cash past a certain point in the game. Sure, you can fire up the Ammu-Nation delivery service to buy some weapons, armor, or a safe house or two, but there's not a great deal to do with money in the game other than to see how much you can get. I only remember one particular mission that was tied to generating a small amount of funds, so for the most part, accumulating cash is an optional endeavor.
Like most GTA titles, the story line in Chinatown Wars is no slouch either. I prefer the standard storytelling devices of the other mainstream games, such as voiced actors and animated cut scenes, so I feel like Chinatown Wars is a little bit of a cheat at times, especially since the dialogue and script seem to fit the series so well. I would have loved for them to really blow out this version with some voices, but it's identical in presentation to the DS version. However, the story is certainly entertaining, and your playable character, Huang Lee, is one of the most sarcastic punks that the series has seen to date, and that's certainly saying something. He's the spoiled rich kid heir of a crime boss who's recently been killed. On his way to deliver a family heirloom to his uncle in Liberty City, he gets hijacked and nearly killed; the heirloom is stolen, and his uncle's role in the crime organization is threatened in the process. Like most of the Grand Theft Auto games, you'll be given missions by the various contacts you make, starting with your Uncle Kenny, and the missions will slowly introduce you to the game's various cast members, the majority of whom you'll work for at one point or another.
There is a small difference in the missions between the DS and PSP versions of the game: New missions are introduced here through the inclusion of a new character, Melanie Mallard. She's a journalist who's looking for her big break, and she uses the criminal activities of Huang to get herself a spot on a nightly news show. It actually ends up tying into the plot of the game quite well, without feeling shoehorned or being extremely noticeable. Melanie's side-story is so well implemented that I actually had to go back and check the DS version to realize that she was even a new character. It's a cool addition, and while it's not quite enough that fans of the original on the DS would need to see it for themselves, it does give you a little more incentive to try out the game for a second time. It certainly makes this iteration of Chinatown Wars feel like the definitive game, so the port to the PSP seems to have been a worthwhile endeavor.
The game's default controls feel pretty spot-on to the DS as well, with the obvious differences being the lack of a touch-screen for certain sections, and the use of the analog nub for movement instead of the d-pad, which now controls radio stations and camera angles. If you're set on using the d-pad, though, that choice is available if you delve into the control options. For the touch-screen stuff that was present in the DS — things like sifting through dumpsters, hotwiring cars and breaking windows — these segments are still present but are now tied into the basic control setup on the PSP, using the face buttons and the L and R shoulder buttons. One thing that doesn't translate that well is when you need to use the analog stick, so tasks such as unscrewing panels or filling up the Molotov cocktails with gasoline don't feel nearly as precise as they did with the touch-screen. It's not a big hindrance, but it's a little more annoying than I had anticipated.
Aside from that, the controls are fine, especially when it comes to driving and shooting. Like the DS version, the game has a drive assist that's enabled, which is meant to keep you in line with the road after a turn. It's something you can turn off if you find it distracting, but given the smaller size of the game, I think it's a nice inclusion. For shooting, the game either automatically locks on to the nearest object or enemy or you can cycle through your options with the R shoulder button. It's not too hard to center on the enemy you're trying to kill, but every so often, you can get frustrated if you have multiple targets available. It'd be nice if that could be improved for a future game in this style (if one is in the works), as it's the only part of the game that I don't care for that much. It's not a problem when you're pitted against two or three enemies, just with the larger groups.
Music is typically a big deal for GTA titles, and Chinatown Wars isn't really an exception, but it does take a different approach. While the previous games featured full soundtracks with licensed artists, all of the music in Chinatown Wars is instrumental. This is going to be disappointing for those who have grown used to hearing stuff like "Paradise City" blaring through your dump truck speakers on the way to a hit, but it's not nearly as bad as you might think. The instrumentals are still tied into specific genres like rap, rock and techno, and there's some surprisingly good stuff hidden in the track list. This version of Chinatown Wars also has a few new radio stations with it, like the Anvil station, which features tunes from the Canadian rock band that recently got a lot of attention from its well-received documentary, so the licensed music is in full effect here. I can't say that I wouldn't prefer a fully voiced soundtrack option, but it does fit the overall style of the game.
There are also some cool multiplayer options stored in Chinatown Wars, including features that make use of the Social Club site that Rockstar implemented when they released GTA 4 on consoles. Using Social Club, you can hook up with other players via infrastructure mode on the PSP to chat via in-game text messages, compare stats, and compete in online games. There's also local ad-hoc support for multiplayer games, like single races and season race modes, including Death race variants that allow you to permanently take out opponents during a race. There's also Stash Dash, where you try to take control of a van and bring it back to your safe house, or Defend the Base, which is a co-op survival mode where you face off against waves of enemies with a friend to back you up. The only real disappointing part of multiplayer is that it's limited to two players at once, but the inclusion of these mini-games is pretty cool for fans, and they're certainly a fun distraction from the main game.
One final thing to note: I had a chance to compare the UMD release and the digital release on PSN, and the digital release is the one to have. The UMD version of the game has some lengthy load times at the very beginning — from 20 to 30 seconds each time you boot it up — whereas it only takes a few seconds to jump back into your saved game with the digital release. There's also a small pause during the auto-save after you finish a mission, but on the PSP, that small pause equates to 10 or 15 seconds, but it took no more than four seconds with the digital version. Other than that, the game seems to perform identically between the two versions; there's no loss in content or anything silly like that. If load times bother you, then the digital version is the one to get.
Altogether, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a great entry into the series on the PSP, despite the fact that the system is already home to two full-fledged versions of GTA titles. It certainly remains unique in style and gameplay by comparison, and the story makes it well worth checking out for longtime fans of the franchise. New players would also do well to give this one a shot since it's a pretty big departure in style, especially if you haven't been able to get into the series' gameplay up to this point. The lack of a voiced cast and soundtrack is a minor disappointment, and while I do wish certain control features that were ported over from the DS worked out a tad bit better, it didn't hamper my enjoyment of the game. Chinatown Wars on the PSP is definitely worth picking up.
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