Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Review
By Gaetano Prestia
When Rockstar announced Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS, everyone knew that it was going to be a game of extremely high quality. Not only because the developer is known for taking full advantage of particular hardware, but because the GTA series has never really missed a beat. Even if the DS is currently the weakest piece of gaming hardware on the market, everyone just expected the game to be fully tailored for the handheld, with graphics that push the system to its limits and gameplay mechanics that take advantage of its touch-screen capabilities.
Everyone expected that and thankfully, everyone will get that. But it’s not only a good-looking game that gamers get with Chinatown Wars – it’s one of the most fulfilling, deepest, enjoyable and engaging games not only on the DS, but in the entire GTA franchise. That’s a franchise that’s known for its strong narrative, innovative gameplay and free-roaming worlds and while Chinatown Wars takes the series back a decade or so to a top-down perspective, Rockstar have, for the second time in as many years, redefined and reinvigorated an entire genre.
What’s most impressive about Chinatown Wars is that Rockstar Leeds, the same team responsible for the PSP versions of GTA, has been able to create a game that is so much fun, even in the wake of games such as Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories. You have to consider that even when gamers got a scaled down version of a GTA game recently, they got an almost perfect rendition of the PS2 GTA versions, so it was always going to be difficult to make a game in a perspective that is not only (presumably) dated, but also limited in allowing what you can do. However, Leeds have taken the DS hardware and pushed the little tyke to its absolute limits, creating a slightly scaled down version of the Liberty City we saw in GTA IV, while implementing some of the most enjoyable gameplay mechanics you might experience for a while.
In Chinatown Wars you play as Huang Lee, who is a member of the Chinese Triad’s. He returns to Liberty City to solve the mystery surrounding the assassination of his father and to retrieve the ‘Yu Jian’ sword for his Uncle Wu ‘Kenny’ Lee. Thought to be a sacred family heirloom, the Yu Jian was actually won by Huang’s father during a card game. Although aware of his father’s less-than-honorable actions and how the so-called “family heirloom” actually came into his father’s possession, Huang still feels he must find his father’s murderers and bring the sword back to his Uncle to restore honour and respect, as well as to receive a more-than-generous inheritance.
While the story is told exclusively through text and images in comic-book style, it has its fair share of twists and turns that should accompany any good GTA story. You’re not going to a get a story that’s as deep and emotional as in GTA IV, but for what it’s worth it does a good job of allowing you to form a bond with Huang and help him through the game. This presentation isn’t as good as the cinematic cut-scenes we’ve seen in previous GTA titles, on a level where it’s really difficult to care about what’s going on. The story is good, no doubt, but you might not even care. It’s not that it’s poorly executed; it’s just that it’s done in a way that’s heavily outdated in a narrative-driven generation of games. A layout like this might appeal to a Japanese audience, but the Western world might struggle to really want to read what’s on screen throughout the entire duration of the game. Although, you have to consider the limitations the development team had and they make up for the lack of cut-scenes with engaging gameplay and an amazing looking city.
While Chinatown Wars is played in a top-down perspective, the entire city is in complete 3D. It’s as if they’ve simply moved the camera up a tad so that you see the action from the sky. Everything you’d expect to see in a 3D world is visible in this title, from full-scaled buildings (with plenty of memorable locations from GTA IV), pedestrians, bins and vendors on the sidewalk. Cars even flip over and light poles fall down if you ram into them. It’s a spectacular presentation that highlights the implementation of some aspects of recent console GTA titles.
The controls in Chinatown Wars might take a bit more getting used to than in previous GTA titles but once you master the lock-on system during combat you’ll be gunning down enemies with ease. However, that’s where one of the games few problems lies. You’ll very rarely die during a gunfight, as you can simply run around in circles, shooting rounds into the nearby enemies who fail to put a dent into your health. It’s not a major issue because it really does seem as though Rockstar have done all they could do with the top-down perspective, especially considering you can’t really slide into cover. You can hide behind objects that’ll protect you from bullets, but you won’t really need to take cover if you position yourself well and quickly take them out.
