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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Platform(s): Nintendo DS, PSP
Genre: Action
Publisher: Take Two
Developer: Rockstar


NDS Review - 'Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars'

by Jesse Littlefield on April 14, 2009 @ 5:14 a.m. PDT

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is an entirely original entry into the critically acclaimed Grand Theft Auto series, and brings a new level of interactivity to its sprawling open environments. With the use of the DS touch-screen, players will navigate their way through the streets as they uncover the truth behind an epic tale of crime and corruption within the Triad crime syndicate, delivering the unprecedented amount of depth that has become a true trademark of the franchise.


Genre: Action
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Leeds
Release Date: March 17, 2009

Nintendo has managed to claim an absolutely massive share of the current generation of video game consoles, especially with the handheld DS. As a result of this mainstream success, most of the games on the DS system are directed toward children and teens. A handheld game that earns an "M" rating from the ESRB turns heads, and Rockstar has done just that with the DS return to Liberty City. Rockstar has done a fantastic job of compacting Grand Theft Auto onto a DS cartridge while still making it feel like a full-fledged GTA game. It may sometimes be a violent and crude title, but GTA: Chinatown Wars should be turning heads for the quality of the gameplay, rather than the nature of it.

If you've somehow never heard of Grand Theft Auto, it's an open-world sandbox game, which essentially means that you're put in a city and let loose to do whatever you want. The franchise tends to focus on driving fast, killing entire gangs as a lone warrior, and getting involved in the city's criminal underground. Chinatown Wars places you in the shoes of Huang Lee, who has been sent from China to deliver a sword to the new head of the family after his father's death. Things go wrong as soon as he arrives, and he's shot, robbed of the sword and left for dead. From here, the game follows Huang, his dealings with the Triad of Liberty City, and his personal quest to get vengeance on the men who attacked him.

Most gamers will be able to finish up the main story in less than 15 hours, and although you cover a fair amount of territory, the story doesn't manage to be very interesting. It's nowhere nearly as compelling as Niko's story in Grand Theft Auto IV, or even Johnny's journey through The Lost and Damned. Every character in the game falls into some sort of stereotype, and they refuse to break out of it. There's the tough cop who's willing to break rules, the idiotic son of a powerful man, the arrogant prick, and that's just getting started. The game tries to be humorous with the cut scenes by giving Huang a sarcastic attitude toward everything. It makes him more likeable, since he seems to understand how idiotic and shallow the characters are, but it doesn't make for very compelling material, and I never once cared about his revenge vendetta. There are twists and turns, but they're all fairly predictable and yawn-inducing.

Rockstar could not have picked a better way to present the story, though. Using a comic book style with still panels to deliver the cut scenes allows us to get up close and personal with most of the characters and watch the story unfold as a comic in motion.

Rockstar must really love Liberty City because Chinatown Wars returns to the same town that was featured in Grand Theft Auto IV and the Lost and Damned episodic content. Most of the city has been faithfully translated, with the exception of the last island, Alderney, and all of the major landmarks are there, like Star Junction. Of course, since this is a DS title, everything looks dramatically different. Chinatown Wars has gone back to the old GTA style and features an overhead perspective. Characters appear to be 2-D sprites, but everything else is rendered in full 3-D. The art style feels a bit over-the-top, but in the world of GTA, where driving a gas-leaking semi around a city at 50 mph is an average day, it works wonderfully. Chinatown Wars brings everything you would expect of a modern GTA city to the table: insane pedestrians who yell bizarre things; a believable weather system; quite a few secrets; and a wide variety of cars to drive around in, whether it's a truck that can barely break 40 mph, or a street racer with underglow and reaches 150 mph in mere seconds. This feels like Grand Theft Auto, and that's the highest praise a sandbox game on the DS can achieve, considering the limitations of the hardware.

