Review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

By Pete Haas 2009-03-21 21:52:22 discussion comments
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While DS owners were obviously pumped when Rockstar announced that Grand Theft Auto would be coming to their handheld, there was one question on everyone's minds: how small is it going to be? Rockstar probably didn't help matters by naming the game Chinatown Wars, which suggested the game was limited to one neighborhood, but the skepticism was mostly directed toward the capabilities of the DS. Surely they wouldn't be able to fit a full GTA game on an itty bitty DS cartridge, right? Yep, apparently they can.

Truth be told, Rockstar had to make a few compromises. There's several radio stations to listen to but they only play instrumental tracks. You honestly don't miss much by playing the game muted. To advance the story, the game forgoes the usual animated cut scenes with voice-acting and instead employs hand-drawn still pictures with subtitles. Considering how strong the voice talent is for the GTA console games as of late, you'd think the lack of audible speech in this game would be a serious blow but the game's script is extremely sharp. Those of you who didn't like how emo GTA IV could get will be pleased to learn that this story is a dark comedy through and through.

From the screenshots, you'd think that the game looks exactly like the first two GTA games from the nineties. While yes, the game is played from a top-down perspective and the characters are 2D sprites, Liberty City itself is rendered in fully rotatable 3D and shows a lot of variety between different neighborhoods. Yes, it's not just limited to Chinatown - the only major part of GTA IV's map that's missing is Alderney. Cars have distinct handling capabilities depending on their model, will topple over in collisions, and can go airborne if you drive off a ramp. Obviously this game's not as visually impressive as the third-person perspective 3D GTA games of recent history but it still looks a whole lot better than the first two installments in the series.

Chinatown is structured similarly to other games in the series. While the main campaign has you completing missions for this or that crime boss, you'll also be able to go on random crime sprees in the city or do repeatable side missions. You can steal a taxi cab and start ferrying clients around, steal a cop car and chase down criminals, etc. One big difference, though, is the fact that the story missions are now repeatable too. In your character's apartment, there is a bulletin board with all the photos of crime bosses you've worked for. Clicking on one of the photos will bring up a list of missions you've completed. Select which one you one you want to play again and voila. To replay a particularly fun mission in previous GTA games, you'd need to intentionally fail it or keep a separate save file from the time before you completed it. It's baffling that they didn't implement this feature years ago.

The story missions are worth replaying, too. The lower technical abilities of the DS, and the fact that DS owners are often playing on the go, required a little more creativity out of the design team. Combat just isn't as much fun in a top-down game as it is in a third-person game with cover mechanics so the game can't just throw shootouts at you. While there's nothing as grand as the bank heist from GTA IV, there were many very memorable and funny missions throughout Chinatown's campaign. In one mission, you're tasked with blowing up a rival gang's base with a gas truck. However, the owner of the gas truck shoots the tank while you're driving away from the station and you end up leaking a trail of flaming gasoline. You then need to drive to the enemy base quickly and without any slow turns or the flames will catch up.

Most actions in the game are accomplished with the D-pad and face buttons but there are a number of situations specifically designed for the stylus. Some of these stylus events are merely amusing flourishes (like tapping the screen to toss money at the toll gates) but several of them are actual minigames. Attempting to steal a parked car often results in one of three hot-wiring minigames where you'll, for example, spin a screwdriver in certain directions to start the car. Another example: at the end of a mission where you recruit fresh immigrants for your gang, you bring them to a tattoo parlor and then ink their tattoo yourself with the stylus. One beef I had with the stylus is that the game requires you to use it to throw grenades and molotov cocktails. You'll click on the grenade icon and drag it to determine how far you'll throw and while I guess this cumbersome mechanic does create a trade-off for tossing grenades, I'd rather be able to use the face buttons for it. For the most part, though, Rockstar realizes when the stylus works and when it doesn't and I'm just ecstatic that I don't have to drive with the damn thing.

In a break from other GTA games, you earn very little money from story missions. Your primary means of earning money for purchasing weapons and safehouses is the drug trade. You buy and sell six different types of drugs from various gangs throughout the city who value them differently. It's a very easily managed system because of your PDA, which shows you the turf of each gang, notes which drugs they prefer to buy/sell, and even provides directions to one of their dealers. You'll periodically receive emails from characters throughout the city looking to unload or buy up certain drugs at especially favorable prices, too. It is strangely fun to just jet around the city peddling drugs to these gangs but I do wish there was more challenge to the process. Sometimes you'll be ambushed by the police after a drug deal but that's the only curve ball in the system. If you don't find the drug trade at all entertaining, though you luckily don't need to do much to get more money than you'll ever need in the game.

Rockstar Leeds' efforts to make the Chinatown suited has resulted in some much-needed revisions of the GTA gameplay. I already mentioned the replayable story missions but there's a few others. Instead of having to track down an Ammu-Nation store to buy guns, you can just order from their website with your PDA and they'll deliver the equipment to your apartment. If you die halfway through a mission, you can restart the mission with a press of a button - just like GTA IV, except that now you'll get the option of fast-forwarding to the segment of the mission where you died, too. Police chases are now much quicker in Chinatown as you can reduce your wanted level by ramming cop cars or causing them to crash. It shortens chases and also encourages you to be a more aggressive driver and do things like drive into oncoming traffic to cause pursuing police to crash.

The game's campaign will take you about 15-20 hours to complete, depending on how much you dick around. Rockstar plans on releasing bonus missions over time through the Rockstar Social Club and they've also included plenty of little extras in the game to keep you coming back. There's a hundred security cameras throughout the city - this game's equivalent of the hidden packages or pigeons from previous games - which you can find and destroy. These little objects actually have an effect on the game, too; destroying a camera in an area will cause the local drug dealers to lower their prices. If that's not your thing, you can find the hidden Rampage skulls, which give you a specific weapon with unlimited ammo and challenge you to cause a certain amount of destruction within a given time period.

Chinatown also sports five different multiplayer modes through Nintendo Wi-Fi for up to four players. Most of the modes are pretty standard - deathmatch, races, and objective capturing. There's also a "Defend The Base" mode which has players fending off waves of A.I. enemies, and a "Stash Dash" mode that charges players with stealing a van, delivering it, and then stashing away their earnings while an enemy tries to do the same. Add all this to the single-playering offering and you've got a game that could keep you occupied on your train or bus rides to work for months.

While Rockstar had to make some careful changes to get Grand Theft Auto on the DS, Chinatown Wars not only lives up to the standards of previous games in the series but surpasses them in a few areas. At the start of Chinatown, you'll be wondering what normal GTA features were cut to fit the game on the DS but at the end, you'll be wondering what Chinatown features will make their way on the next console installment.

Players: 1-4
Platform(s): DS
Developer: Rockstar Leeds
Publisher: Rockstar Games
ESRB: M
Rating:
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