I’ve played many different iPhone games. I’ve played mind-bending puzzle games like Electric Box, cute fighting games like Inkvaders, crazy simulation-like games like Amateur Surgeon, artistic games like Zen Bound, ported games like Duke Nukem 3D, action games like Canabalt, and the list goes on. Most of these games have done quite well in the App Store. They all suite the premise of the iPhone very well: they’re easy to pick up, and easy to put down.
The experience of these games, however, is not at all comparable to playing a console or PC game. The level of story, action, versatility of gameplay, immersion and general intrigue that inhabits games of the larger platforms is altogether lacking in iPhone games. Although in some ways the competition will be impossible for Apple to breach, app developers just need to be a little more creative. Or, they can take a few hints from the already existing handheld game devices. So for iPhone gamers looking for a bit more immersion and a bit more actual gaming in their mobile lives, you can look no further than Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
at the App Store.
Playing as protagonist Huang Lee, you land in Liberty City from Hong Kong carrying the sword that belonged to your recently deceased father. Your plans for delivering it to your Uncle Kenny are thwarted as the gangsters who were meant to escort you there are jumped and leave you for dead. Managing to drag yourself to your Uncle, he informs you that his reputation and plans for becoming the Triad boss are at stake. He needs your help in ensuring this position, and redeeming your family’s honor.
Like any true GTA title, this plot will lead you to a hefty amount of fighting, racing around in various cars, and delving into severe gang wars involving various mob families.
Anyone who says the GTA franchise is mindless killing and murdering is really sadly mistaken. There is so much more more to GTA to appreciate. The level of humor in the dialogue of Chinatown Wars is so appropriate it hurts. You play the unenthused “rich kid” dealing with various characters and odd jobs whilst more focused on finding your father’s killer and his stolen sword. You’ll meet a fellow rich kid, with his head probably screwed on not quite as right as yours. Your uncle flaunts his mighty “I’m your elder” finger in your face, and his rivals attempt to get you working for them with the assurance that their cockiness is not misplaced. There’s even a crooked junkie cop you’ll be doing jobs for. You greet all of them with your fine tuned sarcasm, making for witty transactions with the various character types.
Gameplay relies on completing missions for the various characters to stifle any perception of weakness on their behalf. For you, it’s more of a means to an end towards finding answers about your father. If you know GTA, you pretty much know what these missions entail: you’ll be hijacking cars and goods (usually drugs), blowing up buildings, protecting people, and killing others. Your Uncle also sets you on the path toward drug dealing, and you’ll be making quite a few deals and contacts along the way. For a bit of extra money on the side you can also partake in a few odd jobs: picking up taxi fares, doing tattoo work at the local parlor, or undertaking random missions you find along the way. The mini-games are surprisingly a lot of fun, and short enough to not feel intrusive on the main storyline.
Rockstar took the game towards a graphic novel look that looks great on the iPhone, and fits the content it represents. Even though the screen resolution is high and the graphics can look pretty, squeezed into such a small space as the iPhone’s screen really makes it difficult to tell to begin with. You can’t really do much about that, though, and I’d rather carry my small-screened cell phone around than lug a clunky mess. The graphic novel similarities do not end just with the artistic visual qualities; you’ll also be reading cut scenes as opposed to listening to them. As I often don’t use headphones with my iPhone, and keep gaming on silent, I didn’t mind this at all. Perhaps the only reason you’d want to listen to the game is for the radio stations, which are medial at best.
If you’ve played the DS
version of GTA: Chinatown Wars, you’ll find essentially the same game minus a few control tweaks to fit the new device as well as some missing audio. The touch screen controls were surprisingly reliable for the most part. While most games in general seem to have a difficult time perfecting driving controls, I actually found the Chinatown Wars controls to be sturdy. You direct where your car is meant to go, and the game will align your car on the road. Walking was actually more of an issue for me. With touch controls, you direct a virtual joystick in the direction you want to walk. It was easy to get stuck in a corner you couldn’t jump out of. This also makes picking up loot a difficult procedure while trying to direct your joystick in what always turns into giving vague instructions.
To keep on track of your missions and updates, Chinatown Wars comes with a built in PDA with full access to your email. The interface was really sleek and perfect for the iPhone. You can swipe your finger in the menu to access the other tools, making it feel like a real PDA device. You can access your GPS with all points of interests noted, your brief containing all recent HUD text updates, your game statistics, and many other useful in-game tools.
Some of GTA’s gameplay rules can be more of an annoying obstacle than a challenging one. The cops, for instance, can be an incredible nuisance. I like their presence because it reminds me that I’m in a somewhat civilized city committing crimes and escaping not just other gangs, but also the force of the law. At the same time, however, even scratching their car on the freeway will get a star in my HUD and my tires burning in my escape. In such a tiny screen that is so unforgiving, this situation becomes all too familiar.
Although I didn’t mind the driving controls, I still wish there wasn’t as much driving involved. Being that this is an iPhone game, and that I’m most likely to be on the train somewhere in the real Liberty City while playing it, driving to each destination can become a time consuming matter. There should have been a teleport option after receiving an email of a mission for the iPhone version. Missions that require driving skills are perfectly acceptable, but for mere travel purposes it seems excessive for a cell phone game.
Otherwise, however, Rockstar knew pretty well that this is a portable game as evidenced by the gameplay. Every mission is a fairly short one, giving me enough time to finish it between stops on my train and therefore making the ride a satisfying one. Playing a console GTA title for 5 minutes will probably give you enough time for a conversation with your next target, but Chinatown Wars for 5 minutes is enough to get through an entire mission. Make no mistake – the game is by no means a short one, providing more than enough game time to warrant the price of $9.99.
Chinatown Wars brings the idea of progression to iPhone games. Most iPhone games that I’ve played don’t have much of a concept of progression, especially nowhere near the degree that Chinatown Wars does. There is an extensive storyline to get through in this game, much like the other GTA titles. Rockstar and the GTA franchise bring the same experience of storyline to the iPhone, with solid gameplay that is finally making use of the iPhone’s title of an upcoming gaming device. As opposed to most iPhone games that have one gameplay concept, Chinatown Wars brings the same versatility that you know from the GTA franchise. If you want to play a real game on the iPhone, Chinatown Wars is one such game to consider.