Find out if a series touted for it's technical proficiency and high production values can thrive on the Nintendo DS in Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.
Originally announced at E3 last year, the concept of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars had members of the press initially scratching their heads. How would Rockstar's ridiculously popular series survive the transition from consoles to Nintendo's versatile yet limited-capability dual-screen handheld? As more and more of Chinatown Wars was revealed, folks slowly warmed to the isometric view and the game's new protagonist, soiled crime-lord spawn Huang Lee.
Now the game is out on store shelves, and DS owners are swarming to get their hands on the latest chapter in the Liberty City saga. Is it money well spent, or does Rockstar's handheld outing come up short?
Total Video Games
Following the PSP outings, Chinatown Wars offers a markedly different departure from the format that we've become used to since GTA III. The isometric camera view that replaces the traditional third-person sparks immediate similarities to the first two titles that kick-started the series. Despite the camera change, Chinatown Wars is by no means a step backwards. You'll immediately notice this by the advanced physics that brings the many different vehicles to life and the traditionally insane jumps and crashes - Chinatown Wars is a fully-fledged 3D title despite the perspective.
A 3D re-imagining of the series' retro past would probably have been enough, but the DS's touch screen injects a fresh take on many a GTA hallmark. The simple task of hotwiring a car has now been transformed into an inventive touch sequence involving screw drivers, wires and immobiliser codes. The stylus also comes in use in other areas; lobbing a Molotov cocktail or grenade is done by positioning your pointer on the lower screen for the perfect throw trajectory. Even simple mishaps like plunging your vehicle into water are made fun with a windscreen-smashing escape routine.
Most of the controls are mapped closely to the console versions. Jacking cars, hopping fences, and calling for a cab are handled cleanly. Despite what you may think, the limited visibility from the overhead camera doesn't affect driving. Even at the highest speeds, you can roar around corners and thread the needle through tightly packed traffic. From garbage trucks to motorcycles, you can ride how you want to, and store your favorites in a garage. The concept behind police chases has changed, now pushing players to wreck police vehicles to lower the star count. In a way, the prey becomes the hunter.
The story's over in 15 hours depending on how little or how much you're distracted by the little things in Liberty City (gambling with the scratch tickets were our bane), but even when the tale's over there's still plenty to do in town. You've got races, you've got drug trading, you've got side missions, you've got Rampage mini-games, you've got hidden security cameras to destroy. Everything you do in Liberty City is tracked, and you can upload the stats to Rockstar's Social Club and compare your scores with friends. New missions will also unlock using the online function of Chinatown Wars. There's also a multiplayer aspect if you connect locally with friends, so you've got plenty of gameplay in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.
Not that Chinatown Wars is completely without fault. Scenery sometimes hides Huang from view despite the option to centre the camera with the left shoulder button, and combat can be fiddly at times: the lock-on doesn't always cycle to the obvious target, and throwing Molotovs or grenades seems to want more fingers than I have available, although it's usually not a problem. There's also very occasional slowdown, and despite generally excellent graphics the beat-cops aren't always easy to spot when you're stealing cars, which can be frustrating. You may also get stuck very occasionally. The difficulty isn't too severe, but there are a good few occasions you only have one mission available.
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.