Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a lot like watching your favorite movie get shrunk down to be a cheesy Saturday morning cartoon series. With its adorable cel-shaded graphics and graphic novel narration, Chinatown Wars looks like a perfect fit on the Nintendo DS. But don't be confused by the game's softer look, when it comes right down to it this is the same old ultraviolent game you've come to know and love on the PlayStations and Xboxes. The graphics may be simplistic and I may have compared it to The Real Ghostbusters cartoon series, but Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars proves that you can make a competent open world game on the Nintendo DS without sacrificing much.
You play Huang Lee, a 25 year old Liberty City native returning from Hong Kong with his family's heirloom sword. As the story opens we learn that Huang's father, a Triad boss, has been killed and its your duty to avenge his death. It doesn't take long to get the story rolling, especially when your welcoming committee is made up of a bunch of murdering scum who ambush you, shoot you in the face and then leave you for dead in a car sinking into the Liberty City waterway. Thankfully you are able to escape from what looks like certain death, but not before the ancient sword is stolen and passed to every crime boss with a foreign sounding name
Before long the game places you in a traditional Grand Theft Auto world with familiar missions, characters and themes. You start out gaining respect and running errands for your uncle, then move up to dealing drugs for money and eventually get involved with crooked police officers, crime bosses and other untrustworthy Liberty City natives. All the while you will be on your mission to figure out what happened to your family's sword, avenge your father's murder and get away from all of the inside politics that happen in the wake of the untimely death.
It will take almost 60 missions before you finally get some resolution to your quest. Along the way you'll run into a lot of colorful characters and get yourself involved in the kinds of outlandish situations that we've come to expect from the Grand Theft Auto series. Veterans of the series will no doubt recognize many of the missions, which often have you protecting somebody, taking out large groups of bad guys or just driving people around like an overpriced chauffeur. However, as you get further into the game you'll discover that there's much more for you to do, including everything from pretending to be a Chinese dragon performing tricks during a parade to working in a tattoo parlor. The game does a good job of giving you missions you haven't seen in other Grand Theft Auto games; something that definitely helps set this game apart from those recent console titles.
All of the game's missions feel like they were designed with the idea of a portable game system in mind. Very few of the missions run for more than a few minutes, most resembling their tactic when making Liberty City Stories for the PSP. That's not to say that the missions aren't as interesting as their console counterparts, but you rarely have to deal with missions having more than two or three different parts. The game's short missions help keep things moving along at a quick pace, which in turn allows the developers to add more variety to the mission types.
On top of acting like a portable game, Chinatown Wars also takes into account the limitations of the Nintendo DS hardware and crafts a compelling action game that manages to feel brand new despite the slightly dated graphics. Let's be perfect honest, this game's look is nothing more than a glorified version of Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2. It's a top-down action game where a teeny tiny character runs around yet another reimagining of Liberty City, all while adorable Micro Machine vehicles are roaming the streets. It's a weird conundrum, on one hand this is the best the original Grand Theft Auto games have ever looked, while at the same time it's hard to go back to the overhead roots.
The good news is that Chinatown Wars is significantly better than either Grand Theft Auto 1 or 2 (or either of the London expansion packs). The game adds a number of improvements that make all the difference when playing the game, such as a moving camera, easier controls, a real sense of depth, improved targeting and animation that no long looks robotic. There's no question about it, if I absolutely wanted to go back and play the first two GTA games, this is how I would want it to play.
In some ways the simple graphics and overhead camera angle work to its benefit. Part of me started to feel nostalgic while playing through the campaign, almost as if I was remembering a much-loved retro game. The missions are all built for the system, which means that you are never asked to do something that doesn't feel natural on the Nintendo DS. That was part of the problem with the two PSP releases, you occasionally were asked to perform tasks that didn't feel right on the system's limited buttons, especially when trying to navigate a 3D world with only one analog stick. But that's not the case with this Nintendo DS release, it makes everything very simple and definitely benefits for it.
You'll be accosted by touch screen sequences from the very beginning. While this game is primarily played by using the D-pad and face buttons, you'll quickly notice that a significant part of your time will be spent with the stylus in hand. The most useful tool at your disposal is the PDA-style bottom screen, which allows you to set up GPS routes on your map, read incoming email, check my stats and much more. This is the most natural instance of the touch screen support, mostly because we're so used to using touch screen phones in our everyday life.
