When GTA was announced for the DS, the response was a flurry of scepticism. Not surprising, really; the series may have started off as a top down game, but after enjoying the amount of content in Liberty City, would we really want to return to the series’ archaic roots? Well, yes, actually… although Chinatown Wars is anything but archaic.
It was quite a shock seeing that 18 certificate slapped on the box; it’s not something you expect to see from a DS game. While Chinatown Wars may not depict the violence in a realistic manner like its console cousins, this could be considered the riskiest in the series, content-wise… mainly due to the drug-dealing mini-game. Other games that dabble in the drug scene, more often than not, invent their own. Here, you’ll be buying and selling coke, heroin, weed, downers and other narcotics. As surreal as it is, it’s probably one of the best parts of the game. You carry with you a bag with a limited amount of space to carry your goods; then, when you find a dealer (there are loads scattered around the back alleys of Liberty), you can check on how much profit or loss you’ll make with them. You’ll also receive emails alerting you about special deals that are happening around the city. We wasted more hours with this than we did with any other side mission in GTA IV. They could build an entire game around it.
When you are done with your drug-dealing, you can always return the main storyline, and it’s longer than you’d expect. Here you play Huang Lee, son of a murdered father, who, upon arrival in Liberty City, gets shot at and left for dead as his prized ancient sword is stolen. What follows is the usual GTA story of betrayal, revenge and murder. Missions play out the same as always, only this time, instead of a phone call, you get emails from various bosses around the city who want to hire your expertise. Emails come through to a handy device, depicted on the bottom screen, where you can use GPS, change weapons, and locate all the local drug dealers. It’s an incredibly well-thought-out tool that utilises the touch screen to its utmost potential.
Speaking of which, a lot of the missions you’re given use the DS touch screen in inventive and unique ways. One minute you could be planting a bomb, then you could be cracking a safe. There’s even a moment where you need to assemble a sniper rifle. The touch screen also has in-game functionality, with a double-tap on the GPS allowing you to set a waypoint, and when you come up to those toll booths, you just draw a line to throw the money in. It’s a refreshing change to see some thought going in to the use of the DS’s features.
At times, though, it can almost feel like it’s giving you too much. Dashing from the d-pad to your stylus and back again can cause mayhem when you’re trying to evade police. Luckily, it’s easier to get away now, even from a 3- star wanted level. Rather than rely solely on the paint-and-spray hiding spots, you can now bash cop cars off the road, the loss of each reducing the difficulty of lowering your wanted level. You have to ram them in quick succession, although the cops will often destroy themselves by driving into a brick wall. They’re not the best drivers.
It’s amazing how much Rockstar have managed to get out of the DS. The insane amount of missions take place in an environment that is incredibly large. Not quite as big or fancy as GTA IV (Star Junction is missing, for instance), but it still features the same island layout of its big console cousin, complete with a number of shops that can be entered as you wish, such as tattoo parlours and places to buy scratch cards. We’d go as far to say as this is one of the biggest technical achievements ever, especially when you consider how good it looks.
There’s barely an ounce of slowdown while playing, even when blowing everything up from the safety of a helicopter. The cel-shaded technique suits the atmosphere, and while voice acting is omitted for technical reasons, the sequences between missions are so well-written that you won’t even care. Another casualty of the technology is the music stations, which don’t have any licensed music or any attempt to replicate it. A necessary omission, but we fear that if they managed to get any more out of the hardware, it would melt.
Are there any faults, then? Only one, and that’s something that has plagued the series for a while – the gunplay. The targeting, most notably, can be a little cumbersome, especially when you’re surrounded by multiple enemies. At least it counters this somewhat, with your health seemingly more resilient to harm than in previous GTAs, so in practice, it isn’t that much of a problem at all. It’s like Rockstar have thought of everything.
The fact that this review actually compares Chinatown Wars (favourably) to GTA IV should tell you how highly we regard this game, both in a technical and gameplay respect. It’s an astonishing achievement for a handheld that nobody thought could hold this much content, or present it in such an effective way.