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Jeremy Jastrzab
20 Mar, 2009

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Review

DS Review | Liberty City is in your hands. Literally.
Grand Theft Auto. A game that needs no introduction. Since its debut on the PC in 1997, retail and critical success have followed and controversy was never too far behind. Behind the exterior that was the extreme crime story and chances for reckless choices lay a solid game and clever dialogue. Having conquered the console market, publisher Rockstar is looking to take on the handhelds as well. Following the release of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories on the PSP, the jugular is now being targeted with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS.

Given the volatile history of GTA and the conservative or ‘kiddy’ nature often associated with the Nintendo brand, this release may seem a little strange at first. However, Chinatown Wars is not the first GTA game to grace a Nintendo system, with Grand Theft Auto Advance having been released for the Game Boy Advance in 2004. While that game was a fizzer, just how has the unashamed violence, colourful language, innuendo and blatant adult content come through on the DS in Chinatown Wars. In short, it’s relatively unscathed but at the same time, it feels that this is what GTA was always meant to be.

The developers seem to be quite fond of Liberty City, as it would have to be one of the most often visited gaming locales. In Chinatown Wars is again set in Liberty City, though players this time will take the role of Huang Lee. Following the passing of his Triad boss father (in rather conflicting circumstances), this pampered daddy's boy is on a mission to deliver a so-called family heirloom to the new patriarch, his uncle Kenny. Upon arriving in Liberty City, he is ambushed, robbed and left for dead, and hence setting up the usual scenario where players start off with nothing. The developers have loosened up on the serious story with a much lighter and humorous affair. There are a lot more jokes, crude references, cheesier dialogue and the characters are much more bizarre than any of the others previously encountered in GTA games. In all, the story tries to have more fun, rather than looking to observe any moral standing.

  
Zombie break-out zone! Oops, wrong game.

Zombie break-out zone! Oops, wrong game.
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Rather than attempting to ape the console games, such as the PSP versions, Chinatown Wars takes a back-to-basics approach by using the top-down perspective as seen in the earlier PC GTA games. To add definition to all the structures and objects on screen, the game also sports some nice cel-shaded graphics. These concessions proved to be a good choice for the DS, as the overall experience is not dampened. You are still getting as close to a full GTA experience as is technically possible, but moulded nicely to suit the handheld format.

If you have played a GTA game before, you’ll know how the missions are played out. You visit several people of interest to take on their various dirty works. As in GTAIV, you have a GPS at you disposal for getting to and from missions and places of interest. Of course, you start out with the usual tutorial type missions, introducing you to various aspects of the game. Later on though, the missions can get rather bizarre and much more outlandish than previous games, including one where take to the skies in a helicopter and fire rockets at an opposing gang.

Outside of the missions, you have a lot of diversions that you can get up to. Some of the money earning distractions include things such as delivering Chinese takeaway, taxi missions and races. Typically, you have a lot of secrets to uncover and things to do such as find ramps to jump off. One prominent side-tracker is the narcotic selling scene. Missions don’t make you that much money, so there is more cash to be made in selling narcotics. As unusually sophisticated economy has been setup for this, where demands and supplies will fluctuate by city region and so will the prices that you will buy and sell at. It’s an aspect of the game that is surprisingly fleshed out.

  
So which one's Huang?

So which one's Huang?
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Given the pick-up-and-play nature of the DS, it makes sense that the missions be shortened to cater for this. While most missions will only take a matter of minutes to complete, they still manage to fit in just about all of the things that you would do in a console GTA title. Thankfully, you can immediately restart the mission if you fail. Even though the game will still have instances of failing you where it’s not all your fault, the quick restart and shorter missions alleviate this slightly, though not as well as the checkpoints did in The Lost and Damned. The shorter missions also make for a shorter game, but the fact that it can be finished in a reasonable 15 hours or so time frame is quite welcome. On top of the story and diversions, there some basic multiplayer for up to two players as well.

The touch screen is used quite prominently in the game as well. Rather than using a mobile phone and PC like in GTA IV, you instead have a PDA, which contains pretty much everything you need, including menus, GPS and email. All these are controlled via the touch screen. You’ll also have an assortment of mini-games, from common ones such as hot-wiring cars, to money earners such as a tattooing mini-game to mission specific ones. The mission specific ones are reasonably well implemented, as you won’t be too distracted to complete them. Some of the common ones can be a little tricky, as they are done when the action is going on around you. So not only has the game been comfortably adapted for the top-down format, but the overall implementation of the touch screen has been quite smart, even if it means constantly keeping the stylus out.

