There's little doubt that Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto franchise has matured
greatly over the years, with each new chapter pushing the boundaries of
interactive storytelling (and good taste), and has become one of gaming's most
respected series. But for some, this growth has come at the expense of
many of the series most incredible moments, namely the almost cartoonish
buffoonery and tongue-in-cheek nature that always reminded us this was just a
game. That's not to say I haven't enjoyed my grittier, more realistic
romps through the dirty streets of Liberty City, but its with a certain spring
in my step and joy in my heart that the developers have seen fit to return these
very traits with the debut of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the
True to its title, Chinatown Wars revolves around Huang
Lee, a spoiled rich kid who arrives in Liberty City after hearing the news of
his father’s death. His business though has less to do with mourning and more
with maintaining favor within the triads by delivering a family heirloom – the
Yu Jian Sword – to his uncle. This being a Grand Theft Auto title, things
never happens as planned and its not long before Huang
is shot, robbed, and forced to take a swim just moments after leaving the plane.
Of course the task of reclaiming the Yu Jian and getting some good old-fashioned
revenge is the basis of this latest chapter in gaming's most notorious
franchise, and earning respect among gangs by stealing cars, racketeering, and
drug distribution just name a few things you’ll be doing it all on these fine
streets of Liberty City. Welcome home!
While the naysayers and torch-wielding critics might disagree, the real star
of the Grand Theft Auto franchise has never been the gratuitous violence,
prostitutes, or any number of the scandal-raising issues you might have read
about. It's all about the finely-tuned gameplay and mechanics, many of
which GTA helped originate and perfect over the years and its this core that
helps make Chinatown Wars such a smashing success. Fears of a
lesser game are largely unfounded, as nearly everything that has made previous
chapters so enjoyable (and in some cases, more so) has been retained in this
Nintendo DS portable rampage, minus the theatrical cinemas and vocals.
There are still plenty of cars to hijack, missions to accept, and of course the
same rotten-to-the core goodness that drives fans wild. The package may be
small, but it packs one hell of a powerful punch.
The gameplay is a great mix of classic meeting innovation, and the ambitious
Triad-laced plot is served well by the sometimes hilarious comicbook-style
storytelling. The classic birds-eye perspective makes a glorious comeback,
and the over-the-top mechanics fit nicely with a detailed Liberty City, and
includes some truly impressive cel-shaded visuals that are some of the best ever
seen on the platform. A big addition to GTA is the
use of the touch-screen, which truly does take advantage of the Nintendo DS,
and depending on the task you’ll typically be hot-wiring potential vehicles,
or trying to disarm a bomb. Aside from using your trusty stylus the simpler
features will have you using the bottom screen as a nifty PDA device that has
route-mapping GPS and email, or even as a way to carefully aim and/or throw
grenades or Molotov cocktails.
The most surprising aspect of all is how easy and seamless the whole
experience quickly feels, and I'm curious how much of what Rockstar implemented
here will make its way into the next home-console iteration.
Certainly the most controversial element of the game, drug trading is another involving feature of
Chinatown Wars that is practically a game within itself, putting the
complexities of narcotic distribution right in the palm of your hands. A number of dealers are
spread throughout Liberty City, each offering different prices for their illegal
wares (including heroin and cocaine) and rates will depend on
location. You'll have to carefully choose when to sell to the highest bidder,
and more often than not you'll need to make good use of this resource to further
mission chapters and obtain better inventories. You’ll
even get tip-offs about exclusive buyers and sellers, which probably makes this
the most outrageous mini-game the DS has ever seen.
Occasionally your deal
will get busted by the fuzz, and I was surprised to see how aggressive their
pursuit was this time around (especially given how lackluster they seemed in
GTAIV). Even accidently trading paint with
their cars will set the LCPD on your tail, and hiding is no longer enough
to lower your wanted level (designated once again by onscreen stars), and you'll
often have to force them off the road or crash their vehicles to keep your
progress on the down low. I mention these speedy chases at length only
because they helped remind me of how carefree and joyfully reckless this
franchise once was, and while I can appreciate the subtle nuance and emotional
storytelling of recent chapters, I still do love a good cop chase now and again.
Another element that should please hardcore GTA fans is the use of WiFi and
multiplayer, although not for reasons you might expect. There is no WiFi
online multiplayer, and if you're itching for some friendly rampage action,
you'll have to bring along a friend with another DS and copy of the game.
WiFi is used for stat-keeping and linking to Rockstar's Social Club, as well as
activating some of the unlocked missions throughout. I wasn't able to try
out either, but given the developer's penchant for quality (and how well
multiplayer was for GTA4), I can only imagine its a quality deal.
Rockstar did a lot of things right with Grand Theft
Auto: Chinatown Wars, losing very little in shrinking it to fit the DS, and
in some cases gaining wonderful new features. The excellent use of
touch-screen functionality and side-missions were great, but what I really
enjoyed most was the transition and feeling of a classic GTA game from years
past. The carefree nature and nonsensical storylines of the past have
thankfully returned, and what it may lack in modern technology is more than made
up for in gameplay and style. I’m not afraid to say that
I actually enjoyed this game more than GTAIV, and I suspect I'm not alone. Make
no mistake, this is a true GTA to its core and incredible fun throughout.