Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Developer: Rockstar Leeds
Publisher: Rockstar/Take 2
$34.99, £29.99, €29.99
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Review
More Liberty City action but this time on a rather unusual platform. The GTA series shrinks down to fit the DS and gives gamers something a bit better than the usual shovelware.
The Grand Theft Auto series remains as huge as it ever has been. Microsoft is boasting record-breaking sales of recent expansion 'The Lost and Damned”, it's parent game GTA IV continues to sell well and the series' PSP iterations have all been granted Platinum status. It is no surprise that even the family-friendly Nintendo want in on the action. With the Wii not proving a particularly strong option for open-world games (I'm looking at you and your short draw-distance Scarface) it is still perhaps more surprising that Rockstar would choose to pick the diminutive power of the DS to contain their behemoth.
There was substantial amazement when the folks at Rockstar Leeds managed to pack in perfect recreations of the old Liberty City and Vice City into two PSP games. It's no surprise that they haven't quite managed the same miracle with Nintendo's portable. The result is still incredibly impressive. The team have trimmed the fat off the the new Liberty City layout and returned to the overhead viewpoint of the very first games in the
franchise. This has, of course, been done once before, however the GBA Grand Theft Auto was not met with much praise. They have succeeded this time for one simple reason – they have taken time to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the platform.
The biggest of these strengths is the availability of a second screen. Rockstar have been able to move all of the navigation, weapon selection and projectile aiming onto the touch sensitive bottom screen. What this means is that the size of your view doesn't become an issue. The top screen is all about the game and, although you can load a lot of the HUD onto it if you like, remains nice and clear so that you can see well ahead of yourself. This set-up also affords you a physical connection to your GPS. It seems like a strange thing to praise but tapping out your route so closely mirrors reality that it breathes new life into the long trips that the series has always demanded.
That is not the only application of the touch screen. Rather than lousy mini-games, a selection of real world tasks are pulled into the realm of the stylus. Examples include physically assembling a sniper rifle, car thievery through the ages from hot wiring to hacking, smashing up locks and even rummaging through skips. Rather than feeling like gimmicks these are smart ways to deliver some of the physical connection that is lost thanks to your gods-eye view. Practical controls that govern movement on foot or in vehicles work well too. Snaking between cars is made possible by an auto-alignment with the road that sacrifices fun to avoid frustration. Gun-fire is not quite so smartly managed.
Perhaps a poor lock-on function is included purely for the purposes of remaining true to the franchise but that thought doesn't stop some of the missions being disappointing. The more standard Grand Theft Auto mission types make appearances. You'll find yourself facing off against armed thugs in various back-alleys and industrial yards. New boy Huang can absorb a fair amount of gun-fire and so you rarely get 'Wasted'. The trouble is that although the lock-on will eventually get around to you picking off the most
dangerous guy there is little satisfaction in sending the rest of your pixelated foes to their grave. When the designers fall back on the most simple structures the series has to offer a sense of formality hangs over the game. Given the removal of GTA IV's monotonous friends system its a shame that this manages to creep in.
That doesn't stop them delivering some truly great missions though. When Rockstar Leeds combines touch screen inventiveness with high doses of crazy, Chinatown Wars really shines. Roughly every third task offered by the cast delivers something truly exciting. Particular highlights include trying to avoid suspicion under the cover of a ceremonial dragon costume, the sniper sections are a joy and interfering in a street race. There are just enough of these sorts of tasks within the 58 story missions to make you feel good about your purchase. Few of these jobs pay well though so buying and selling drugs is your main source of income. Although initially interesting it loses its appeal after your first 100k. Rockstar have packed in a range other of reward-driven sideshows like noodle delivery and touch-screen tattoo work that make sure that this delivers a real GTA-sized package.
With every other aspect of the game feeling true to the quality and creativity the series has become famous for its a shame that the story falls behind. The tale of a lost sword shows promise to begin with. A familiar structure promises to play out but unfortunately a very limited cast and even fewer twists and turns makes it the least interesting aspect of the game. Huang and his crime family are a-typical members of a Grand Theft Auto lineup but they aren't as smart or devious as their franchise counterparts. You'll will proceedings to head down a calamitous path but instead they stick to complete predictability with a federal rat proving tricky to find. At the same time you will wonder why everybody cares so much given the minimal impact his treachery has.
The story, for what it is worth, is told through mostly static images that recall the style of the GTA cover art. Combined with a bit of more traditional cutscene action on your top screen this works very well. The quality of presentation remains consistent throughout the rest of the game. The city, essentially a repackaging of GTA IV, is detailed and familiar sights crop up now and again. Your view doesn't afford a sense of emotional attachment but the fantastic visuals go a long way to make up for it. Star
Junction, skyscrapers and rooftops are all here. The 3D car models are a good move as 2D sprites (in the vein of the first and second games) wouldn't allow for the impressive barrel rolls and explosions. The blocky citizens of Liberty City have a certain charm to them too.
The soundtrack is limited to midi tunes and so the humor of the radio stations is lost. It is another sacrifice forced upon the developers by the platform. When you take the game as a whole you can't help but appreciate just how much they have managed to retain. The multiplayer options on offer are yet another sign of Rockstar Leeds trying to make up for the things they couldn't include. GTA Chinatown Wars is a great addition to the DS catalog primarily because it offers a hearty hardcore game. I recommend it purely because, despite its multitude of weaknesses, there has been a great effort focused on making a good game rather than just cashing in on that massive install base. For the most part, they have succeeded.
Score: 3 out of 5
- Great graphics, the city is detailed and familiar GTA IV landmarks make appearances.
- Touch screen features are clever and fun.
- For better or worse the mechanics of the series are faithfully represented.
- The viewpoint doesn't afford the same sort of scope for emotional attachment to the city as in third-person games.
- A few too many missions lack ingenuity and this becomes particularly apparent after playing the very best ones.
- The story has the potential to be interesting but too little happens so it doesn't shape up when compared to the rest of the series.
- Liberty City again? I'm sure the Houser boys love their local town but a trip to Los Santos, San Fierro, Las Venturas or all three is about due.
- Shooting controls are ghastly and don't do well when more than two or three enemies are on screen.
- The series' crazy driving is seriously toned down by the narrowness of the streets.