Last year, Rockstar surprised everyone with their release of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the DS. The first surprise came when people learned that a GTA game would be appearing on the family-friendly DS. The second came when people realized just how good the game was, and how well the experience worked on the DS. Rather than delivering a watered-down third-person adventure that aped the console games, Rockstar brought us a full-fledged GTA experience with a unique presentation and control scheme that satisfied long-time Grand Theft Auto fans and made great use of the DS’s unique features. Chinatown Wars has now been ported to Sony’s handheld, and while it loses the touch-screen functionality of the original, it more than makes up for it with new content, a new control scheme, and vastly superior visuals.
Just as in the DS version, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the PSP follows the exploits of Huang Lee, son of a murdered Triad boss, who must avenge the death of his father while making a name for himself in the seedy underworld of Liberty City, USA. The core story is pretty much exactly the same as it was in the DS version, complete with its static, voiceless, but often hilarious cut-scenes, and its themes of honor, betrayal, vengeance, and power. A few new contacts help shake things up a bit, and really help flesh out the drug-trading aspect of the game, but they don’t play too heavily into the main plot.
Controlling Huang Lee while driving is a treat on the PSP. The analog nub is perfect for navigating the crowded streets of LC, and the PSP’s larger screen gives a better field of view than the DS’s, resulting in fewer car crashes. On foot, Huang is a bit more troublesome, especially near walls of buildings. The camera will often go crazy in this situation, and spin wildly, making it nearly impossible to control your player. Luckily, this isn’t a constant problem, and is one that can be overcome by patiently waiting a few seconds until the camera sets itself aright. Combat is handled well, and is implemented similarly to the DS version, with the right trigger locking on to enemies and the circle button attacking. Perhaps it’s due to the layout of the PSP’s shoulder buttons, but I found myself far more proficient in combat in this new version than in the DS original.
The only real area where the PSP version suffers due to its lack of a touch screen is in the various mini-games. While these were fun little diversions in the original, they are mere annoyances this time around, forcing players to mimic the touch screen commands with the analog stick. Luckily, throwing grenades and Molotov cocktails, which was an absolute chore in the original, is much easier and less infuriating now, thanks to the lack of a touch screen. The game doesn’t suffer much from not having a dual screen, either. All the info that was found on the top screen in the DS version can now be found on the larger PSP screen in HUD form, much like in the console GTA releases.
Some of the more annoying flaws from the DS version have made their way over to the PSP. Computer-controlled teammates still show questionable AI, and the conceptually awesome car chase mechanic from the original still suffers from inconsistency. At times, a glancing blow to a pursuing cop car will cause it to drop out of the chase, while other times you'll spend minutes repeatedly slamming one into walls, trees, cars and overpasses before he finally breaks off pursuit. It's a shame that, despite all the graphical and interface changes in the PSP version, these flawed mechanics were left untouched.
Once again, the star of Chinatown Wars is Liberty City itself. The map is identical to the DS’s, as is the point of view, but the entire city is now rendered far more realistically than the cel-shaded Liberty City. Every surface in the game has been retextured, and the result is impressive. Even more so than in the original, this version of Chinatown Wars makes players feel like they are playing in a living, breathing city. Many of the scale issues from the DS have been dealt with, though characters are still slightly larger than their vehicles, and an entirely new lighting engine has been implemented, complete with self-shading structures and dynamic light-bloom that make the game feel more like a full-on GTA experience. While character models are certainly improved, and are now more recognizable as humans, they still look like blocky multi-colored blobs, and can easily be mistaken for a trashcan or a tree. Explosion effects and vehicle damage have received graphical upgrades as well, adding to the visual treat that is Chinatown Wars. At high speeds, texture pop-ins rear their ugly heads, but they’re usually pretty quick, and don’t interfere with gameplay too much.
Never one to skimp on audio presentation, Rockstar has fully re-mastered the original soundtrack and added over 100 minutes of additional music. The in-game audio sounds just as good, with realistic sounds for explosions, gunshots, footsteps, and ambient street chatter that help bring the city to life. Sadly, cut-scenes still use subtitles instead of voice-over. This seems like the kind of thing that could have been included in this second release of the game, but alas, that didn’t happen.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is essentially an improved version of the DS release with a few new side missions, a couple of new characters, and a completely overhauled graphics engine. Despite the fact that the game was built specifically for the DS, porting it to Sony’s less popular, but more powerful handheld has actually improved its playability. Never having to reach for the stylus means never taking your hands off the controls, which is a good thing, and the more traditional presentation is cleaner and easier to navigate than the two-screen method. A few additional load screens and less satisfying mini-games are a small price to pay for the best version of one of the best games in the Grand theft Auto series.