Review: GTA: Chinatown Wars (Nintendo DS)
by Matt Yeager on March 30, 2009


GTA Chinatown Wars
Genre: Action
Developer: Rockstar Leeds/Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: 03/17/2009

When it was announced that Rockstar would be releasing a GTA game for the Nintendo DS, I was more than skeptical about how well the game would turn out. With still fresh memories of GTA Advance burned into my brain, I worried about just how much they would have to cut in order to fit the GTA experience onto a two screen portable system. Heck, the spin-off games on the PSP were only decent and on a portable platform that is technically more powerful. I assumed there was no way they could accomplish such a feat on the DS.

I was very, very wrong. In many ways GTA: Chinatown Wars isn’t just a good GTA game – it’s possibly the best GTA game ever.

Now I’m getting ahead of myself.

The game starts off with Huang Lee, the son of a recently murdered Triad boss that is flying into Liberty City to deliver a sword called Yu Jian to his Uncle Wu “ËœKenny’ Lee. His motivation for coming to Liberty City is simple, deliver the sword and find out who was behind his father’s murder. Things become complicated when Huang is ambushed then kidnapped after getting off of the plane. He survives but the sword is stolen, a fact that angers his Uncle Kenny as he was planning to use the sword to gain favor with the Triad leader Hsin Jaoming in order to be named as Hsin’s replacement. During the course of the story Huang does favors for his Uncle, and also gets caught up in a power struggle between different Triad bosses who are trying to gain favor with Hsin.

When I wrote the review for The Lost and Damned, I mentioned that I was not a fan of the change in tone between the older GTA games and the more recent ones. I liked the dark comedy of the prior titles over the serious tone of GTAIV. Lucky for me, Chinatown Wars is a return to the over the top dark comedy of the past titles and while it may not be the strongest story in a GTA game, it is certainly enjoyable to watch it unfold over the course of the game.

There are only a few miss-steps to the story. During the game Huang accepts missions from various people in the usual method of this style of game, only most of the time the characters treat Huang like he’s just some punk. At the beginning of the game this makes sense as Huang is meant to be the spoiled rich some of a gangster. However, after several events in the game, I would’ve assumed that Huang would’ve earned some more respect. Huang just accepts these insults and replies with sarcasm since he determined to do whatever to find out what happened to his father. This is one area the Grand Theft Auto series needs to find a way around. Whether it’s Niko Bellic, Carl Johnson, Tommy Vercetti, etc, having characters treat them like errand boys despite the fact that they might’ve just killed half the population of the city doesn’t make sense. There has got to be a better way of setting up missions than this.

The story is told through comic book style panels in an art style that reminds me of some of the box art and loading screens of some of the past games. Even though they’re not in motion, these comic panels do a great job of conveying the message and emotion of the characters involved. Most of Huang’s dialog appears to be sarcasm, and since there is no voice work for these scenes it’s amazing how well the sarcasm is delivered. Take a look at almost any internet message board and you will see a lot of sarcasm that just isn’t delivered well in text. Between the comic panels and text it comes across perfectly.

The graphics for the game are also unique for a GTA game. Instead of the usual 3rd person camera that is situated slightly behind the character, in Chinatown Wars the camera rests somewhere between that perspective and a top down view, like what was in the older GTA games. The top down view of the first two GTA games worked at the time but is kind of awkward now. This camera angle that’s sort of in-between is a great compromise. It adds some of the nostalgia of the older games while keeping a clear view of the area. Given that the DS doesn’t have analog joysticks for camera angle correction and the fact that a closer view would require processing ability that would likely be beyond the DS capabilities for a city this size I can see why they chose to use this camera angle.

The game is also presented in 3D with cell-shaded graphics that have bold outlines. Chinatown Wars uses the same Liberty City that was in GTAIV, minus one island and with a compressed map, but don’t think that means this city is small. It’s huge. While the map isn’t street for street the same as you would find in GTAIV, there are a ton of recognizable landmarks; from the Statue of Happiness to specific areas of the city it’s fun to see areas that are familiar. Like the other games there are pedestrians walking around, a weather system, different traffic patterns and a large assortment of car models.

Given the size of the city, and how many enemies, explosions, etc that I’ve seen on the screen at the same time with little to no slowdown. I’m completely amazed at what they’ve been able to accomplish with the DS hardware just in a graphical sense.

Oh, here’s a tip: as soon as you start go to the options menu and select the option that let’s you turn on GPS arrows on the street. You will have a much easier time navigating the city this way.

While there is no speech in the cut scenes, that doesn’t mean the game is a let down in the audio area. There are five different radio stations, all acoustic but each with licensed tracks that all fit well whether you’re running from the police or just cruising around town. Pedestrians make a satisfying splat noise when you run over then and yell out things like, “But I’m still a virgin!” and other amusing quotes. Break through a glass bus stop and you’ll hear the sound of breaking glass, and the different guns have different sound effects. The only thing that bothered my ears was the sound of screeching tires; maybe that is just because I sped through the city, but it seemed like I was constantly listening to my tires squeal.

The heart of any GTA game is the gameplay and Rockstar Leeds absolutely nailed it in Chinatown Wars.

The game controls suitably well. B is for sprinting on foot, A is for shooting, Y is for enter a car, and X is for jumping/dodging. These are pretty much the same controls as when you are in a car, B is accelerate, Y to leave the vehicle, A to do a drive by shooting, and X to reverse. R button outside of a vehicle is for locking onto a target and in a car is to handbrake. The L button reset the camera behind the character or switches targets. It’s all very intuitive and mimics the control scheme of some of the previous GTA games.

