Damn junkies! I normally don’t deal with them, but I had some product that I didn’t want to hold onto and it looked like an easy enough deal. Now I’m running from the cops with a bag full of money and I’m cut off from my ride which means I have to improvise. I jump into the first empty vehicle that I find, but it’s got an electronic anti-theft device and I’m a little short on time. I look for other travel arrangements and find a car stuck in traffic. I yank the driver out and hit the gas. His girl doesn’t have time to jump out before we’re speeding along, so all she can do is scream in the passenger seat as I split the lanes of traffic, trying to lose the heat. I’ll deal with her and the junkie that got me into this mess just as soon as I find a way out of this.
This is what you’ve come to expect from a Grand Theft Auto game. What you wouldn’t expect though, is that this scenario played out on a Nintendo DS. GTA has finally made an appearance on the world’s most popular video game system with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars and, despite the limitations of the system, Rockstar has delivered one of the most compelling games in the series.
Chinatown Wars tells the story of Huang Lee, the spoiled son of a recently deceased triad boss, as he arrives in Liberty City to present his Uncle Wu “Kenny” Lee with Yu Jian, a not-so-ancient family heirloom that will allow Kenny to assume the patriarch position in the family. Things don’t go according to plan though, and soon after touching down in Liberty City you are ambushed by a rival gang who assassinate your bodyguards and leave you for dead, making off with Yu Jian in the process. This sets the scene for the fairly shallow story that follows which serves up a few laughs and the occasional surprise but is fairly straight forward.
While the story is enjoyable, the cast of characters that move it along are the real treat as they will provide you with some very memorable moments. Through the course of Chinatown Wars a small cast of characters will provide some over-the-top, stereotypical dialogue as they present you with missions that will have you doing everything from dealing drugs, tattooing gang members, and dancing in a parade before the game comes to its climatic and obvious conclusion.
In developing this game for the DS, Rockstar Leeds made a conscious decision to limit the length of missions so that they could be completed quickly and without too much effort. That’s not to say that the game is easy, because you will face challenges, but the game never feels like it’s asking too much from the player. A few missions ramp up the difficulty factor and those might have to be replayed, but thankfully replaying a mission is as simple as hitting the Select button to fast travel, and then skipping through the dialogue, which helps keep the game flowing. Missions typically consist of a handful of objectives that need to be completed; however, there are a few missions that are longer in length, but those missions have checkpoints which, once triggered, save you to that section of the mission allowing them to be completed later.
Overall, the mission structure in Chinatown Wars is some of the best in the GTA series, as the reduced length and the use of the touch screen in several of the missions keeps the game fresh. Whereas in previous entries in the series, players would typically sputter out before the end of the game because of the length and repetitive nature of the missions, Chinatown Wars feels like it could have been a bit longer. For those looking to get a few more hours out of the game, there are plenty of races, drug deals, and rampage missions to keep you going back to Liberty City after the credits roll.
The console releases in the GTA series have been marred by some control issues, so I was apprehensive about the controls in the DS version. These fears were laid to rest after a couple of hours of play and a few changes made in the options menu; soon I found myself in complete control of the action taking place on the screen. The top screen of the DS displays the action taking place, while the bottom screen displays your GPS coordinates and the city map. The only real challenge I had when I started playing Chinatown Wars was trying to navigate while driving so I recommend going into the options and turning on the Top Screen GPS right away as it’s much easier to make it through the narrow city streets when you’re not looking down at the bottom screen to find out if you’re headed in the right direction.
Of course, a GTA game wouldn’t be complete if you weren’t also shooting people, cars, boats, or anything else that gets in your way and Chinatown Wars does a lot to assist you in this department. When you find yourself in a gunfight, the game does an amicable job of locking-on to your desired target; even in a crowd of individuals, the game never had an issue finding a recipient for my bullets. Driving and shooting are done using conventional controls but what about that touch screen – what is it used for? Quite a lot, actually. Rockstar Leeds did a stellar job of incorporating it into the GTA experience. The touch screen displays your PDA when it’s not being used to deal drugs, tattoo Triad members, or hotwire cars. The PDA is used to send and receive emails, purchase guns from Ammu-Nation Online and set waypoints through the GPS which allows you to easily manage your criminal activities.
The DS is not as powerful as a home console and while Chinatown Wars plays like a GTA game, it doesn’t look or sound like one. That’s not to say that the game looks bad; in fact it looks pretty damn good since it features a unique art style that causes the game to look like GTA: The Animated Series. This works on the platform, but it doesn’t really capture the grit and grime that the series has been known for in the past. Liberty City looks good and the camera does a good job of following the action as you speed through crowded city streets or assault a rival gang’s hideout, so graphically the game succeeds. However, the sound fails to impress and with the game being completely devoid of spoken dialogue there’s little reason to have it turned on at all. This is a limitation of the hardware though and not due to a lack of effort from the developers, but it is disappointing as the soundtrack and vocal talent that is present in other entries of the series are missed here.
When GTA: Chinatown Wars was announced for the DS it was easy to assume that it would be a watered-down collection of mini-games. It was assumed that it would lose the edge of previous games, since it was being released for Nintendo’s kid-friendly DS, and that it would fail to impress fans of the series. This couldn’t be further from the truth though, as Chinatown Wars delivers an authentic GTA experience, and addresses and fixes some of the shortcomings of previous entries into the series. This game is a early contender for DS Game of the Year, and is instantly recommendable.
Things We Liked: Touch screen gameplay. Shorter mission length. Mission variety.
Things We Disliked: Could have been longer. Top screen GPS should have been on by default.
Target Audience: Fans of the GTA series. Fans of games. Everybody who’s old enough to play it.
(Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars – Available on Nintendo DS. New to CFD’s reviews? Read our explanation here.)