It’s not all roses and sunshine for Chinatown Wars though. We are very glad that the developers decided to go back to the top-down perspective, as it suits the DS much better and activities such as driving are much easier for it. It lends to a more arcade feel, which suits a game like GTA very well. However, on-foot controls are almost as clunky as they were back in 1997. A targeting system is now in place, which allows for basic cover to be used, but the system struggles a little in close quarters and confined spaces. Weapon switching and throwing grenades and Molotov cocktails with the touch screen works accurately but is cumbersome under heavy fire. The game feels sometimes like a shooting gallery, while your ‘partners’ seem have an affinity with danger, where they refuse to protect themselves from gunfire or environmental hazards. Police are rather erratic in what they respond to as well, which makes them incredibly annoying.

  
We don't cut the red one, right? RIGHT?!?!?

We don't cut the red one, right? RIGHT?!?!?
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In some ways, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars feels like this is what a GTA game ought to be. The humorous story fits extremely well, and going back to the basics, while implementing most of the modern GTA conveniences and DS functionality make the game one extremely astute package. And that’s before you include the staples of cartoon violence and colourful language. While some of the 3D world frustrations remain, some are alleviated to an extent. At the same time though, the story is less serious but ironically, there is more focused on it and the outside activities are much more serious. This leaves less scope for ‘silly’ shenanigans that usually involved baseball bats or the physics engine, so those who have started with Grand Theft Auto III, may be a little dismayed. Well, in the early stage of the game anyway.

As mentioned above, the developers have rather bravely (and smartly) avoided a full 3D replication of the console titles in favour of a top-down and cel-shaded perspective. This makes for a more colourful game world with no major technical deficiencies, though the characters in game borderline on ugly. The cut scenes now take the artistic form of a GTA box art, where something of a graphic novel plays out on the lower screen, while any real time occurrences happen above. Again, this adds to the exaggeration of the story and setting in a good way. Given the limitations of the DS, the sound department has taken a hit. None of the cut scenes are voiced, though Liberty City residents will have a few things to say about your recklessness. You’ve still got a decent selection of radio stations, though they mainly played themed tunes and the sounds effects are good enough to justify the use of headphones.

Remarkably, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars as fleshed out as it could possibly be. Simply, it does what many DS and PSP games that originated on the consoles have failed to do. It provides the experience of the GTA console games while smartly catering for the platform, both in terms of portability and functionality. It would have been nice for the game to be released earlier and demonstrate to other developers just what can be done with some application. Sure, there are a number of controversial and game related issues that will divide players and non-players, but credit ought to be given where credit is due. Simply, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is amongst the most complete and entertaining packages available on the DS.
The Score
By blending the old and the new, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars gets the console experience on a handheld format just about right. 9
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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9 Comments
5 years ago
Good to hear. Can't wait to buy it this weekend and play it icon_smile.gif
5 years ago
Nice. Definitely a must get for me. The old Grand Theft Auto's never got tiresome, and I feel like I need more of a pick up and play GTA, unlike number 4 which seems to be very difficult to accustom to
5 years ago
Does anybody know how to restart the game?? I can't figure it out...

Other than that, the vehicles are ok, it would be nice if you could see things on ground level instead of the air though...
5 years ago
^Not sure, but when you go to the place where you can manually save (PDA-System-save game iirc) there is an option that says something like new game, but I haven't pressed it.
5 years ago
What does this option look like, I can't find it...
5 years ago
Hang on, I found it. You have to hit start while your on the streets. Then you go system and arrow across to new game.
5 years ago
I hope Firefly Island is open in this one!
5 years ago
You forgot to mention the Wi-Fi multiplayer which is also a huge plus.
5 years ago
Jaws wrote
You forgot to mention the Wi-Fi multiplayer which is also a huge plus.
Multiplayer is only wireless multi-card play. The whole using the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection is to see the stats of people on your friend list, to trade items an send messages.

No actual multiplayer over the NWC. icon_sad.gif
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  Pre-order or buy:
    PALGN recommends: www.Play-Asia.com

Australian Release Date:
  20/03/2009 (Released)
Publisher:
  Take 2 Interactive
Genre:
  Action
Year Made:
  2008

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