Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars review
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS is a fun, crime-ridden gallop through a portable-sized version of the classic Liberty City. In this game, you’ll be forced to duke it out with the numerous crime families vying for power in the dirty streets of Chinatown and beyond as you try to unravel the mysteries behind the murder of your father and the location of your family’s stolen ancestral sword.
So, let’s get right into the gameplay. The game plays a lot like its home console predecessors; you take missions from various NPCs for money and progress, while at the same time taking advantage of the monumental number of side attractions to mix things up. The game hasn’t lost much in the transition from the gritty down-to-earth gameplay of Grand Theft Auto IV, as Chinatown Wars is played from a top-down perspective that might be familiar to gamers who started with the original Grand Theft Auto and GTA 2. The result is a game with a highly polished and slick performance.
The game makes fantastic use of the Nintendo DS’s unique features to introduce new elements of interactive fun into the “usual grind” of a typical GTA title. You use the stylus and touch screen for everything from hotwiring stolen vehicles to arming bombs to even dealing drugs to shady dealers in secluded alleys. The touch screen is heavily incorporated into every aspect of the game, but not so much that it becomes distracting. The result is that the game feels like a very personal experience. It’s you that’s smashing apart keypads to hotwire locked gates, because you are the one tapping the stylus into the touch screen. It’s you swapping bags of ecstasy for tabs of acid, because you’re the one poking through the dealer’s bag and your trapper-keeper.
The game also introduces a new way to evade pursuit by the cops that want to put you under the jail at every turn. When you obtain a wanted level (measured in one to six stars, just like previous installments), you have the option of attempting to force the cops to crash into obstacles on the road. If you can crash a number of cop cars equal to the number of wanted stars you have, you lose a star. Rinse and repeat until there are no more stars. Ultimately, this is a nifty quirk at best, because the cops are very difficult to force into accidents by your own actions. It’s much more productive to hit up the Pay N’ Spray or just try the best you can to find a secluded area and wait for the stars to disappear on their own.
Graphically, the game is not very impressive. It looks a lot like the first two GTA games, which is the best the DS can muster, I suppose, but after having been spoiled by the spectacular GTA: Liberty City Stories and GTA: Vice City Stories, it looks substandard. Still, the game manages to pace along at a smooth 60 frames per second, and seldom does the framerate drop, even when large amounts of action is happening on screen. The sound is firmly meh. Everything sounds alright, but a lack of voice acting and licensed music is a drawback compared to the PSP games.
You are Huang Lee, a smart-mouthed kid from Hong Kong who is noticeably smarter than just about everyone he’s forced to work for. He arrives in Liberty City with his family’s “ancestral” sword (his father won it in a card game) to deliver to his uncle as a gift in exchange for his help in discovering the truth behind his father’s murder. However, he is immediately abducted, shot in the head, and left to drown. His sword is stolen, he’s left with nowhere to stay, and he is pressed into doing petty jobs for his petty uncle, who hardly seems to care that his brother is dead. Huang is left to figure out who killed his father on his own, and the search leads him right into the heart of a power struggle between his uncle and two other underbosses of their Triad.
The character of Huang is much in the same grain of other GTA characters like Nico Bellic and Carl Johnson. He’s smart, self-assured, and does leave a strong impression. However, his character brings about one of the game’s larger drawbacks: there is almost no voice acting done in this game. As a result, his dialogue consists of subtitles. While it’s not a huge deal, it exposes some of the less-than-spectacular dialogue that good voice acting usually manages to cover up in GTA games.
Another thing that I have to mention is that one character, Ling Shan, manages to leave a big impression with the way she deftly deflects Huang’s flirting and plays off of his self-confidence. I thought she was very similar to Kate McReary from GTA IV, and we all know how her story ends. Her lines are some of the best written in the game…and she dies about half-an-hour in from an absolutely brutal looking headshot. When I first saw it, I thought for sure she was going to survive. They even show an ambulance picking her up…but then the dialogue confirms she’s dead. What…the…hell? She’s even on the cover, and they give her a whopping 15 minutes from her introduction until her death.
Like every other GTA game, there are car chases, races, shootouts, and side distractions galore. Most of the missions are simple “go here, shoot this guy and his friend, flee from the cops”, but there’s always enough of a twist on the proceedings that it’s always new and always fun. Don’t get me wrong: this game has its very difficult spots. One mission, “The Offshore Offload”, is incredibly tough, and the last few missions of the game are bloodsoaked romps through obscenely armed and armored bad guys and car chases where the Liberty City Police Department pulls out all the stops to try and put you in traction. The ending is a fitting, if not entirely satisfying, conclusion.
As I sum it all up, the one thing I can say is that I can’t imagine a portable GTA game bringing more to the table in terms of features and a “wholeness” of the entire package than Chinatown Wars. That said, I honestly think Liberty City Stories is the better GTA game. Why? Because Chinatown Wars just isn’t as fun. When I played LCS back in 2007, it was fun, it was sassy, it honestly felt like a spiritual successor to the GTA III trilogy. Chinatown Wars is not only trying to perform the same trick, it’s doing so on the heels of GTA IV, a more advanced game than III, Vice City, or San Andreas. The result is that it feels stripped-down despite the variety of features it brings to the table. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there should be more to the game than what is there after over two years between the release of LCS and CW.
Overall, the game is a very fun and worthy purchase if you can get it from the bargain/used bin. It’s over six months old, so there have got to be used copies floating around. It’s a fun little portable game, it feels like a GTA game, and if you like GTA, you’ll like this game. If you’re a newbie to the series, I’d definitely recommend you play GTA IV for Xbox 360 or PS3 first. They recently remade this game for PSP and apparently vastly improved and expanded it, so that might also be worth looking into as well.
In a nutshell: