Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Reviewed by Brandy Shaul
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-05-06 Nintendo DS Action/Adventure M (Mature) Rockstar Leeds

When looking at the handheld side of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, the quality of games has been pretty hit or miss. While the two "Stories" titles for the PSP more than adequately represented the brand, Grand Theft Auto Advance for the GBA did the exact opposite, and tarnished the name by trying to combine the same top-down perspective found in the very first Grand Theft Auto with the more modern elements that made the PS2 versions excel.

When all was said and done, GTA Advance was a sloppy, boring title that was easily forgotten, so perhaps that's why it took so long to see another title in the franchise return to the same top-down formula. Whatever the reason, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is the game GTA Advance should have been: a shining, fantastically addictive addition to the ultimate open-world franchise.

Chinatown Wars, set in Liberty City, presents the story of Huang Lee, the spoiled heir to a Triad fortune who finds himself stripped of his silver platter when his father is killed. With the death of his father, Lee's uncle Kenny claims possession of a family heirloom in the form of a sword, but as Lee attempts to deliver said sword to his uncle, he is robbed, beaten and left for dead. Thus begins Huang's journey to not only restore his family name and retrieve the missing sword, but also to learn how to defend himself in a world totally unlike the lap of luxury with which he is familiar.

From the outset, it is readily apparent that Chinatown Wars was built specifically with the Nintendo DS's capabilities in mind, as the title incorporates dozens of touch-screen elements that allow you to perform most of the tactile actions one would with their hands in the real world.

For example, you launch projectiles by dragging the stylus in the direction you wish to throw a grenade or Molotov (regular weapons fire is done via the A button, with the right trigger letting you lock on), with lifting the stylus causing your throw to be carried out. You can tap on a large weapon icon to switch to any of your weapons on the fly (the game even pauses so that you are not pummeled by enemies as you try to choose between a machine gun and a flamethrower), you control cranes by tapping on levers and buttons to activate the crane's magnets, slashing motions allow you to cut open the interior of rival gangs' vans in search of drugs and other contraband, and the list goes on an on.

Most notably, however, the touch screen serves as the home of Lee's PDA system, the remarkably handy and complex tool that allows you to control almost every aspect of the game with a simple tap of the stylus.

The PDA acts as everything from your GPS and map of Liberty City to your email browser, and even lets you save at any time while outside of a mission, making escaping the cops a thing of the past, as you can simply save the game and restart at the nearest safe house to end the chase, all of your weapons and cash intact. For adrenaline junkies, you still have the option of escaping the old fashioned way, by either eliminating the police cars that are chasing you or by using the familiar Paint-N-Sprays that are scattered throughout Liberty City's islands.

As Huang completes missions, the PDA's circular map is presented on the left side of the touch screen, and displays a color-coded line pointing you in the correct direction depending on the mission type you are currently engaged in. Missions primarily utilize yellow lines, while drug deals (that is, ones that are performed outside of missions proper) are blue, with green being thrown in when traveling to certain noteworthy locations in the city like bomb-shops.

As the environment in Chinatown Wars has resorted back to the top-down camera angle of games past, this GPS system is absolutely vital to your exploration of the city, as you are only privy to a small amount of geographical data at once, and knowing when and where a turn will pop up is a great addition.

That being said however, you are also allowed to change the game's settings through the PDA to provide you with a visible dashed line on the top screen, which serves the same purpose as the map below. If you choose this option, your ability to make it from one side of the city to the next with a car that isn't about to explode increases greatly, as you no longer have to resort to constantly looking from screen to screen so as to not miss your next turn.

Aside from informing you of when you have a new email (new emails equal new missions being available), your PDA is also your central hub for anything related to Chinatown War's most addictive feature: the drug trade. Very early on in the game, you are introduced to the fact that most gangs in Liberty City only got to their current level by dealing in the illegal import/export arts, most notably the trade of cocaine, heroine, ecstasy, downers, weed and acid.