The top screen displays the action and the bottom screen is reserved for PDA functions. This was a masterstroke on the developer’s part. A mini-map is displayed here, and much like GTAIV the left side of the map displays the health in green and the right side displays the status of any armor the character has. Double tap the map and it brings up a larger view. From there you can double tap to set destination markers or tap an objective to set GPS directions towards it. Using the touch screen you can also check out emails, which are the primary form of communication in this game, or you can also order weapons from Ammunition, and check your current statistics.

Chinatown Wars solves my biggest issue with GTAIV, namely the lack of mission variety. Using the touch screen to its fullest, Chinatown Wars features dozens of missions that all feel unique. One moment you might be using the touch screen to hotwire a car, and the next to use a crane to dispose of cars, arm a bomb, assemble a sniper rifle, fill bottles to make molotov cocktails, the list goes on and on. This is by far the best use of the DS’s touch screen that I’ve seen from any developer. The mission variety isn’t just from the touch screen functions either; most of the missions are creative and have interesting objectives. You might have to protect a couple from bikers or use sonar to find a lost drug shipment, it’s amazing all of the missions the developers have thought of and the different ways that they managed to add the touch screen to the experience. The only problem with this is that you pretty much are guaranteed to get your touch screen dirty since you’ll have to switch between the controls and the touch screen often for different objectives. It just takes far too long to take out the stylus again and again, and holding onto it while playing isn’t a great alternative.

There is plenty to do outside of the missions as well. One of the new additions to the GTA formula in Chinatown Wars is the addition of a mini-game that’s a lot like the game DrugWars. Outside of the main missions, you can buy and sell drugs from up to 80 different dealers that are spread throughout the city. The best way to do this is to wait until a dealer notifies you that they have some drugs that are cheap so that you can buy low and sell high. This mini-game is pretty addictive and I’ve ignored missions just to run to another area of the city because a dealer notified me that there was a good price on heroin to be had.

Then there are all sorts of odd jobs to do. Were you angry about the fact that the Paramedic, Taxi, and Firefighter missions weren’t in GTAIV? Well, they are in Chinatown Wars along with vigilante missions, races, go-kart races, rampage missions, noodle delivery missions, and more. There is no lack of things to do in this portable version of Liberty City. Even with all of that there are extra things to do like missions for random people on the street, plus you can always dig through dumpsters or steal drug and Ammunation vehicles. Digging in dumpsters is occasionally worth it, though you’ll find a used condom as often as you’ll find a shotgun. Stealing an Ammunation vehicle is a good idea in theory to gain extra weapons, but the drivers are so well armed that it’s better to just leave them alone.

If you run out of things to do by yourself, there are a number of multiplayer modes as well. At least as long as you know someone with a copy of the game. Strangely the only online functions are to send messages, mark locations of interesting items on the map and trade some items. For this reason I was not able to test out the multiplayer functions for this review.

The game is well balanced. There aren’t any missions that are impossible to beat, though some missions are noticeably harder than others. Most of the time if you are stuck on a mission it merely requires ordering armor and better weapons through the Ammunation website.

Speaking of weapons, the assortment of different instruments of destruction puts many other GTA games to shame. Chainsaws, rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and more are available to waste everything in sight.

While laying waste to the city it’s important to note that there is a big difference in how the police respond in Chinatown Wars than in other GTA games. For one thing, they’re everywhere. It is almost hard to drive around the city without accidentally bumping into a police car, which increases your wanted level. Chinatown Wars is the first GTA game that allows you to fight back against the police. The wanted level is displayed in stars in the upper right hand corner, and disabling cop cars can reduce that wanted levels. If you have 3 stars, you can knock that down to two stars by taking out three cop cars. At two stars you’d need to knock out two cop cars and so on. This is just a fantastic system that I hope makes its way into the next console GTA as it makes police chases more exciting. It sort of feels like Burnout in a way as you’ll be looking for opportunities to check police cars into trees and buildings in order to disable them.

As I mentioned though, the police are everywhere. They’re walking around the street and cruising around in patrol cars. Once you get a wanted level they’ll try to do everything from running you off of the road to dragging you out of the vehicle you are driving.

Chinatown Wars is the best DS game I’ve had the chance to play on the system. I’ve barely put it down since the first time I’ve turned it on. The way it blends some of the nostalgia of the earlier games and at the same time makes significant steps to the usual formula, including a long overdue ability to replay previous missions, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars isn’t just a good portable version of the GTA series, it is one of the best GTA games ever made. Chinatown Wars takes what made many of the other GTA games great, removes all of the frustrating elements, and then takes the series further with some awesome new additions such as the ability to buy and sell drugs and the imaginative missions included in the overall package.

GTA: Chinatown Wars is not just a good GTA game, it is likely the best GTA game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played them all.

The Scores:

Story: Great
Graphics: Amazing
Sound: Incredible
Control/Gameplay: Unparalleled
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Unparalleled
Originality: Unparalleled
Addictiveness: Unparalleled
Appeal: Amazing
Miscellaneous: Unparalleled

Final Score: AMAZING GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
GTA: Chinatown Wars is an incredible addition to the DS library and is so good that I want Rockstar Leeds to make the next console game. Now matter how you cut it, Chinatown Wars is just more fun, has more variety and just more to do than the GTA game that’s available on current home consoles. The developers stretched the DS to the limits with this game, and much like San Andreas the only thing holding the game back from being any better is the limitations of the system it is on. Chinatown Wars is the best DS game I’ve ever played, period.




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Matt Yeager

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  • http://Diehardgamefan.com Aaron Sirois

    This is already probably the best year ever for the DS. The amount of AAA quality titles being released is ridiculous, and it’s only going to get better what with a new Zelda game coming out!

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