Among the Brain Training and Imagine games, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars just doesn't seem to fit. Titles about drug-dealing Chinese murderers don't seem quite at home on a system endorsed by that sparrow-faced woman from Friends, but it's not like Rockstar has ever been afraid of courting controversy.
Court controversy this game shall. Chinatown Wars is full of foul language, violence, and an integral minigame that sees you trafficking illicit substances around town. Another day in the office for Grand Theft Auto. However, does this DS iteration of the series live up to previous chapters on console and PSP, or do the touch-screen gimmickry and old school top-down approach wear thin?
Read on as we review Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.
Chinatown Wars stars Huang Lee, the spoiled son of a recently murdered triad boss, who has been charged with the task of escorting a family heirloom from China to Liberty City. The "heirloom" is a sword named Yu Jian that Huang's father won in a card game, and is needed by succeeding boss Uncle Kenny to win favor with the city's Triad underworld. Unfortunately for Lee, he is kidnapped, left for dead, and must now recover the stolen sword, while helping Kenny maintain control of his criminal operations and working for yet another cast of criminals.
The story of Chinatown Wars is definitely weaker than past games, with a script that relies on well-traveled attempts at easy humor, lacking the wit and satirical edge of predecessors. References to midgets blowing coke up someone's ass is a bit old, and Rockstar can do better than that. The story is certainly lighthearted, and slickly presented with comic book-style images that accompany text, but it seems incredibly forced at times, and the lack of accompanying radio station chatter and other flares of GTA character only magnifies the issue.
However, the light story fortunately gives way to great portable gameplay, and Chinatown Wars provides plenty of that. Fans who grew up with Grand Theft Auto's humble top-down games will feel right at home with this one. The birds-eye-view has been given a slight isometric slant, but it plays just like one of the original GTAs, and this is a good thing. Playing Chinatown Wars at once feels nostalgic and fresh.
Missions are generally short, and have been perfectly trimmed down to suit a handheld gaming format, providing bursts of gameplay that fail to wear thin. While not always as challenging as past games, there is plenty of variety, and the game uses the DS' unique capabilities to do things never before seen in a GTA.
The Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto IV has been recreated with cel-shaded graphics, and a few features from Rockstar's last big home console game are present. As well as recognizable cars and locations, players can also find random people to help around the city, much like Niko did. You can also use the DS' microphone to hail a cab.
It's the things that Chinatown Wars does differently that makes it stand out, however, and Rockstar is to be commended for seamlessly integrating the DS' hardware features into the GTA universe. The touch screen will see heavy use, with players using their stylus to unscrew car interiors for hotwiring purposes, smashing through windshields, breaking padlocks or revving boat engines. The vast majority of the touch-screen actions make sense, and have been blended into the game so well that they never break the flow of play or feel forced. The touch-screen is used in so many ways that, apart from regular hotwiring, nothing seems too repetitive, and the stylus input is perfect, never feeling laggy or imprecise. Chinatown Wars is one of the best uses of the Nintendo DS interface to date.
Players also have access to a PDA and GPS system, available on the touch-screen, and these are used to easily plot routes around the city, and access stats, information, emails and to order weapons from the new Ammu-Nation delivery service. There is also multiplayer to be had, but competitive modes are restricted to local play only. If someone would like to bring their DS to Mississippi, we can talk about that. Online users can chat, compare stats and trade, but that's about it.
The Wanted system is handled a little differently this time around. In order to shake the police, Huang needs to destroy cop cars, or get them to destroy themselves. How much heat you have determines how many cars you need to total. It's a fun system, and forcing a cop car into the corner of a building to hear its siren die is a satisfying experience. Unfortunately, the one drawback is that cops seem to be crawling all over Liberty City, worse than ever before. In previous games, getting spotted by cops jacking a car was an unwanted surprise. In Chinatown Wars, it's an unwanted inevitability. Even making sure no cops are onscreen serves little protection, and it can get very tiresome when you just want to go from A to B and you're pulled for nearly every carjacking, and run the risk of bashing into cop cars because they're around nearly every street corner.
When it's not sending the white and blue after you, however, Chinatown Wars is consistently enjoyable, with only a few frustrating missions. Special attention needs to be paid to the drug trafficking sub-game, which is sure to be a controversial point among casual DS fans that see Nintendo as the "family safe" company. Unfortunately for them, drug trafficking is not only profitable in the game, but a ridiculous amount of fun. Following tips to find cheap drugs and keeping them until you hear of a booming market is about as addictive as the narcotics themselves. More than being simply a bid to grab headlines and cause shitstorms, the drug element to Chinatown Wars is well crafted and as worthy a feature as any you'll find in a GTA.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is easily one of the best DS games ever made. While it lacks some of the character of previous titles in the series, the gameplay is difficult to put down, with something to please fans of both the new and old GTA experiences. At the beginning of the review, I said that Chinatown Wars doesn't seem to fit on the DS. However, appearances can be deceiving, and Grand Theft Auto's DS debut deserves to be on Nintendo's system as much as any puzzle game or pet sim.
Score: 8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but worth your time and cash.)
reviewed by Jim Sterling