Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is an excellent game, which in itself is quite a shock. The PSP has the ability to ape the visuals of the GTA PS2 franchise, but on the less powerful DS this was clearly never an option. Yet despite its limitations it manages to accurate convey everything that is synonymous with the franchise and take advantage of the opportunities that come with developing for a touch screen game.
Compared to other recent GTA games the visuals seem primitive, yet they are one of the most impressive aspects of the game. It isn’t necessarily that you will be blown away by them but they function perfectly within the game. Everything looks distinctive and is recognizable which is no mean feat when you are trying to replicate the same Liberty City from GTAIV. Even the camera angle, an isometric viewpoint but responsive enough to shift around to give you the best perspective, doesn’t cause the issues that you might assume. The cell-shaded look makes interactive elements of the environment more obvious and gives personality to the different areas of the city and its landmarks. The color palette has been thoughtfully implemented to make brands of cars, gang members and icons easier to distinguish and brightens up the beautiful yet drab city from GTA IV. Characters designs are very much in the cartoony mould, but still fit seamlessly into the world as they are reminiscent of the box art from earlier in the franchise.
These characters are also brimming with personality despite the absence of voices in the cut scenes. As a change from the silent or downtrodden protagonist, the main character, Huang Lee, is a wise-cracking rich kid. His sense of humor comes across very well even without a voice and although the story is no where near as involving as Niko’s plight, Huang’s wit carries the game past its usual cast of corrupt cops, Mafioso, Triads and drug dealers.
Which brings us nicely to the most controversial part of the game (there always has to be one in a GTA game); drug dealing. It is neither as excitingly explicit as it sounds or as boring and lightweight as it could be. Instead it’s a well implemented and satisfying solution to the issue of how manage the economy within the game. Basically by investing a little time and effort, the player can ensure they always have enough income to have the best weapons and the most property at their disposal. Rather than break the game it provides a great solution and scoring a big deal to earn a huge profit is very satisfying. Likewise there is still a risk/reward element in that if you are caught with fifty bags of coke in your bag and are arrested you stand to lose a lot.
One aspect of the game which arguably surpasses the console versions are the missions. GTA games have always suffered from the same problem of overly repetitive mission structures. Usually you have to go from point A to point B and kill C. Chinatown Wars doesn’t exactly break the mold, but the use of touch scene mini-game moments do provide a welcome break in the action. Through the course of the game you will use the touch screen to make and throw Molotov cocktails, plant bombs and tracking devices, start a boat engine and hot wire cars. None of them are difficult, and it can be a little fiddly to whip the stylus out of the DS in time but it manages to add to the immersion instead of detracting from it, and takes advantage of the touch screen.
The controls or more specifically the HUD also make good use of the touch screen functionality. There are so many menus in the game that allow you to program your GPS, order guns on the internet, receive emails and research drug prices that it needed a good method of interaction to succeed. With the lower screen basically serving that function, Chinatown Wars never forces you to spend too much time struggling through clumsy menu screens that might have plagued the game had it been on another console (the internet in GTA IV for example).
No licensed music robs the game of one of the signature aspects of the franchise but the music is impressive despite the limitations of the hardware. As previously mentioned none of the cut scenes are voiced but some of the pedestrians do get a view oft repeated lines which are pretty funny nonetheless.
This game is currently the highest ranked DS game on metacritic, which should tell you just how good it is. That this game is so fully featured is a testament to the effort that the developers put into the game. All of which makes it all the more heart-breaking that it has performed so poorly. It sold a mere 90,000 units in its two weeks when even the most conservative analysts’ estimates were expecting half a million. It isn’t to say that the game doesn’t have problems, and those who were never interested in GTA or were starting to tire of the series should probably give it a miss, but for anyone remotely interested in the game you are recommended to get your hands on it. Seeing as the game has already been discounted by up to 50% by most retailers this shouldn’t be too hard.