Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Review

By Rob Manuel - Posted Mar 18, 2009

In this X-Play Review, we take a look 'Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars' as the classic smash and grab franchise comes to the Nintendo DS.

The Pros
  • Immense city to explore and wreck havoc on
  • Remarkable camera and controls
  • Fun mini-games
  • Multiplayer gameplay
The Cons
  • Hard to use both controls and stylus at the same time
  • No online multiplayer

When word got out that Grand Theft Auto was making a leap to the small screens, it raised more than a few eyebrows. The idea looked great on paper – taking one of the best selling series and bringing it to one of the best selling platforms. The duel screen diva, however, hasn’t seen much in the way of salacious content since Pokemon procreation, and GTA’s idea of “catching them all” usually involved chlamydia, syphilis, or a restraining order. Developers could have simply taken any one of their successful titles, made a junior version of it, and called it a day. Thankfully, they didn’t.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars demonstrates how a great concept can translate to any platform and still feel fresh. This newest installment of the drive and gun series isn’t just a great game for any fan of the GTA, it’s a title that any DS owner (over the age of 17) should have in their collection.

A Boy and His Sword (And a City Full of Drug Dealers)

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown WarsYou begin the game as Huang Lee, a spoiled rich kid, as he flies to Liberty City after the death of his father, a local Triad boss. Along with a sack of attitude, Huang brings a sword for uncle to appease all the rivals for throne left open by the recent death. After two steps off the plane, a shot to the head, and stolen sword, Huang is fighting for his life as he tries to escape from the back of a car sinking into the river. There’s a somewhat familiar city above the water. You’ll run into a world filled with drug-crazy cops, psycho family members, and practically everyone vying to become the new Triad boss.

Gone are the fully animated, celebrity-voiced cutscenes that have been a staple of the series since it left the second dimension. Chinatown Wars uses stills with a little motion. While this may disappoint some fans, I am happy to report that the DS hasn’t dulled GTA’s signature sharp wit or ability to mold interesting characters. Even if tiny text isn’t your idea of compelling literature, a simple hit of the start button can skip you past any part of the story.

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Getting a New Perspective on Things

The developers at Rockstar Games understand GTA better than anyone else. The look, the feel, and truly, the fun of the series makes its presence felt in this new iteration of the series. Back in the local of the previous title, you’ll feel like you never left. You’ll catch glimpses of your favorite spots, careen through Star Junction, and notice the different looks of all the boroughs (minus Alderney) that you remember. As before, you’ll race around the town avoiding getting pulled by the police while handling the mob’s dirty work. Keep your eye on the road, a finger on the trigger, and you’ll be a step closer to finding your father’s killer and make a little money on the side.

Anyone familiar with the series will notice the change of view with the camera hovering over our hero rather than just behind him. Developers borrow an idea from the first couple of titles, but the change in view never feels like a step back. It works by giving you a wider view of the action in all direction. Adjusting the camera is as simple a press of a button. Even in hot pursuit, the camera whips around so that you are always driving towards the top of the screen. On foot, the cursor snaps to the nearest target or can be switched on the fly.  There are rare moments in missions that require you to juggle a couple of tasks at once – such a trying to drive an ambulance being pursued by police cruisers and trying to keep a man alive in the backseat. Having to rely on both controls and a stylus just get through an event like this can get rather cumbersome. Fortunately, these instances are few and far between.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Fun

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown WarsMoney makes the virtual world go around. There are a number of smaller jobs you can pick up throughout the game to get a quick buck here and there. Street races, transporting customers as a cabbie, or even stopping a little crime are all tried and true ways to get a little of that green. If you happen to have a steady hand, you might want to try to tattoo a couple of willing customers as you fill in the drawing on the touch screen. Rampage missions make a come back if killing is more of your thing. Players will try to reach a high score with unlimited ammo and limited time. The only problem comes from having to find these killing sprees littered throughout the city. And even if none of this sounds interesting to you, you can spend you time scratching lottery tickets, pulling over specially marked vans, or go for the big bucks by handling drugs.

You never sell to drug users, but only act as the middleman in this citywide scheme. You’ll start the game being introduced to a couple of dealers, but the rest of them keep quiet until you find them scattered about the city. For such an easy twist to the fetch quest, dealing with drugs can be a complicated business. Areas on the map get marked off for certain groups who have their own demon of choice – some try to push acid while other are trying to bring in cocaine. Dealers tell you what they have as well as indicate how much profit you can potentially make with every transaction. Daily emails indicate when a certain dealer is trying to unload a kilo or looking to buy big. Hit them right and it’s big money. Get caught and you’ll lose your pocketed stash as well as a wad of cash. This little twist to the game actually provides a new level of depth by combining one of GTA’s signature strengths (driving and avoiding police) with strategy (risk vs. reward).

Getting from one dealing to the next won’t be easy, but this DS title has a way around that. Touch the map on the bottom screen and you can bring up a whole map of the city. Double tap on a location or a person will map you the shortest route to it. You’ll have to juggle your attention between the screens, but Chinatown Wars finally makes it easy to navigate this behemoth of a city. If you’re feeling really lazy, you can pull up your destination from a menu. No searching needed.

Touch Me Down There

Still not convinced? One of the big hesitations about the series jumping to the Nintendo DS was inclusion of touching mini-games that would certainly appear in its shift to the smaller screens. Anyone who thinks that using a touch screen is “kiddy” has certainly never lobbed moltovs with a simple flick or chucked boxes out of a moving truck. The game makes you think twice about stealing parked cars since any one of them could hide a security system or an ignition that needs hacking. While not all the mini-game are golden (try tossing money into the tollbooth), most of them are varied enough and show enough innovation that other companies making DS titles should take note.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown WarsMaybe you’re getting tired of sending cop cars to their fiery doom. (Yes, causing the police following you to crash can now lower your wanted level. This is just another little twist in the franchise that adds that keeps old mechanics fun.) You and a friend can get together to wreck havoc on the city or each other in some multiplayer goodness. Games range from the standard race to defending a base from wave after wave of goons. Unfortunately, you and your buddy will have to be in the same room to share in the action. If you are looking to share in some info and items, Chinatown Wars allows for players to email, send weapons, or even send favorite locations to other friends as long as you have their codes. And even if you have no friends to speak of, Rockstar Games Social Club is open for business by letting you post stats, high scores (from the replay mission mode – another new feature), and possibly open up additional content once you finish the game. This would make for a lengthy console game, let alone a handheld one.

Number One with a Bullet

It’s a great comfort to know that Rockstar Games not only makes great games, but understands what makes them great. Chinatown Wars is the culmination of years of work as well as the spirit of ingenuity to bring one of the biggest series to the smallest screen. Nothing in the game feels half done or forced. If anything, the game feels like a development team having fun with a concept. Everything from being able to ram police cars, rampage missions, the touch screen mini-games, and even the story has this sense of fun underlining every bullet fired. Even if you are not a fan of the series, you will be doing yourself a favor by taking this tiny terror out for a spin.

Article Written by: Rob Manuel
Produced by: Ben Winter