Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Review

By Patrick Klepek - Posted Oct 19, 2009

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars may not have sparked the revolution in mature games for the DS that Nintendo and Rockstar Games were bracing for, but the sales numbers are largely irreverent to me; Chinatown Wars was one of the best games I've played all year and I'm thrilled Rockstar decided to bring it elsewhere. PSP owners are in for a treat, even if the transition to Sony's handheld proves a little rocky.

The Pros
  • The best portable Grand Theft Auto yet
  • A fresh take on GTA, both modern and old school
  • You'll never run out of things to do
The Cons
  • The DS stylus mini-games don't translate well
  • Controls are sometimes a little awkward
  • Graphics are pretty, have lost some style

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars may not have sparked the revolution in mature games for the DS that Nintendo and Rockstar Games were bracing for, but the sales numbers are largely irreverent to me; Chinatown Wars was one of the best games I've played all year and I'm thrilled Rockstar decided to bring it elsewhere. PSP owners are in for a treat, even if the transition to Sony's handheld proves a little rocky.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

A Little Old School Never Hurt

PSP has received a steady flow of love from the Grand Theft Auto series, but it's always come in the form of spin-offs doing their best to fit the epic console experience onto the machine. Chinatown Wars was born with different intentions, instead adopting many of the smart design decisions born from the modern Grand Theft Auto games melded with the stylistic approach of the series' meager beginnings. In short, there's less focus on story, the view is overhead and there's an emphasis on having a thousand different things you could be doing at any one given moment. It's perfect for a handheld, DS or PSP.

Chinatown Wars's bold, dark lines and cartoonish appearance worked great on the DS, but it was obvious much of the art was born out of the limitations of the hardware. On the PSP, Rockstar was liberated from such restraints and the result is mixed. The higher-resolution certainly provides a much slicker look for Chinatown Wars, but Rockstar largely ditched the cartoon design, except for the in-game characters, which still sport the trademark look from the DS. Debatable artistic decisions aside, however, it's still a worthwhile trade-off, as Chinatown Wars looks drop dead gorgeous on the PSP.

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Dude, Where's My Stylus?

What didn't translate so well, unfortunately, are the numerous stylus-driven mini-games scattered throughout the game. Instead of ditching them entirely, Rockstar retooled them to work with the traditionally imprecise analog nub as a replacement. It's a forced, awkward solution that hinders the game's otherwise breakneck pace. The mini-games pop up when you encounter a car that needs to be hot wired, tattoo fellow gang members, dump gasoline into bottles to form Molotov cocktails and other criminal misdeeds. The tattooing mini-game proves the worst offender, as the game judges your accuracy in moving the PSP's analog nub in precise circular movements. That's an especially hard task for the nub. Chinatown Wars would have benefited from simply removing them.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

It's All Good, Man

But here's why the stylus blunders aren't such a big deal: that's my biggest complaint about Chinatown Wars. Everything else about that made it such a phenomenal success story on the DS -- the time sink that is the game's optional drug running assignments, a welcomed return to the frantic and chaotic open world unpredictability sadly missing from Grand Theft Auto IV, a loving homage to a series' humble beginnings -- are still here. There are missteps, ones borne out of Rockstar Leeds taking a game specifically built for one platform and planting it onto another, but none of them are deal breakers.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars still comes highly recommended. Rockstar is a company who constantly enjoys pushing the envelope, but in this case, restraint proved fruitful. What would be unfortunate is if Rockstar's chief takeaway from the Chinatown Wars experiment was that it's a gamble not worth taking again. It's worth proving to them that's not the case.