Title: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Players: 1-2 players
Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Rockstar Leeds
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: March 17th (North America), March 20th (Europe)
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars seems to offer the accessibility of a handheld game without sacrificing any of the complexity of the console GTA games. How can you turn that down?
Grand Theft Auto seems, on the surface, to be an odd choice for the Nintendo DS. The series is noted for its mature, open-ended gameplay; how would Rockstar manage to make a game with the proper GTA flavor on a handheld system, much less a handheld system that tends toward E-rated content? Somehow, they're doing it.
While screenshots of the game may remind you of the first two top-down Grand Theft Auto games, the Rockstar spokesperson giving Blend Games a demo was quick to point out that it's a fully 3D world that can be rotated 360 degrees. The world also features weather effects, object shadowing and a 24-hour day cycle. Contrary to the title, the game isn't limited simply to Chinatown - you'll be able to roam Dukes, Bohan, Broker, Algonquin and Happiness Island in cars, motorcycles, boats, helicopters, and other vehicles.
How exactly did they fit it onto the DS? For one, there are no videos or voice acting. The cut scenes are hand-drawn pictures (in the style of the GTA box art) with subtitles. You can still flip through radio stations while driving but they're limited to instrumental tracks. While the world doesn't resemble the first two Grand Theft Auto games, the characters do. They're little pixelated people with a preference for solid colored clothing. There's really not much choice in that regard, as you need to fit these characters on the screen after all.
Driving with the stylus would've been awkward and luckily Rockstar didn't go that route. You'll accelerate with one button, reverse with another, and steer with the D-pad. There are a few different touch screen moments mixed in to spice things up, though. At the beginning of our demo, the main character Huang was trapped in a car that was driven off a pier and we had to tap the screen with the stylus to smash the rear window and climb out. After swimming to the dock, we climbed into a nearby car and were brought to a hotwiring minigame where we had to spin the stylus in a circle. This mechanic is only used occasionally, by the way; for the most part, you'll be stealing cars with a simple tap of the button.
The game employs the same story structure as previous GTA games, with the player performing various tasks for crime bosses. The scale of money, however, is different for this game. You won't be handed megabucks for your story missions and to afford weaponry and other equipment, you'll have to occasionally dabble in side missions (the ambulance and vigilante stuff from other games in the series) as well as the new drug trade feature.
The drug trade is similar to that old Drugwars game you may have had on your graphing calculator. Gangs across the city sell and buy six different types of drugs for varying prices and there's great profits to be made by buying low and selling high. Occasionally your meetings with dealers will turn out to be police stings and you'll have to flee back to your apartment and hide your drugs. Police chases are a bit different in this game. Rather than having you simply escape a police search radius, you need to ram and disable police cars in pursuit to drop your wanted level to one star, at which point you can simply lay low to escape.
Besides acting as a storehouse for your drugs, your apartment allows you to access and replay any mission you've done before. It's a long-overdue feature that's been implemented because quick action is a necessity for handheld gaming. Toward that end, the game also uses the "restart mission" feature from GTA IV. If you fail during the course of a mission, you'll be able to instantly warp back to the the beginning. Chinatown Wars goes a step further by then allowing you to instantly transport from the briefing area to the mission location. Also, you'll be able to e-mail weapons dealers and have them deliver firearms to your apartment directly - again, a time-saving feature that really should've been in the other games.
To top it all off, the game will use Nintendo Wi-Fi to allow player interaction on many different levels. In addition to simple trade or exchange of instant messages through your PDA, you can share waypoint information as well. A flyer passed out during NY Comic Con also indicates that the game will have co-op and head-to-head multiplayer modes though details were scarce on that.
Lord knows how this all fits on a DS game card but it does. The overall length of the game remains to be seen but even if this isn't as giant as Grand Theft Auto IV, the important thing is that Rockstar hasn't compromised the series' formula in bringing it to the DS. It hasn't been simplified or sanitized - it's a legitimate Grand Theft Auto game and that's more than enough reason to check it out.