Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
The skyline, bustle and community of an immense city. The satirical yet affirming radio stations. Total freedom to explore and conquer the game world at your own pace. These are just a handful of the things upon which the foundations of Grand Theft Auto are built, and removing even one such pillar should, in theory, cause instability or, in the worst case, utter collapse. So how can it be possible for such an experience-centric franchise to make the grade on a mere handheld incapable of such power-intensive feats? The answer, as Rockstar quite eloquently states with Chinatown Wars, is with a rock-solid mix of originality, adaptation and some downright stunning coding.
The ambition of the game is clear from the start, a surprisingly impressive intro sequence demonstrating both an astounding engine and a storyboard narrative at once courtesy of the DS’s twin screens.
And from this moment on, there’s never a shred of doubt that Chinatown Wars is a title designed not only with the unique features of the DS in mind, but also portable gaming in general. The touch screen is employed for all manner of different uses – hotwiring cars to rigging explosives, rummaging through bins to tattooing gang members – but never falls into the classic trap of overusing such elements. A general lack of buttons also sees many other functions assigned to the touch screen during general play, menu and GPS-based options feeling right at home here while changing weapons and lobbing grenades are simply awkward. There’s even optional mic support, allowing you to whistle at your DS to hail a cab and make the rest of the bus think you’re playing Nintendogs rather than planning a major drugs deal.
Yes, you read right. While previous GTA games have touched upon turning pusher, Chinatown Wars embraces the concept and develops it into a fully fledged Elite-style trading mechanic. Drugs can be bought from or sold to the many dealers loitering about the map, with regular contacts even emailing you about cheap stock or urgent requests.
Stocking up on cheap Class As and patiently awaiting a drought can lead to huge financial rewards, although busts will be a regular sight if you make one visit too many to your local ‘trader’. Not that losing a police tail is especially difficult in this newly realised Liberty City. Rockstar has gone down the arcade route to ensure enjoyable burst gaming, meaning that cop cars can be taken out with a single good nudge or full-pelt ram, replete with a cartoon-style big red ‘X’ and the winding down of sirens to complete the takedown experience. Each Wanted level has a quota to meet in order to lose a little police interest, making losing anything below the ever-entertaining six-star onslaught really quite simple, while as enjoyable as ever.
That’s not all that has changed in Liberty either, the most obvious alteration being the city itself losing its westernmost island. This still leaves a good chunk of GTA IV’s map intact and is a huge play area for a DS game, although the lack of a sensation of height does hamper both familiarity and the sense of scale at times. But helpfully, a lot of the more confusing road layouts have been straightened to play on the new auto-centring vehicle handling that wonderfully strengthens what could otherwise have been a fiddly control set-up. It could be argued that the infrastructure is a touch angular as a result, although you’re unlikely to think that way when the simplified layout is facilitating a miraculous escape from the not-so-long arm of the law.
But in this shrunken city where the roads aren’t quite as bendy as you remember, cops don’t seem to mind how many people you run over and hard drugs are only ever a few blocks away, it’s the missions that surprise the most. GTA games are renowned for starting out slow but Chinatown Wars really comes out fighting – that the first hour holds some genuinely interesting missions is an unexpected treat indeed. A lot of the more engaging and imaginative ones bring in incidental touch screen elements (such as massaging the weak heart of an ambulance patient every time your reckless disregard for the highway code sends him into cardiac arrest) and it’s here that Rockstar’s DS debut truly shines.
In fact, the majority of the game’s vehicle-based missions are excellent, with only those that try too hard to mimic the more epic ones from the console versions falling down. Well, those and any mission that takes place predominantly on foot – without the precision aiming of an analogue stick, shootouts can be somewhat messy and unpredictable. An auto-targeting system tries its best to assist, but the fact that bottleneck areas almost always need to be littered with health and armour pick-ups is indicative of how much damage you’re expected to take.
A game aware of its shortcomings and eager to prove its worth in other areas, Chinatown Wars manages to retain much of the classic GTA feel even without some of the series’ lynchpins. It’s an original take on the franchise that works wonderfully for the most part, only falling down when it tries too hard to mimic its big brothers. And while it might look a little scrappy in places, the scale and smoothness more than make up for this and it just goes to show how much can be squeezed out of the DS by a skilled developer.