Nintendo fans have missed out on the Grand Theft Auto experience this generation, but no longer; Rockstar Leeds has developed Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, exclusively for the Nintendo DS. In many ways, this is a definitive Grand Theft Auto experience that fans of the series cannot afford to miss; despite the transition to the dual-screen handheld after the grandiose and gigantic Grand Theft Auto IV, Chinatown Wars still comes off as impressive even before taking the hardware it’s on into account.
After New York Comic Con, we covered the game in detail and claimed that it may have been the best title showcased at the convention. More time in Liberty City has done nothing to detract from that opinion, as this is easily one of the top games available from the diverse and deep Nintendo DS library. Rockstar Leeds took many aspects from Grand Theft Auto’s impressive history, combining them together with new elements to create a game that sticks with the formula you expect from GTA titles but at the same time comes off as completely refreshing and unique.
Mar. 17, 2009
You play as Huang Lee, a member of the Triads whose father has just been killed in Hong Kong. He’s in Liberty City to deliver a sword-Yu Jian-to his Uncle Kenny, who is vying to become the new leader of the Triads. Huang is ambushed by unknown assailants along the way, and is thought to be dead. You are tasked with finding out where the sword has gone and who killed your father, and like in any Grand Theft Auto game, you will meet a cast of characters with missions for you to carry out on your way to reaching these goals.
While the story is good enough, it’s certainly one of the weaker parts of the title, especially when compared to other recent GTA games. “Weaker” is a relative term though, as almost everything else works incredibly, and there is so much to do outside of the story that you would be forgiven for ignoring your Uncle Kenny’s wishes for hours at a time.
Despite what screens have led you to believe, this game is fully 3D, and seen from an aerial perspective. The camera rotates at 360 degrees, showing off the 3D models and interactive environment. The little things, like mail boxes, street signs and lamp posts all use realistic physics to react to your crashing and bumping into them. You will crash into a car, and that car will flip through the air just like it would on a home console-this is the moment where you realize just how powerful Chinatown Wars is graphically, despite being on the DS.
Chinatown Wars uses a semi cel-shaded style that works very well on the system, and cutscenes, though told through text and character portraits, have that trademark GTA art style down, and they work effectively. Though characters and cars may appear small at first, you shouldn’t lost track of what’s going on, and you can tell what is happening on screen. Driving, for example, is easier than you think it would be given you are using a directional pad; your car can auto-align to center itself, and you can use the shoulder buttons as brakes to make turns more effectively. You can also set your GPS routes to appear on the city roads themselves, which is useful while learning your way around the city-I know I’m always overwhelmed the first few times I boot up a GTA game and have to find my way around-and also for those who don’t want to keep an eye on two screens at once.
Rockstar promised this would be the most action-intensive GTA we have seen, and they were not lying. Everything happens very fast, with more arcade influence than some of the game’s console cousins; there are tons of explosions, bullets, police officers, gang members, fires-if it’s dangerous, there’s a lot of it around Liberty City. Ridiculous weapons like the flamethrower and chainsaws are back, and they are a blast to use, especially when you start to get cornered by gang members jumping out of speedy cars. Missions will see you accomplishing a variety of tasks, but there is an emphasis on taking down entire groups of gang members before they can get you, as well as high speed car chases where guns are fired and Molotov Cocktails are tossed out windows to slow your pursuers. If it’s action you are looking for, I’m happy to report that Chinatown Wars delivers in spades. Even better, you can now replay any mission you have completed by checking out the white board in your apartment; you are able to improve your times and scores on these missions from here, which can then be uploaded, along with the rest of your stats, to the Rockstar Social Club, where Rockstar will hold contests for prizes. Those who participate in the Rockstar Social Club will also have access to some exclusive missions down the line, a nice bonus and incentive to keep playing.
What really ups the action in Chinatown Wars though is the new police evasion system. Rather than simply outrun the cops when you cause trouble, you must now actively engage them to impede their chase. When you get a single star (or are back down to one star) you can utilize the old system of laying low, but you will find yourself in far more trouble than that given the level of action in this game. In those cases, you will need to “disable” the cop cars by ramming into them, causing them to crash into buildings, walls, other cars, or just smashing them around with your vehicle while at high speeds. This kind of turns things around, making you more of the hunter than you are used to. Remember, the goal is not to blow up or destroy the cars, so don’t think you will be off the hook by tossing hand grenades out the window at oncoming cruisers. Instead, you just need to get rid of those who are chasing you by taking out their vehicles-they can’t very well catch up with you if they are on foot and you are in a sports car.