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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

(Rockstar Games; US: Mar 2009)

For many, the birth of the Grand Theft Auto franchise effectively occurred with Grand Theft Auto III.  While amusing in their own right, the early, top down games clearly lacked much of the interactivity, depth, and polish that GTA III and later entries brought to the table.  While the PSP has proven capable of providing GTA experiences technically similar to those available on home consoles, Nintendo portables, though wildly successful, have never quite had enough horsepower to do so.  But after the disappointment of Grand Theft Auto Advance, one couldn’t help but wonder if the preGTA III presentation could even work anymore regardless of the system.  Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars lays that question to rest, bringing a true GTA experience to the DS. 


Although Chinatown Wars appears to use the same top down presentation of the first games, the perspective is very slightly isometric, which serves to both slightly increase the forward field of view and to give the city a more three dimensional quality than a pure top down could achieve.  Despite the game’s cel-shaded presentation, there are a host of impressive graphical touches.  It is difficult not to be pleasantly surprised the first time that you spot something below the water in a boat, notice that certain gang cars sport ground effects at night, and see a helicopter soar by as you cross a bridge.  Rockstar has long had a reputation for presentation and polish, so perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising.                                                                 


Clearly, however, certain features of the console iterations had to be left out.  With the limitations of the DS hardware, voice acting and animated cutscenes are necessarily absent.  Perhaps sensing what a role these tools have played in presenting the narratives of modern Grand Theft Auto games, the story in Chinatown Wars is relatively light.  A lot of the attempts at humor are represented by the protagonist’s glib responses to the various characters he encounters.  Much of this doesn’t really work, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the experience.  Similarly, another hallmark of modern Grand Theft Auto games, the varied and often humorous radio stations have necessarily been toned down.  While the variety is there, all the music is instrumental, and the radio in general certainly doesn’t have the presence that it normally does.


Chinatown Wars makes the smart and retrospectively obvious move of having the DS double for the internet enabled PDA that the protagonist, Huang, carries.  While this gives the player access to all the usual tools like maps, system settings, and statistics, perhaps the most useful functionality has to do with the fact that in this version of Grand Theft Auto‘s weapons franchise, Ammunation, has become an online store.  It’s arguable that Jacob’s was the only relationship really worth maintaining in Grand Theft Auto IV, since he would deliver arms as opposed to you having to travel to a weapons store between missions.  Similarly, an arms dealer friend was present from the beginning in The Lost and Damned expansion.  Chinatown Wars takes it a step further, since there is no relationship management to speak of.  You can now browse Ammunation at any time directly from your PDA and have weapons delivered to your nearest safehouse within minutes.  It’s details like this that make Chinatown Wars feel like a modern Grand Theft Auto rather than simply aping the early games in the franchise. 


Chinatown Wars adopts many of the changes the series has seen along the way, and adds its own tweaks as well.  It’s possible that Chinatown Wars has the most creative use of the touchscreen on the DS, excepting those titles that eschew traditional controls for the touchscreen alone.  While it may be somewhat cumbersome to switch between the two control styles on the fly, the activities relegated to the touchscreen make sense and don’t feel tacked on.  There’s something undeniably cool about being responsible for filling your own Molotov cocktails and cutting away the upholstery of a van looking for a drug stash.  Of course, as the game wears on some of these activities repeat themselves, but, though their uniqueness begins to wane, they never actually become irritating.                                                           


Although it caused a minor stir prior to the game’s release, the drug dealing minigame in Chinatown Wars is both fairly innocuous and rather uninteresting.  Really, it simply adds another version of the courier side missions that have consistently been part of the franchise for years.  There’s no glorification here.  In fact, the argument could be made that the monotony of slinging is painted in much the same fashion as it was on The Wire, where at the lowest levels, the drug trade amounts to nothing more than a tedious job. 


Chinatown Wars is not just a compromise for those that want Grand Theft Auto on the go.  Rather, it is a legitimate entry to the series in its own right.  The perspective offers challenges, particularly as a three dimensional view is such the norm in this day and age.  Perhaps this is why the game has sold fairly poorly despite its critical success.  But Chinatown Wars is another enjoyable romp through a city that is now being presented to players for a third time with another expansion to Grand Theft Auto IV due by year’s end.  As such, it’s an easy recommendation to make to those that enjoy the series, as well as to fans of sandbox games in general.

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