Rockstar Games brings murder, mayhem, and a miniature Liberty City to the Nintendo DS with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, the developer's first outing on the mega-hit dual-screen portable platform.
In Chinatown Wars, Liberty City welcomes Huang Lee, the spoiled rotten son of a Chinese Triad crime syndicate leader. Lee journeys to the city to meet with his uncle, Wu "Kenny" Lee, one of the many men eying the now vacant spot left by the death of Huang's father. Our new immigrant friend is on a mission, deliver the "sacred" sword, the Yu Jian, to Uncle Kenny.
Things don't go quite according to plan, as things tend to do among the lowlife, backstabbing criminal scum of Liberty City. The chaos of the Grand Theft Auto series is yet another opportunity for a lowly drug-running, moral-free thug to gain notoriety in the criminal underworld.
Chinatown Wars is also an opportunity to reach a new audience, one who might only own a Nintendo DS. But does the game also present a successful Grand Theft Auto experience for fans of mindful and mindless violence? It certainly does.
A City In Your Hands: Liberty City as re-introduced in Grand Theft Auto IV is masterfully captured on a smaller scale with a bird's eye view perspective. The geography may not be as massive, but it feels just as populated, with traffic, pedestrians, newsstands and vendors choking the streets, all rendered carefully and legibly thanks to Chinatown Wars' appropriately cel-shaded style. The weather patterns, random chatter, the sights and sounds are squeezed into the Nintendo DS's tiny display.
Strong Mission Design: Although underpowered in comparison to its console counterparts, Chinatown Wars makes the best of its creativity, not its technical prowess. And thanks to more liberal weapon selection — you'll be using chainsaws and flamethrowers — the majority of these missions feature some of the ludicrous, violent glee missing from the latest console-based entries.
The Drug Trade: Chinatown Wars drug exchange is simple affair: you buy from and sell to dealers, not to users. Chinatown Wars adds depth to the simplicity, with tip offs from dealers that will point Huang Lee to deals. It's a great way to earn money when you need new gear or another safe house, a largely painless procedure that the player can explore and exploit. The tertiary reward that line your safe house shelves are a nice bonus.
GPS Hits The Streets: Before you go anywhere in Liberty City, turn on the top screen GPS display option. It's a wonderful addition, easing the frustration of trying to keep an eye on traffic and where your destination lies. It's something I didn't discover until Stephen Totilo from MTV Multiplayer sang its praises. Thanks, Stephen.
All The Mini Things: Mini-games? Hell... yes? Hotwiring cars may become tiresome (and inconvenient), but Rockstar mixes it up with varying levels of in-vehicle security systems that the player must bypass with touchscreen mini-games. Simpler things, like sabotaging car engines, Dumpster diving for goods, and planting car bombs make smart use of the Nintendo DS hardware. Buying Burger Shot-branded scratch tickets is dangerously addictive.
Radio, Radio: Rockstar didn't skimp on the game's audio, with five radio stations playing licensed, curated tracks that add fine ambiance to the gameplay experience. There's no voice over work during the game's cut scenes, which we aren't complaining about.
A Return To Fun: Chinatown Wars will likely remedy some hardcore Grand Theft Auto fan complaints with the reintroduction of diversions like Chinese food delivery missions, gang member-killing Rampages and a new, more destructive police evasion system, activities that may have seemed too silly or out of place in Grand Theft Auto IV and The Lost and Damned.
Occasional Control Issues: Chinatown Wars, like other Grand Theft Auto games, uses every button, every square inch of the touchscreen for control. That will take more getting used to than your average DS title. Originally, I played with a stylus in hand, but soon dropped that after it became increasingly uncomfortable. Vehicle handling has its issues, but a wisely implemented auto-correct feature eases the pain.
Offline, Multi-card Multiplayer: No online multiplayer? Perhaps our expectations have been set too high. But learning that the game's multiplayer modes were for local wi-fi only, with no option for single card play was a disappointment. That also means we didn't get to test out the game's multiplayer modes. Bummer.
You may be shocked at how capable Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is as a Nintendo DS game. It's definitely one of the best entries in the series, righting some of the "wrongs" from previous, fully-3D entries and adding surprising evolution to series' gameplay mechanics. The actual storyline woven throughout Chinatown Wars is arguably its weakest link, a largely forgettable cast of characters employing Huang Lee for loosely held together objectives. Fortunately, those objectives are almost always entertaining, minus a few incredibly difficult missions that may result in snapped hardware.
Despite lacking in the storytelling department, something that GTA IV excelled at, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars delivers in a big way as an eminently playable crime spree. It comes recommended.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was developed by Rockstar Leeds, published by Rockstar Games for the Nintendo DS, released on March 17th in North America. Retails for $34.99. Played single-player game to completion.
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