There are 80 drug dealers scattered throughout Liberty City, all of which must be found and communicated with before they are registered in your PDA, making them available for easy access later on. Each dealer is also associated with one of the gangs in the game, with each gang having a specialty over two drugs: one they will always have available to sell, and one that they are always willing to purchase at a higher price than other dealers.

As with any market, supply and demand play a role in the drug trade, with dealers frequently emailing you tips as to what drug they are in desperate need of or which they need to unload quickly. By playing your cards correctly, it's entirely possible, and highly probable to make over $50,000 with just one of these "I need" tips, as you can buy every pound of the stuff in the city only to sell it to the particular dealer who tipped you off for likely somewhere around 10x the price you paid.

While the drug trade is a fantastic way to spend one's time, and is in fact so addictive that it's downright frightening, a GTA game wouldn't be complete without the standard missions that make the game what it is. As one would expect, the major players in the game are all labeled on the map with a letter, and demand that you come work for them at various instances throughout the story.

As Liberty City is full of multiple Triad bosses who wish to take control of the whole lot, the majority of your time will be spent working one boss against another all in the name of money, drugs, and revenge over the person(s) who tried to have you killed. The story takes twists and turns as any Grand Theft Auto title should, and is filled with not only the standard mission types of picking up and delivering objects, but also complex raids on rival warehouses, races of both the car and motorcycle varieties, and even Chinese themed celebrations that see you dressed up as a fire-breathing dragon and responding to cues on the touch screen.

No matter the size of the DS itself, Liberty City is as large as ever in Chinatown Wars, causing transportation from one island to the next to be quite the daunting task. Luckily, most anything with wheels is ready for the taking, with a new alarm system adding in even more DS-centric elements, such as unscrewing a wire cover and hotwiring a car, or lodging a screwdriver in the ignition to force it to start. These actions are all timed, forcing you to perform each before the car alarm is set off, thereby alerting any police officers in the vicinity that you are being a naughty boy.

Driving is an interesting experience considering the game's top-down perspective, but with the majority of the environment (people, vehicles, trees, dumpsters, etc.) being rendered in complete 3-D, depth isn't affected as greatly as you might anticipate. B lets you accelerate, with Y causing you to break, while steering can be saved mostly for the corners, as the game comes equipped with steer assistance, which will automatically align the front of the car to run parallel to the road. Granted, simply holding down the gas pedal will probably cause you to hit all of the cars in your same lane, but this can normally be avoided by driving with your car on the center line of both lanes.

If you wish to utilize a legal means of transportation, you can also hire taxis by either whistling into the DS's mic or hold down the X button to hail a cab. Taxis will take you to any location marked in your GPS, whether it be a drug dealer, a mission location, a safe house, and so on.

One surprising fact about this DS version of the title is that the soundtrack is unexpectedly deep, and while only comprised of instrumental music, is just as customizable as basically every other aspect of the game, allowing you to choose from multiple genres (rock, rap, R&B, Latin, etc.) by simply tapping on the radio icon on the touch screen while you are driving a car.

Also, even though dialogue is sparse, normally saved for one-liners delivered by police officers, drug dealers, and random pedestrians, the cutscenes themselves are of a surprisingly high quality, with the mostly stationary pictures (accompanied by white text) being highly detailed representations of each character and environment within the game.

As if all of the above wasn't enough to pique your interest in a return trip to Liberty City, the game's wireless capabilities are sure to seal the deal, by allowing you to send messages to friends, let them in on your favorite GPS locations and even trade items.

With almost 20 hours of gameplay coming from the regular missions alone, along with an incredibly deep drug trafficking mini-game, dozens of unique touch-screen abilities, an intricate and immersive storyline, rampages, street races, and the ability to purchase real-estate all over Liberty City, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is not at a lack for content. If you either own or have access to a DS, you simply owe it to yourself to experience this gem of a game, which is easily one of the best in the entire DS library.


Special thanks to Nicholas Patterson for providing a copy of this title.