That's not to say that Chinatown Wars doesn't make fantastic use of the unique features of the DS. Hijacking parked cars brings up a timed mini-game where you use the touch-screen to hotwire a car before the alarm goes off. If you forget what you're doing, there are guides to all three versions of the car security systems, so don't worry about actually knowing how to hotwire a car. Thrown weapons are controlled via the touch-screen, and the trajectory of your throw is represented on the top screen. Some missions make incredible use of the touch-screen. One particularly memorable mission has you hijacking an ambulance that contains a dying person of high interest to your employer. If the ambulance gets rammed as the police chase you down, the man will flatline, and it then falls to you to use the shock paddles to bring the man back to the land of the living — all while still being chased by cops.

The general gameplay in Chinatown Wars follows the same rules as previous titles, and the gameplay translates to the DS fairly well. Combat actually pauses when you change weapons because it's handled with the touch-screen, but otherwise, the gunplay has you locking onto enemies and firing from wherever you are. Driving may be done from an overhead perspective, but there's a full physics system in place; hoods will fly off, cars will be flipped, and you'll be the cause of some spectacular crashes. The only odd bit is that by default, the car automatically aligns itself to the road, so small adjustments to your driving are done so you don't slowly veer into another lane. My only real complaint is the HUD setup. By default, all of the information is provided on the bottom screen, with no indicators on the top. In the game options, several things can be moved to the top screen, and it's a significantly more pleasant experience when you don't have to take your eyes off the action to see where your GPS wants you to turn or see how your health is in the middle of a firefight.

The biggest change to the GTA formula comes in how you handle police chases. In the GTA III era, you had to run or find a pay 'n' spray to hide from the police. In GTA IV, you had to get out of the police search radius without being seen. Chinatown Wars changes this in favor of forcing the player to fight back, which is by far the best part of the game. To fend off higher star levels, you have to take out police vehicles, which means hitting cop cars hard enough to make them crash or tricking them into making a turn into a center divider at high speeds. Unfortunately, the AI handling the police cars gets a little wonky around water and it's very easy to make them drive into the ocean, but largely, these are the best police chases I've had in the series, and I hope to see this show up in the next GTA title.

It wouldn't be Grand Theft Auto without tons of random extras scattered about the city. From races to buying homes and stealing specific cars for money, most of the activities from GTA IV have made their way to the DS. The two new things Chinatown Wars adds are cameras to destroy around the city, which is simply a replacement for the hidden packages and pigeons found in prior titles, and the drug-selling mini-game. Several different factions have drug dealers scattered around the city. It falls to you to exploit the economy between these dealers to make very large sums of money. Occasionally you'll get an e-mail tip telling you if a specific dealer is buying high or selling low, and when you can take advantage of these dealers at the right time, it's quite easy to make huge sums on money in 10 minutes. About one-third of the deals end up being drug busts, so you'll get your drugs, but you then have to fend off a two-star wanted level.

The audio in Chinatown Wars is probably the weakest part of the experience. Considering all the limitations of the DS and high-quality audio, it's not entirely surprising that the audio is a little underwhelming when compared to the rest of the game. Voice acting is extremely limited, reduced to pedestrians yelling various obscenities as you travel around (hearing the F bomb over my DS speakers was certainly giggle-inducing the first few times). Otherwise, you have all your normal city sounds, usually background music during cut scenes, and much to my surprise, the radio has made three transition to the DS. There are five radio stations present, and each station has a few instrumental tracks but no voices. The tracks are good for what they are, but within 15 minutes of gameplay, the songs started to repeat.

Chinatown Wars has some multiplayer options, and while the local multiplayer is kind of neat, it requires everyone to have a cartridge and tops out at four people. There's also an online option, but all you can do is trade items, and it requires you to have friend codes to get operational, which never ceases to be a pain.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars manages to bring the GTA formula to the DS in a spectacular way. The gameplay is just as fun as ever, and the use of the DS hardware and added features, like the revamped cop chases and drug-selling mini-game, make the experience feel fresh and not a dumbing-down of GTA for the DS. While the story is weak and the multiplayer is a little underwhelming, this is a fantastic title that's worth a look if you have a DS and like GTA.

Score: 9.0/10


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