Run. Drive. Shoot. It may do the series a slight disservice but these actions sum up the basic structure of the Grand Theft Auto series. Through the years, though, it has emerged as a riveting formula and its movement into the three dimensional realm saw the series expand in complexity, crowned off by GTA IV most recently. This saw Rockstar turn away from the cartoon violence of the PS2 years in favour of a grittier, more realistic experience. Although it was met with widespread critical acclaim and the sales figures to match, some felt the series had lost some of its fun. With the release of Chinatown Wars, Rockstar has changed the artistic direction once more in returning to an arcade feel on the Nintendo DS. Considering the capabilities of the DS, some might instantly dismiss this as merely a poor relation to its console counterparts; yet, not only does this blow this presumption out of the water, the new additions it makes are likely to be carried over into the next instalment and beyond.
You play as Huang Lee, a Triad member delivering his father’s sword to his uncle in Liberty City. His father has just been assassinated but you do not know the perpetrators. As you are arriving by plane, you are set upon and dumped into the sea, the sword stolen. The story that follows sees you fight to retrieve this family heirloom and to revenge the death of Huang’s father. Played out through a series of static, 2D cut scenes, the story has an interesting cast and plenty of twists in the tale along the way. Within these scenes the dialogue retains the humour so characteristic of the series but the cut scenes do lack the cinematic ambition of GTA IV. While this is understandable given the limitations of the DS, you may still find yourself skipping the cut scenes in order to get to the main missions.
While the cut scenes may be stripped down, the same cannot be the said of the rest of the game. The cel shaded graphics – new to the series – are extremely impressive. There is a pleasing variety to the cars and areas of Liberty City, with all the pools of blood and mangled vehicles that we’ve come to expect from the series. The use of an isometric viewpoint is also a first, making the game fall in between 2D and 3D. The rounded feel of the cars and buildings is helped by a physics engine that means cars flip through the air, allowing more immersion than the flatness of the earliest GTAs. In fact, with the exception of Alderney, the DS’s capabilities are pushed to the very limit in recreating the same Liberty City as in GTA IV. Taxis and ambulances career down the street, while pedestrians are seen crossing roads and buying hot dogs. This action is handled with a minimum of fuss, the game flowing seamlessly without a loading screen in sight. The only niggle in this area is a jarring frame rate when a cop chase gets particularly heated. Except for this, though, the production values are of the same high quality as a Nintendo AAA title and more than hold a candle to the sharp, precise visuals of GTA IV.
Comparisons with the latest GTA are all too easy to make and it may seem unfair to compare the two, given the differences in technology involved. However, Rockstar has done a remarkable job of translating the game’s action onto a handheld. The main missions – although not quite matching the epic nature of GTA IV’s – are filled with variety, with some involving multiple goals. Most involve some form of car chase, while the two sniper missions that appear are very impressive for a handheld game. Almost all of the missions are engaging, meaning you are likely to want to zip through the twenty hour storyline of the main game. This is without including the drugs mini game, which has surprisingly gathered little media coverage. It sees you traffic drugs through all of the areas, trying to make a profit by pulling off the right deals. For such a small part of Chinatown Wars, this mini game is remarkably in depth and encompasses levels of financial strategy that are very gratifying. It is possible to while away hours of enjoyment on this section alone.
Other features unique to the DS include the use of the stylus and the touch screen. Tapping the PDA box at the top left of the bottom screen allows you to set paths to the next mission, as well as seeking out the best profits in the drugs mini game. The stylus is also used in the missions: one sees you tap the screen in order to escape from a sinking car, while a later mission sees you assembling the sniper rifle by connecting its parts together on the bottom screen. While other titles can make heavy handed use of the DS, the touch screen is on the whole used seamlessly in this title. Throwing molotovs and grenades by sliding the stylus across the bottom screen can be a little awkward, but thankfully this only constitutes a tiny portion of the gameplay.
Outside of the main missions, there is a welcome return for the rampage mini game. In fact, the game offers much more in terms of variety than GTA IV. There are hidden missions strung about the city, while the police, ambulance and fire trucks missions also return. Whereas GTA IV had a more focused core story than its predecessors, it had lost some of the freedom and fun that a more cartoonish approach offers. As a handheld game obviously cannot match its more powerful counterparts, Rockstar’s has made a wise decision to return to the direction of GTA III. This allows the game never to feel inferior to the console versions, while it even introduces new ideas which should prove to be influential. Police chases can be cut short if you have the skill to ram the police off the road, while if a mission is failed, you no longer have to trek back to its starting point. A mission can now be replayed in a click of a button, eliminating any previous frustration to be had with the series.
This successful refinement of GTA’s basic template adds to the feeling that Chinatown Wars is more than just a stripped down GTA. Taking the main ingredients of GTA IV, it mixes them together into a game with the same thrills and guilty joys of its counterparts. It emerges as, by far, the best GTA on a Nintendo console to date and joins a select few mature titles on the DS worthy of purchase. Move over Mario, it’s time to crank up that wanted level again.