On top of using the PDA for menial tasks, you'll also discover that many of the missions will require you to use your stylus for one reason or another. Some of these touch screen mini-games add to the chaos of the action. For example, in one mission you'll be tasked with stealing an ambulance carrying a man you desperately want to keep alive. As you drive through the busy streets of Liberty City, you'll constantly have to make sure that your patient doesn't flat line. In order to do this, you will periodically have to pump his lungs, as if you were performing C.P.R. on the poor fellow. All this is happening as you are being shot at by the police, which means that to keep this guy alive you're going to need to take your eyes off the road for a few moments. All this results in the sensation that I'm actually going back and forth trying to keep this guy alive, all while outrunning the cops. The urgency is duplicated perfectly, and I really felt a sense of accomplishment when it was done.
In another exciting mission, I'm trying to take down a bunch of boats on the high seas. There's just one problem, my boat keeps dying. To complete the mission I have to not only make sure I'm blowing up the enemy boats before they take me out, but also fiddle with the engine by using the touch screen display. There are a few variations on this idea, and when it's done well it can really add to the tension of the mission.
Unfortunately not all of the touch screen implementation is as successful. Most of the touch screen activities are nothing more than mundane tasks, such as hotwiring cars, fixing boats, bashing locks, destroying other people's property, cutting into the fabric in the car, trading drugs and even selecting your weapons. Some of this these activities are admittedly interesting, but the novelty gets old when you're forced to do the stuff over and over again. Most of these touch screen bits could have just as easily been mapped to the face buttons, touching the screen doesn't add much to the overall experience.
Beyond quibbling over the silliness of some touch screen components and the way the game looks, the reason Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is easy to recommend is because it's so well put together. It doesn't hurt that Liberty City is gigantic, giving you plenty of area for you to explore and discover. The story is also captivating from beginning to end, even if the limited card size meant no voice acting. And while the music this time around is a little weak (especially for a Grand Theft Auto game), it's hard not to be impressed that the developers were able to shrink so much detail into such a small package.
What impresses me the most about this package is all of the new gameplay rules that have been implemented specifically for Chinatown Wars. A perfect example of this is the way the police chase after you. While having the cops tail you is nothing new to a Grand Theft Auto game, the way you deal with them this time around is both new and perfect for the smaller screen. Instead of just outrunning the police (which I quickly learned is hard to do from the top-down perspective), your job is to smash the police cars up so badly that they can't chase you anymore. To do this you need to get a few Burnout-style takedowns, enough literally "X" out a car and take your wanted level down. This is just one of the many ways that Chinatown Wars manages to set itself apart from the rest of the franchise, which in a weird way actually makes this game more endearing.
It wouldn't be a proper Grand Theft Auto game without a bunch of extra mini-games and missions to get lost in when you're bored of the story. Chinatown Wars has a great mix of new and old diversions, such as earning money through pretending to be a cab driver, police man, fire man, or any number of other professions in Liberty City. There's also a large emphasis on buying and selling drugs, which is the easiest way to earn money in this lawless city. And in a Grand Theft Auto first, you can actually go back and replay the story missions to see if you can earn a higher score. The rest is still pure GTA, so expect to collect hidden items, crash through billboards, drive a go-kart, race against other speed junkies and even get juiced up with the Rampage missions. Yup, this is a Grand Theft Auto game.
When Rockstar Games unleashed Liberty City Stories on the PSP, it shocked the world (or maybe just me) by including robust multiplayer support. Since then Rockstar's developers have been incorporating multiplayer support into all of their Grand Theft Auto games, and Chinatown Wars is no exception. You and a (local) friend can play a number of intriguing events multiplayer, using the system's Ad Hoc Wi-Fi. These competitive modes aren't all about running and gunning, in some modes you will be rushing around trying to earn as much money before time runs out. In another mode you'll be trying to protect the base while gang members attack from all sides. There's also a run racing mode which has more than a passing resemblance to a shrunk down Midnight Club Racing. All these multiplayer modes are fun, it's just a shame you can't take them online and play with more people.
When it comes down to it, there's no question that Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a fantastic entry on the Nintendo DS. The story and atmosphere is perfect and the controls take advantage of the portable's limited buttons and hardware. I found myself scratching my head throughout the game wondering how they were able to fit so much in, but the talented developers at Rockstar Games managed to fit a full Grand Theft Auto game into this tiny little card. It's not perfect, but this is likely to be the very best we can hope for on the Nintendo DS. Chinatown Wars definitively proves that not only can you make a Grand Theft Auto game on a Nintendo system, but it can rock your socks off.