Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
By Graham Jones
A list of things you are never going to see in the world of videogames:
1. Nintendo is going to come back from the brink of hardware sales disaster and deliver the most popular home console of the generation, which will outsell both Microsoft and Sony machines despite being nowhere near as powerful.
2. Arch rivals Mario and Sonic will put their previous console wars behind them and team up for an official Olympic Games title and maybe even a sequel.
3. Nintendo will allow Rockstar to produce a fully fledged 3D interpretation of their ultra-violent, socially corrupting, sandbox-based crime spree series on the family-friendly DS system. Oh, and this entry into the Grand Theft Auto series will have a particularly strong emphasis on drug dealing.
Hold on a second…
Despite Nintendo’s console possessing a reputation for child-friendly and family-orientated games, Rockstar Leeds and Rockstar North have delivered the handheld’s most mature title to date, bringing sex, violence, drug trafficking and all the usual staples of GTA’s sandbox gameplay to the dual-screened console. Contrary to what you many may think, this is actually not the first game in the series to arrive on a Nintendo portable (both Gameboy Colour and Advance saw old school, top-down editions a la the PC and PlayStation originals) – though it still came as a shock to many that a console on which they‘re used to petting puppies and training their brains will now allow gamers to shoot down prostitutes in cold blood before venturing on a Molotov cocktail rampage. This is even more surprising because Rockstar Leeds has managed to squeeze GTA IV’s stunning version of Liberty City (albeit minus Alderney) onto a tiny DS cartridge. The result is breathtaking and is perhaps the ‘purest’ title in the series for years.
The developers have opted for a more cartoon-styled world to play out this particular tale of gang warfare, very much in keeping with the comic-book look of the series’ loading screens and box art. This is probably as much to do with the limited capability of the console as it is artistic license, but the result is an incredible rendition of the GTA universe. You’ll also notice that the action is viewed from a much higher angle than in previous 3D versions – again, probably to avoid the issues of poor draw distance caused by the lack of horsepower under the bonnet. From static screenshots this can give the impression that the gameplay will be much closer to the original top-down games of the 32 bit era, but once the game is seen in motion you realise that this is no backwards step; this is indeed a complete 3D Grand Theft Auto experience on your DS despite the clever design choices used to disguise the hardware limitations.
Hardware limitations however aren’t what define the grade-A titles on Nintendo’s handheld. It’s the hardware innovations that count, and in this particular field Rockstar have excelled themselves. One of the biggest criticisms aimed at GTA over the years has been the repetitive nature of the core missions on offer; drive to point A, kill person B, escape to point C and repeat to final credits. By utilising the unique aspects of the console, the developers have breathed new life into the tried and tested mission structure. Arming bombs, hotwiring cars, constructing sniper rifles and hacking security systems can all pop up in the middle of a task and involve simple yet satisfying use of the touch screen. Even hailing a taxi has a new twist, requiring the player to whistle at their console before climbing aboard. These features, which many people – myself included – thought would be a throwaway gimmick, actually prove to immerse the player further into the Liberty City underworld and succeed in providing a much wider variety of missions than in any previous title in the series.
The story revolves around Huang Lee who arrives in Liberty City from China to deliver Yu Jian – a priceless sword he inherited following his father’s murder – to his uncle, a local Triad boss. Before you can say Niko Bellić, Huang is attacked, his sword stolen and he’s locked in a car that’s been pushed into the river. After a touch screen-based escape, the standard GTA story unfolds, with plenty of twists and turns and the razor-sharp wit fans have grown to expect. While that’s all very enjoyable, it’s also something of a let down. Grand Theft Auto IV pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved through the power of a well-written script, brilliantly delivered dialogue and a truly compelling story. Chinatown Wars has had to ditch the voice acting set to well-directed, real-time cut scenes in favour of static, comic book-esque visuals with subtitles, and a narrative that fails to even come close to its predecessor in terms of both scope and level of emotional involvement. But then again, it never actually tries to rope you in on an emotional level. Chinatown Wars is quite happy to use its tale of Liberty City’s criminal underbelly to simply entertain and lead the player onto the next action-packed mission, and that is by no means a bad thing – especially when what is there can be hysterically funny.
If the manner in which the story is presented in this iteration of the GTA universe can be considered a step backwards, then the same could easily be levied at the way in which the game plays. This is a frantic action game just like the original title, but reworked to include all of the brilliance of the games since they went 3D. Backwards it may be, but its one hell of a lot of fun. It’s the perfect blend of gameplay styles which suits the medium of handheld gaming down to the ground. Missions are short and focused for when you’re just sneaking in a quick five minute burst of DS time, but the city is still there for exploring should you have a spare hour or ten. All of the usual GTA distractions are present; taxis, police cars, ambulances and fire trucks can all be hijacked in order to make some quick cash, as well as a few new side missions such as a Chinese takeaway delivery service and a tattoo parlour (yet more touch screen fun). You’ll need all the money you can get from these tasks as life’s pretty tough for Huang when he first arrives in town, and completing the main story missions doesn’t really pay all that well. If you want to be able to afford a stockpile of weapons and armour, you’re going to have to find a faster way of making money – and what better way to do that in Liberty City, than via the sincere and honest tradition of drug dealing?
The drug dealing side to Chinatown Wars is far from a side-mission or extra mini-game. It’s an integral part of the title and throws up a whole new ‘economic-narcotic-management-sim’ slant on the overall gameplay. The idea behind it is simple enough: drug dealers can be found throughout the city. Buy and sell when the prices are right in order to maximise your profits. Easy. Just don’t get caught.
You’ll be given tip-offs regarding which dealers are buying and selling certain drugs through your PDA system, which serves to replicate GTA IV’s mobile phone as your in-game menu system. It’s all arranged brilliantly using the touch screen and also allows you to check your email on the move, use the GPS to see where you’re going and you can even order more weapons through the Ammunation website which will be handily delivered to your nearest safe house.
As with just about every title in the series, however, there is one absolute star of the show who steals the spotlight and truly pulls you into the game world. In this case, it is of course Liberty City. A sandbox of this size and with this much detail really shouldn’t be possible on the DS. This is an open-world so gritty and believable that simply driving around and exploring all it has to offer can rob you of hours at a time. Anyone who has played through Niko Bellić’s story will feel instantly at home: while this isn’t a street for-street-replication of GTA IV’s Liberty City, it’s a very faithful representation with just about every landmark and point of interest you’d hope to see included all present and accounted for. This is a masterful achievement, one that’s worth the entrance fee alone.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is an incredible addition to the series. It heavily acknowledges what has gone before it, taking the best elements of both its 2D and 3D predecessors whilst breaking new boundaries with its clever use of the DS hardware and the drug dealing management side to the game. While the story fails to touch the high watermark left by it’s home console cousin, avoiding any attempt to affect the player emotionally, it does manage to raise a smile now and then and succeeds in driving the action forwards towards it’s fantastic Mexican standoff finale. There is so much depth to this game I can’t believe it’s on a handheld system – and I’ve not even mentioned the brilliant new police chases, or the rival gang bases, street races, buying new safe houses, scratch cards, stunt jumps, security cameras… This list really could go on and on. When you’ve closed your DS mid-game, for example, re-opening it causes a shout of, “D’you wanna piece of ma pie?” Genius.
So here’s something I really never expected to see in the world of videogames. The best game on a Nintendo system doesn’t feature Mario or Zelda; it’s not even a first-party title. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is without doubt the finest game available for the DS. It’s adult, violent, shocking and crude, but above all else it’s an absolute riot. Isn’t that what carjacking, drug dealing and shooting hookers is all about?