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.
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