Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Review

posted 11/11/2009 by Cyril Lachel
other articles by Cyril Lachel
One Page Platforms: PSP
If you played the Nintendo DS version of the game then you no doubt know how important the touch screen mini-games are to the overall story.  Going into this PSP port I worried that the developers may have excised all of these mini-games.  Thankfully I was wrong.  Instead of touching the screen to hotwire cars and plant plastic explosives, you use the PSP's two trigger buttons and the analog nub.

This set-up works surprisingly well.  When I played the game on the Nintendo DS I was struck by how intrusive the constant touch screen events were.  Don't get me wrong, I loved the idea of having more interaction with the city, but the switching between the stylus and the D-pad drove me up the wall.  This time around I had a better time with these mini-games, thanks in large part to the fact that I didn't have to change the way I was holding the game system.  Even if you lose some of the gimmick of actually doing the actions, I'm not sure I would ever go back to the touch screen style of gameplay.


Even though I preferred the PSP approach to the mini-games, I worried that for some crucial missions this set-up wouldn't evoke the same stressful feelings the developers were going for in the original.  I'm glad to report that I was wrong about that, too.  In my review of the original Nintendo DS version I spoke of a mission where you had to race away from the Liberty City International Airport in an ambulance.  You were being chased by cops and tasked with keeping a very sick man alive.  The problem is that you constantly had to resuscitate this guy so that he didn't die, requiring you to take your hands off the steering wheel and peddles long enough to tap him back to life.  As you can imagine, this was stressful.  I was surprised when I found out that the PSP version of this (which featuring you using the shoulder buttons) is just as stressful, even if you don't have to move your hands.  It turns out that it's extremely hard to drive and tap the shoulder buttons at the same time.  Who knew?

Moving beyond the redone mini-games, I was happy to see that the graphics were improved over the Nintendo DS version.  While the DS version was certainly a good looking game, the small graphics and jaggy edges were sometimes hard on the eyes.  This PSP version, on the other hand, cleans all of the roughness up.  The game still looks like a Saturday morning cartoon version of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, but it looks about as good as it possibly can on a handheld game system.  The comic book-style cinemas pop off of the PSP's widescreen display and you'll see detail you never knew was there.

At the same time the game looks considerably different from that of Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories.  Instead of trying to ape Grand Theft Auto III, Chinatown Wars feels like a beefed up version of first two Grand Theft Auto games.  While not told from a completely overhead point of view, the game certainly has a more bird's eye view of the action.   The graphics are simple; it definitely has a different vibe from most of the other games in the series.  But I like that.  In some ways I actually prefer the way this game looks over the older PSP outings.  Given the system's lack of a second analog stick and missing buttons, this Grand Theft Auto felt a lot more manageable on the PSP.  Still, recent fans of the series may find jumping into Chinatown Wars to be a jarring experience.


What I was struck by while playing through Chinatown Wars a second time is how much fun most of the missions are.  After putting so much time into so many different Grand Theft Auto games it's easy to become complacent with the series.  I'm so used to having to go kill this guy or go steal that car or rescue somebody from a bad guy.  You always know what you're getting into with these types of games, so sometimes it feels like you're just going through the same motions in a different city.  That's not the case with Chinatown Wars.  Oh sure, there are a few missions that have you doing the cliche Grand Theft Auto stuff, but there's a surprising amount of diversity in this game.  Plus, the missions are only a few minutes long, so you can play through a lot of different types of missions all within a short amount of time.

Unfortunately while running these missions I was reminded about one thing I could never overcome while playing the Nintendo DS original - the awkward driving controls.  For a game all about exploring a huge city you would think there would be better vehicle handling.  But for some odd reason this is not a skill I have mastered.  Most of the cars go way too fast, making it hard to swerve around obstacles without taking a significant amount of damage.  Usually this isn't a problem, but I found myself plowing into my fair share of cop cars, which meant that I had to battle them and take my wanted level down.  And you can forget about the motorcycle, I might as well just walk out in the middle of traffic.  My only recourse seemed to be taking the taxi cab everywhere.
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