NEW YORK — We’ve all seen screens for Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars since it was first announced at E3. Many of us had this image in our heads that since it was going on the DS, it was going to be like the old-school GTA games, the top-down viewpoint with less story and a completely different kind of game than the recent epics we are used to dealing with. Take those thoughts, put them in a pile, and toss a flaming Molotov cocktail on top of them, because all of us who thought that were wrong.
Rockstar Leeds has done something that from the outset seems impossible: they have created a Grand Theft Auto title for the DS that is as action-packed and engaging as its console cousins. Just because the game is called “Chinatown Wars” and focuses on the Triads doesn’t mean you’re stuck in that area; you will visit the other Liberty City locales you remember from GTA IV such as Dukes, Bohan, Broker and Algonquin. The world is also fully realized, as the AI citizens wandering around are not doing so aimlessly; they are all individually programmed to have lives and jobs, and if you were to follow one all day after they left their house you would see them go to work, drive to do errands, then head home at the end of the day to start it again the next one. Impressive work considering the hardware limitations of the platform, for sure.
Graphically, it looks like one of the most impressive and ambitious titles on the handheld, as Rockstar Leeds has put together the game in full 3D and without the use of repeating textures. You can rotate the camera 360 degrees, the cartoon rendering is done live and is generated in render time, and the art style used for the game is wonderful; the concept art in advertisements that you have seen is what this game’s style looks like. Chinatown Wars looks great in motion, far better than the screens have led many of us to believe.
Let’s start with the story. You play as Huang Lee, who enjoys the splendors of the Triad life without any of the bloodshed as a spoiled and rich member of the family. His father is assassinated in Hong Kong, so Lee shows up in Liberty City to deliver the Yu Jian, a sword his father says has been in the family for generations, to his uncle, who wants to use the sword’s status as a way of becoming the leader of the Triads in Liberty City. Things go awry when Lee shows up at the airport though, as he is shot in the head and dumped in the river after an ambush.
You set out to solve the mystery of your father’s assassination, in the hopes of finding out why it happened and also to secure your large inheritance. Part of what makes this inheritance portion of the story work is the fact that will not be a millionaire walking around the streets of Liberty City halfway through the game; you are going to need to perform a lot of missions in order to earn cash, and you will need that cash to get through the game. This helps keep you going and motivated to perform more missions and progress through the story.
Story is important, but you want to know more about the features, or why you should pay attention to this game when it releases. Taking the idea of the cell phone one step further, you now have use of an In-game PDA, thanks to the touch screen and the stylus capabilities of the Nintendo DS. You receive e-mails, use it as a GPS and map system, a music player, your contacts database, and as a resource for the trade-information that you will need to follow thanks to the inclusion of the in-game economy. The PDA is also used to send messages to your friends over the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection, something we will get to later.
That in-game economy has to do with the drug market you have been thrown into. Huang Lee will sell drugs-six different types, actually-and prices fluctuate, meaning you need to know when and how much to sell in order to make the biggest profit. You get a boost from sales if you sell in an area surveyed by police cameras, but you can also take the cameras out as a way to help reach 100% completion.
Thankfully, if you want to remember where those cameras are, you can mark them on your map for later. Not just the cameras though, as you can mark whatever points of interest you find on the map for future reference, and then set paths to them just like you could in GTA IV. This makes gaming on the go a cinch, and also makes navigating the streets of Liberty City a breeze.