Name: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
When Nintendo first announced that the Grand Theft Auto series would be coming to the DS, the gaming world reacted with an equal amount of excitement and skepticism. Obviously, any new entry into the greatest sandbox franchise of all time is bound to garner some cheers, but many wondered if the decidedly adult themes and open-world gameplay of GTA could be faithfully translated to the diminutive, family-friendly handheld console. Before the game arrived, I was one of those that didn’t believe that Rockstar could pull off a worthy, or even worthwhile iteration on such an underpowered system. After spending many hours in this version of Liberty City, however, I not only consider Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars to be one of the best GTA games, I consider it one of the best DS games to date, and one of the best games of the year on any platform.
Just as in every GTA iteration since GTA III, Chinatown Wars puts you in the shoes of a new protagonist. This time, you play as Huang Lee, son of a recently assassinated Triad boss. After the murder of his father, the protagonist comes to America from Hong Kong to seek vengeance with the help of his uncle. Once he arrives in America, Huang is attacked by mobsters and left for dead in the Humboldt River. What follows is a story of vengeance, murder, money and power that not only fits perfectly in the larger Grand Theft Auto world, but actually surpasses any of the previous entries in terms of humor and style. Due to the limited power of the DS, the story unfolds in the form of static cut-scenes with subtitles instead of pre-rendered, voiced cinematics. The absence of these fully rendered scenes is regrettable, but the still cut-scenes are presented in the classic GTA art style, and are usually so engaging and funny that most gamers will hardly feel short-changed.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars takes place in the same version of Liberty City as GTA IV, minus the New Jersey-inspired Alderney. Despite the small size of the DS, and the proportionally small storage space of its cartridges, LC feels every bit as expansive and fully realized as its hi-def counterpart. While it’s not quite a 1-to-1 translation of the larger game’s road map, there are enough recognizable landmarks to ensure that GTA IV players will feel right at home. Bringing the city to the handheld console hasn’t hurt its interactivity much either; lamp posts, mailboxes and street signs still break away when hit by a speeding car, and fire hydrants still burst, shooting geysers of water high in the air. It would be nearly impossible for a DS title to approach the sheer amount of things to do in GTA IV, but Chinatown Wars makes an admirable attempt. In addition to the game’s main missions, there are plenty of new diversions, like scratching off lottery tickets and dealing drugs, as well as familiar ones, like taxi and police missions. Most of the new side missions take advantage of the touch-screen, but, in stark contrast to so many DS titles, are always fun and quick, and never feel tacked on or gimmicky.
Anyone who has played the main GTA series will instantly feel comfortable with Chinatown Wars’ control scheme. Whether in a vehicle or on foot, Huang Lee controls almost exactly the same as Nico Bellic or Carl Johnson, adding to the “GTA-ness” of the whole experience. So much of the core gameplay from the console versions is preserved, in fact, that you’ll almost forget that the game’s overhead viewpoint is more reminiscent of the first two GTA games than their successors. Despite the top-down view, the game is unmistakably 3D, as you’ll discover the first time you take a sports car around a turn too fast and flip your ride into innocent pedestrians. Some new gameplay mechanics have made their way into the game as well. Thanks to the DS’ built-in microphone, hailing a cab is as easy as whistling into your DS. In addition to the aforementioned mini-games, the touch screen is also utilized to hotwire vehicles, and as a GPS system, allowing you to set waypoints and check email. Creating Molotov cocktails on the touch screen is as simple and satisfying as any of the other mini-games, but the mechanic for throwing them with the touch screen feels a bit clunky and ill-designed. One of the biggest changes is the way police chases are presented. Simply escaping the police is no longer an option. Instead, you’ll need to stop their vehicles directly, using all of your driving skills to either ram them or guide them into guardrails, walls or opposing traffic. The more stars you accumulate, the more cop cars you’ll need to trash in order to escape. It’s probably the game’s biggest and best innovation, making chases more thrilling than ever, and a feature that Rockstar should add to the next console version of GTA.
There are few DS games that can match up with Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars in terms of visuals. As mentioned before, the city looks and feels alive, and vehicle models, while simple, are distinct and look crisp on the tiny screen. The high, overhead perspective creates some scale issues, with people dwarfing the vehicles they drive, and the city’s vertical nature can sometimes work against the camera, but overall, the visual presentation is top-notch. There are even five radio stations to choose from, each featuring several instrumental tracks ranging from rock to jazz.
Rockstar has done a downright amazing job of bringing one of gaming’s most ambitious, innovative and expansive franchises to a handheld console that seems like it simply shouldn’t be able to handle it. It looks great, plays great, and feels every bit like a fitting entry in the series. The mildly annoying camera issues and awkward touch screen controls detract only slightly from what is otherwise an extremely polished title. For fans of the series and fans of action games in general, Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars couldn’t come more highly recommended, and joins games like New Super Mario Bros., Phantom Hourglass and Professor Layton and the Curious Vilage as absolute must-haves for any DS owner.