Weapons play an important part in Chinatown Wars, as they do in pretty much every other GTA title, and some new features have been implemented to take advantage of the DS touch-screen. While the basic guns will be used with a lock-on system and a simple tap of a button, grenades and other throwing projectiles must be thrown by taping the item on the touch-screen and flicking it towards the enemies on the top screen. It’s a very engaging and rewarding system and you may even sometimes choose to flick a bunch of Molotov cocktails over using a machine gun. It really evolves the combat aspect of the gameplay, allowing Chinatown Wars to distance itself from other top-down action titles.
Whereas in GTA IV there was a very large focus on Niko’s cellphone, a PDA has replaced it and is fully operational on the touch-screen. You’ll rely on the PDA often, as it helps you set waypoints, order weapons, find special locations and pinpoint people of interest on the map. What’s really impressive is that if someone sends you an email asking for help or selling something, you can double tap the screen to automatically set a waypoint at their location. The cellphone worked really well in GTA IV because it allowed you to develop relationships with characters and access other unique features. The PDA goes beyond all of that, offering both the main map HUB, emails and information, all of which are accessible from a simple tap of the screen. It’s a system that works very, very well and helps generate a unique and engaging experience in Chinatown Wars.
Where the PDA really shines is through the surprisingly fun (and controversial) drug trading system. It’s been implemented as more of a major aspect of the gameplay rather than just a side-mission and really fits in well with the direction of the story and gameplay. You’ll often read about how the Huang’s associates are involved in the drug trade and this is how it initially starts out. It evolves very quickly and soon you’ll be receiving emails from potential traders who are located throughout the city. The main idea is to buy low and trade high and you’re given an approximate idea of whether or not a certain purchase will end up being profitable. This also depends on the location of the purchase and where you sell the product. For example, if you buy drugs in an area with lots of security cameras, you’ll probably end up buying for more than what the drug is worth. If you then sell that product in an area with limited security, you’ll have to sell it for less than you bought it for because of the lower risk factor. It’s an incredibly intriguing and fun system and you’ll probably find yourself driving around town looking for the best deals on specific items. Some missions even rely on your purchase of a particular drug.
The drug trading system works especially well because it doesn’t feel forced. It’s a pretty big aspect of the game, but it doesn’t make itself out to be. You can probably play a majority of the game without ever trading with a dealer, but the fact is that it adds a level of maturity to the title and it’s also like nothing we’ve ever seen on the DS before. It’s hard to imagine a more adult aspect being present in a GTA game before, and who would have thought it would appear in a DS game. Still, the implantation of the touch-screen helps this feature work well, having you simply choose either your bag or the dealers bag/trunk to select the drugs to buy or sell.
There are plenty of other (great) examples of where the gameplay dictates the use of the touch-screen and stylus. Anything from hijacking a car by twisting wires together or cracking a security code, to cutting the correct wire to defuse a bomb or searching a dumpster for a gun left by your associates – Chinatown Wars is truly a DS title. It takes advantage of the handheld, not just on an internal level, but also on an external (and engaging) level. It would have been simple to just jump into any random car on the street and drive away. That’s been a staple of the GTA series and not since GTA IV where you’ve had to wait for Niko to hotwire the car have we seen a realistic approach to it. Now, we can actually be involved in officially stealing a car within a time limit before the alarm goes off. Rockstar have done a really great job of implementing these features without making them feel like gimmicks, which is a fair effort considering how often we see games on the DS that have rather pointless and boring touch-screen aspects. There isn’t one aspect of these features that doesn’t work well and sometimes you might feel like pulling over and jumping into the parked car on the street, just so you can hotwire it.
A new wanted system has been included to make it more hand-held friendly and so as to stop you from continually looking down at the PDA Map on the touch-screen. Whereas in GTA IV you had to get out of the wanted police radius before you could lose your stars, Chinatown Wars has you knocking off oncoming police vehicles to counter the star system. If you have a 2-star wanted level, you’ll have to force two police cars to crash before you go down to one star. It’s a great system that should be implemented somehow into any future GTA title, as it adds a whole new level of excitement to the chase.
