It's like a profane version of Triad Election on the Nintendo DS
HIGH Losing a maxxed out wanted level by smashing cops into every bridge abutment in sight is surprisingly entertaining.
LOW The end of the story feels rushed and isn't even remotely satisfying.
WTF The bisexual stepson of the triad boss keeps trying to get me to have a threesome with him—and another dude.
Love or hate Grand Theft Auto, it's hard to deny that Rockstar deserves a whole lot of credit for Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. Managing to take the full-on GTA console experience and shrink it down to the point where it fits on a Nintendo DS cartridge (and not lose anything in the process) has to qualify as a major technological achievement. To do this while retaining everything that makes the franchise a mega-seller while adding new wrinkles to the mix as well is arguably award-worthy.
Bringing the GTA sandbox experience to a handheld isn't something new—Rockstar's already done it with several games on the PlayStation Portable. That's a disc-based system though (and while I don't know what a UMD holds as far as storage goes, I'd venture that it's more than a DS cartridge) and could be called a "mini PlayStation 2." The DS, meanwhile, is more like a portable SNES. That the developers managed to capture the full-blown GTA experience on this hardware is amazing.
Once you get past the technical specs, though, the rest of the Chinatown Wars experience is more "excellent" than "mind-blowing." This newest entry returns to Liberty City, but rather than focus on the mafia (or even the Russian gangsters of GTA4), Chinatown Wars weaves a tale around the Triads running that section of the metropolis. Being a fan of Asian gangster cinema, this was a big selling point for me. Gamers wanting more ethnicity in their leads should be happy that the title follows an Asian gangster fresh off the boat. When the family heirloom sword he's transporting is stolen, he begins a long quest to recover it and find his place in Liberty City.
Like the previous games, Chinatown Wars mixes traditional gangster cinema narrative with juvenile humor and cliché. The end result here isn't as satisfying as it should be. The characters are caricatures (which isn't a problem) and some of them are very entertaining (the Triad Boss's bisexual son for example), but the story itself doesn't seem like much more than a string of "developments" designed to tie the missions together. Granted, that's basically what all game stories are, but Chinatown Wars doesn't do a very good job of hiding the fact that the story is largely an afterthought. I often found myself wondering (in a postmodernist way) whether the clichés were intentionally designed to make me laugh or if I were supposed to take them seriously. The reason for the confusion is that the lead character regularly points out some things that are clearly movie clichés—but other things pass right by. I'm giving Rockstar the benefit of the doubt on most of this stuff based on their past work—but I wondered if the issue was legitimate and inspired by the fact that they're not as familiar with Asian crime films as they are with the American movies they've drawn inspiration from previously.
What the game does manage to pull off is the open-word gameplay we've all come to know and (most of us…) love. Arguments that the core elements of the GTA experience are getting old are valid, but I find that there's still a lot of fun to be had in tackling the various missions and side-quests. Plus, driving around town in a stolen vehicle causing random acts of destruction is as appealing as ever.
The new missions in this outing never really deviate from what we've seen before. Touch screen control is implemented occasionally, but it's rarely a main component of the game's control. Basically, the stylus is used for peripheral activities—some cars need to hotwired, locks need to be broken, and so forth. Stylus controls are more than up to the task for these game components. The only place it falters is in the grenade/Molotov cocktail tossing. It works well enough when it's the key mechanic of a mission, but trying to stop and use it when you're in the middle of a traditional firefight is somewhat counterintuitive. It's easy to blow yourself up.
Aside from the use of the stylus, Chinatown Wars does bring a few other new mechanics into the experience. The newly designed system for eluding the cops is fantastic (and should appear in all future GTA installments). Leading the police on chases and causing them to crash reduces your wanted level—each level requires more cops to be run off the road to decrease the meter. It's a great mechanic.
The other high point is the new drug dealing system. Dealers are scattered throughout Liberty City (they turn up on your PDA, which is a great new interface that serves as the game's information hub) and occasionally one will be buying or selling drugs for a cheaper than market amount. Players can spend a lot of time driving around the city ferrying drugs to various dealers and amassing financial wealth (which is used to buy safehouses and weapons from Ammu-Nation). It's a simple mini-game, but the drug dealing takes on a life of its own for some reason. I'd lose track of the main storyline on occasion as I drove around the city in my continuing quest to become the next Tony Montana…
In shrinking the game down, some concessions were necessary. Graphics take a hit, but it's not necessarily a negative. The top-down perspective of the old GTA games makes a return, but the environments are 3D and presented in a cel-shaded style that certainly has its own unique charms. Chinatown Wars looks different than the other GTA games, but the differences are really only skin deep. What's going on beneath the surface is identical to what we've come to expect from this franchise—right down to the occasionally wonky assisted aiming (which still manages to target the wrong guy with a frightening degree of regularity).
Despite the minor flaws, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is an excellent experience. I understand that some folks are tired of GTA in general, but everyone else should pick this title up. It's a major technological achievement (I never believed that anyone could get the console GTA experience on to a DS cartridge) and it's just as fun as its bigger brothers on the consoles. This is easily one of the best games to appear on the Nintendo DS and should only be missed by those who've developed a terminal case of GTA malaise.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via Retail and reviewed on the Nintendo DS Lite. Approximately 25 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time) and 0 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, drug references, sexual content, strong language, and violence. If you're a parent of a gamer and haven't already heard how Grand Theft Auto is the most evil thing your child could ever play, allow me to inform you that this isn't a game for children. Drug dealing is a major component of the game. There are enough F-bombs in the narrative to make The Big Lebowski feel like it was made by Disney. There's sexual content (although the prostitutes are missing from this outing…). This is not something you should pick up for the kids. It's rated Mature for a reason.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Deaf and hearing impaired gamers have nothing to worry about. Everything in Chinatown Wars is presented in text. There's no voice acting in the story at all.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.