Review by GeekyDad

"GTA: Take-out!"

Disclaimer: I don't condone or recommend this game for folks under the legal age. Just because I play and enjoy certain M-rated games doesn't mean I approve of them for everyone or look down upon parents who try to keep this stuff from their kids until the time is ripe. So, if you're not quite 17 (or whatever the legal age is in your area) – and that's probably about 90-percent of you – just know you're not missing out on anything. There are plenty of other great games on DS.

That said. Chinatown Wars is, indeed, a great game – an awesome game! Having played the trilogy on PS2, as well as a bit of both GTA I & II, I can tell you there isn't a ton new here in terms of missions and the general premise. However, this is one of the tightest GTA experiences I've ever had. They've taken all that was good about past games in the series, left behind pretty much everything that didn't quite work, and added some truly innovative mechanics to make this easily one of the best GTA games ever, console or otherwise.

You play as Huang Lee, the son of a fallen Triad higher-up, and when your family's “sacred” sword, the Yu Jian, is stolen and you're left for dead, the thrust of the story becomes retrieving the sword, as well as finding your father's killers. Though the cutscenes are presented through hand-drawn art stills, Huang, in my opinion, is perhaps the most likeable character in the series so far (having not played GTA IV). Unlike Tony from VC, he's not overbearing, and unlike CJ (SA), Huang isn't quite as apathetic. Huang is a bit beaten down yet cocky; he's honest and sincere, but he's also willing to use a chainsaw to slice dudes in pieces. The conversations are often funny and smartly written, though they can also be way over the top with unnecessary uses of profanity.

The missions are a lot of the same things we've done in other GTA games, but there's a tightness here that, along with really great controls, makes for some of the best missions I've played in any of the other games. Driving is fantastic fun. You start out with an option called Steer Assist turned on, and it guides whatever vehicle you're driving into a straight line when not actually steering. It works great, but it's equally enjoyable to drive without it. You'll likely find yourself using both options.

All of the mechanics are very much the same as other GTA games. Control Huang and steer vehicles with the D-pad; B button to accelerate or run; Y to break, reverse, or roll/jump when on foot; A is your attack button; and X lets you hop in vehicles. You jack cars same as before, though many of the parked vehicles in the game require you to play through a touch-screen mini-game, such as hotwiring, cracking a security system, or more crudely, using a screwdriver to force the ignition. All three minis are good fun, though hotwiring is easily my favorite; I could do that all the live-long day.

Other uses of the touch screen include defibrillating patients when transporting them to the hospital during ambulance missions, lobbing grenade-type explosives, using your PDA/GPS, as well as sniping dudes. I don't have a single complaint about any of it. To me, it all works great and is fun. But the PDA/GPS system in this game is simply amazing! I mean amazing! It makes everything so much more convenient, and takes pretty much all of the unnecessary minutiae out of the GTA experience. If I need to get somewhere, I simply plot a course on my GPS, and finding my way is easy as pie. Want to find a good deal on heroin? I just consult my trusty turf map, and I can plot a course to the closest dealer selling smack.

Oh, did I not yet mention the drug dealing? It's addictive! (Sorry for the pun.) After the first few missions, I must have stopped playing missions for a good five hours once I discovered drug dealing. I couldn't help it. It was too much fun and there was too much incentive to make tons of cash. Dudes will email you when they're either buying or selling something at a really good price, and then you can find other dealers to offload your stuff onto for a stack of money. Of course, once you notice your first surveillance camera and discover that there are 99 others just like it around the city waiting to be destroyed, you'll be distracted by yet one more thing to do.

And that's where GTA games always become an all-consuming guilty pleasure. I haven't even completed all of the main missions yet, though I've already put in well over 20 hours with the game. You can meet random people on the streets who will enlist you for some seriously oddball missions, or you can do noodle runs for extra cash. There are scratch-off lottery cards – I won a safe house off one (true story) – and there are also tattoo parlors where you can put your artistry to work for a little extra on the side. As is the case with any GTA game – and Chinatown Wars is no exception – there's almost an endless amount of stuff to talk about and praise with this game. But this is a reader review, so I'll cut it short for now. I'm still discovering tons of stuff and having a great time doing it.

It also doesn't hurt that this is easily one of the best-looking DS games you're ever going to see. I've played my share of pretty games on this system – Phantom Hourglass, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, any Square Enix game – but CW is up there with the very best DS has to offer. This ain't no Transformers game where you have these huge patches of barren nothingness. CW is so insanely detailed and massive for a handheld game, it's really kind of mind boggling.

If there is one thing I could be critical about with respect to the game's presentation, it's the radio stations and song selection. The instrumentals are good, and I enjoy the music, but boy, it grows old quick. Now, they say it's because of the DS' limitations and card size, but if you consider that Rockstar used a 64 megabyte card (Google it) and the largest DS cards available are 256 megs, well, it's obvious they cut some costs on the card size. Rockstar Leeds (who developed this game) obviously didn't cut a single corner in making Chinatown Wars; this thing has as much love and care put into it as the Mona-friggin' Lisa. But Rockstar corporate probably put a cap on the card size they could use. That's a shame, because as good as the music is without voice tracks, there just isn't enough variety here.

Still, the random-pedestrian voice work is excellent, and the sound effects are amazing. Run into a bus stop, and you'll hear shattered glass. Run someone over, and you'll hear a nice squish. Guns sound great, as does everything else in this game. It feels like a living, breathing city.

GTA: Chinatown Wars: should you buy it? No question about it. If you're reading this review, then you likely already know the score with respect to what GTA is all about. You just want to know if it's up to par with the series' stamp of quality. It's not only up to specs, it improves upon the GTA “thing” in many fun ways. Forget your reservations about the pseudo-top-down perspective; it works amazingly well, and there are a slew of options that allow you to customize the experience to your liking. Buy it!

Score: 9.6


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 03/20/09

Game Release: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (US, 03/17/09)


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