Chinatown Wars looks amazing for a DS title. While not on par with the beautiful presentation of GTA IV (obviously) and not even close to what we saw with the PSP GTA games, Chinatown Wars looks very, very good for a DS title. The 3D models throughout the city look fantastic and the use of a great physics engine allows cars to flip over and poles to fall down. The sheer size of the city is very impressive considering the limitations of the DS cartridge and Rockstar Leeds must be applauded for the level of presentation in this title. People won’t be comparing this to other GTA games – they’ll be comparing it to other DS games and this is the best looking title available on the handheld by far. There aren’t any licensed tracks in the game or any recorded radio station banter, which is a bit of a let down but understandable considering the restrictions. With what is possible, Leeds did a good job of creating some decent tunes over five different genres. You can switch through the radio stations by taping the arrows on the touch-screen, but it’s a bit of a hassle while driving and considering the tunes are pretty much all on the same level of quality, it’s probably not worth the effort.
You’re going to get a hell of a lot of value out of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. The story can be completed in 13-15 hours and then you have plenty of side-stuff, like drug dealing, Rampage mini-missions and finding all of the security cameras. There’s probably around 25+ hours of gameplay here, which is substantial for a handheld game. The good thing is that there are almost no load times and it’s a real pick-up-and-play title. There’s also the multiplayer aspect, which looks to be pretty big and entertaining. There’s the standard death-match, a 'Survivor' mode, as well as “Defend the Flag”.
The Final Verdict
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars may very well be the handhelds first system-seller. Its size and depth is like nothing we’ve ever seen before on the DS and in terms of the gameplay, there’s enough innovation and engaging aspects to put this up there with other GTA titles in terms of quality. It’s just as violent and entertaining as other GTA titles, with the top-down view countered with some incredibly enjoyable touch-screen implementations. The presentation is superb, although the comic-book style panels used for telling the story halt any possibility of falling in love with characters and story. This is disappointing, because at its core, the story is pretty good. Still, Chinatown Wars has few faults and is a near perfect handheld title, a game that every single DS owner should experience.
By Ben Salter
Grand Theft Auto of a Nintendo Platform? Lucky controversy and GTA go hand in hand. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was met with a mixed reaction when it was announced at E3. While many were hoping for (perhaps even expecting) a masterpiece from Rockstar some were worried it may be a quick cash in, or that the DS hardware was not adequate to cater for the needs of GTA. How wrong they were. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars lives up to the quality that the series is renowned for, and is one of the few ‘must own games’ on the system that wasn’t developed by Nintendo themselves.
The top-down heritage from the debut title returns, combined with the extremely successful gameplay of the more recent 3D outings. The end result is a Grand Theft Auto experience that is as good as that on consoles; a big statement and one you will not be able to fully comprehend until you play the game. The gameplay is nothing short of fantastic, and only compliments the DS’s unique features which are used to perfection. It’s been four years since the DS was released, and I was still waiting for that game to blow me away with exceptional use of both the duel and touch screens, not just one aspect of the DS exclusive features. GTA: Chinatown Wars is that game. The bottom screen displays the traditional map, health and weapon selection along with situation specific mini-games, such as hot wiring a car. Meanwhile all of the action takes place in glorious cel-shaded 3D on the top screen. While the controls going between the touch screen and face buttons aren’t perfect for the most part they work very well. More importantly all of the action and content between screens just clicks to engage the player in the fantastic gameplay. Don’t be fooled by the return to the top-down perspective, almost everything from the recent console versions has been crammed into the Nintendo DS cart, including Liberty City, which is almost an exact replica of that once roamed by Niko Belic in GTA IV.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars lives up to the strong reputation of its predecessors. It maintains the strong ‘sandbox’ elements, and shows why GTA is at the top of the pack when it comes to open-world gameplay. There’s so much to say about Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars, more than can ever be expressed in a single review. It’s one of the best gameplay experiences you’ll ever have on the DS, the narrative is great for a handheld platform, the graphics are superb and the multiplayer will ensure you keep coming back long after you’ve spent 20+ hours completing the single player campaign. If you only buy one game for the Nintendo DS this year, make sure its Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.
Rockstar Leeds has done an amazing job bringing the GTA experience to the DS. They did it with the PSP, but in terms of originality and uniqueness while also implementing familiar aspects, they’ve done a phenomenal job with Chinatown Wars.
For a DS title, it’s absolutely superb. The 3D engine is fantastic and realistic physics round out the best looking title on the DS.
Some nice, unlicensed tunes and some occasional humorous banter from pedestrians.
15-hour single-player experience, plus plenty of side-missions and tasks and multiplayer. You’re looking at probably over 30+ hours, all on a handheld title. Amazing.