Review by Chocobahn

"Chinatown Wars is more than just a war."

Unless you have been living on another planet, you will no doubt have heard of Grand Theft Auto, whether it is from the mouth of the anti-violent video game politicians, or maybe you have played any of games in this hugely successful franchise. Whatever the case it may be, GTA has always been associated with anything and everything incriminating.

What makes GTA franchise sell so well is largely accredited to its free form gameplay that allows players free roam of the city doing almost anything they want in between the storyline. You can spend hours upon hours completing side missions while not advancing the story one single bit.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is the latest addition to the franchise. While I cannot say with certainty that this is the best in the franchise thus far (given that I haven't played enough GTA to give that assessment), I can attest that this game has a lot to offer on the limited hardware that is the Nintendo DS.

Plot

The story starts out as your character, Huang Lee, is charged (no pun intended) with the delivery of your family heirloom, the Yu Jian sword, from Hong Kong to your porn loving uncle Kenny in Liberty City after the death of your Triad boss father. No sooner had your feet touched the ground of Liberty City you are gunned down and left for dead in a car as it heads toward the bottom of the ocean.

Barely surviving the ordeal, you set out to reclaim the lost sword and avenge your father's death. That is, if you care to find out who is responsible, because in Chinatown Wars, you can be very often get sidetracked with other things, running away from cops, for example.

Huang Lee is actually quite a likable guy. He is a smartass and cocky. Every second word is a profanity, and every second sentence is a sarcastic insult towards whomever he happens to be speaking to. It is a surprise that he isn't shot right on the spot.

During the course of the game, you will do missions for various shady characters. Trust me, there is no 'good guys' in this game. There are only 'bad guys', and 'bad guys with guns'. Some of the characters are likable, but some of them you really want to run them over with a pickup truck.

Gameplay

GTA has always pride itself in its gameplay, and Chinatown Wars continues that tradition, and then some.

First, there are the storyline missions. It can range from recruiting new triads, to setting off bombs, to car racing, to being a sniper. In other words, Huang Lee is the triad version of James Bond who can do anything without fail.

As you progress through the missions, you are introduced to the new elements of the gameplay. For example, one of the early missions set you off to blow up a shop. The game then teaches you how to make Molotov cocktails and throw projectile weapons. From then on, you can use that feature whenever and however you want.

The missions vary in gameplay, which always keep the game fresh. You can approach it in many different ways and achieve the same result. Should you fail in your attempt, you can immediately retry without having to go back to reinitiate it. Story missions are mandatory only once, and the game allows you to replay any of the completed missions to achieve higher score or faster time.

The best part of the game is that it lets you save and load anytime except during missions. So you can save every time you find a new drug dealer or every time you finish a mission. Loading will not bring you back to where you were before, but the closest safe house to your location at the time of saving. Any cars that you were in will be lost.

In the weapons department, Chinatown Wars boasts a wide range of weapons. Your fist is always available, but for more powerful stuff, you will have to pick up a baseball bat or a flamethrower, and anything in between. However, you can only carry one weapon of each type. For example, you cannot carry a shotgun and a double barrel shotgun (as they are both classified as shotgun type). You can only carry one or the other.

That doesn't affect the gameplay too much. In fact, it streamlines the weapons selection process. There is no quick way to switch between weapons besides using the touch screen. Every time you find a new weapon that is different to what you are using, it will automatically change to that new weapon. For those who are forgetful or just unaware, it could mean using a sword to slash someone close by and firing at cops across the street, and that could be a bad thing.

Talking about cops, in Chinatown Wars, just like every other GTA titles, you get a star rating. The more stars you get, the more cops you will have coming after your butt. The most annoying aspect of this is that the slightest bump into a patrol car will earn you a star.

To quiet down the cops, you can either hide in discreet locations (only works for low star ratings), or pay 'n' spray, which change the colour of your car. Chinatown Wars also adds one new feature, ram the fast moving patrol car into an immovable object, and you will disable the cop cars. Depending on the star rating, you will have to knock off a certain number of cop cars before you are back to normal.

GTA has always been about free form gameplay, letting you roam around the city, doing whatever you fancy. In Chinatown Wars, you can impersonate a taxi driver, a delivery boy, a cop, a fire fighter or a paramedic by getting into their respective vehicles. There are also street races all over the city, as well as side missions from pedestrians on the street.

If you are bored with that, you can go crazy on a rampage mission, killing as many gang members as you can using the given weapon in the given time limit. If you are short on cash, the best way is to do some drug deals.

It is very similar to the old classic "Dope War". Buy low, sell high. Each sector of the city has its own demand and supply. Buy from those places that offer them at low price, and sell them to other dealers that demand them, and you will make a profit. But the best way is to wait for an email from the dealers.

Every once in a while, you will receive an email from dealers who either want to offload cheap drugs, or offer a high price to purchase them. You basically go around the city buying up the cheap drugs, and then offload them to those who demand them the most. That way, your profile margin is always going to be the highest. If no-one is demanding the drugs that you just bought, you can store them in your safe house until such demand arises. A couple of hours' (real life hour, I'm talking about) work, and you could be riches.

So what do you need cash for, if all you ever do is hi-jack cars and steal weapons? True, most of the time you will be stealing cars and guns, but you can also buy them (in the legit way). Cash is also needed to buy safe houses that are scattered around the city. Trust me, you would want to have all those safe houses around town. Some can accommodate a single garage, while others are for tenant only.

There are a hundred security cameras all over the city, watching your every move. And the annoying thing is some of them are located where the drug dealers are. Destroy them will save you the hassle of automatically earn yourself a wanted level when and if you score a major drug deal or doing something outside of the law.

The PDA is a handy tool that allows easy access to game settings, radio stations, drug dealers information, as well as GPS function, weapons store and email. The interface is intuitive for the most part, but there is no indication as to which submenu that you are currently in, which could confuse some players.

The GPS is not as useful as you think. The game claims it gives the shortest legal route to the destination, but I rather have it giving me the most convenient way to travel instead making five turns when I just need to make one. It even instructs me to go around the block when the destination is right next to me. I constantly have to refer back to the main map to see how far I am away from the destination. The GPS also does not contain any 'area of interest' (e.g. hospital, police station, etc.). I would not consider it to be an essential feature, but it would have been very useful to have that information. The GPS is a nice to have, but it is not perfect.

The touch screen control works well for the most part. There are times when it feels awkward, like when you need to change weapons, or throw a grenade. But the PDA function is great.

The touch screen is used to great effects. Liberty City is littered with scratch card shops where you can try your luck on a scratch card, be it a safe house, or cash, or food, or weapon. You use the touch screen to scratch the card, just like the way you would normally do in real life. Parked vehicles mostly need to be jacked before you can drive it away. You will encounter a mini game as simple as jamming a screw driver into the ignition to cracking the electronic security code.

They are all fun, but hotwiring will probably be the order of the day in 90% of cases. Either that, or I haven't been stealing more exotic cars.

There is a concept of time in Chinatown Wars. And the game reflects that quite well. For example, there are hardly any cars on the street in the middle of the night, and the light effects changes according to the time of the day. There is even weather too. Rainy day will see the pedestrians opening up their umbrellas.

Graphics

Graphically speaking, Chinatown Wars is different from any other GTA games in the series. The game is staged in pseudo 3D. Building, cars, people, they are all in 3D. Sometimes, the camera angle gets in the way of the action. Trees also block your view should you talk a walk in the park. So do not start a gun fight there.

Cut scenes are done in comic-book style. With the limitation of the hardware, smart thinking from Rockstar has paid off. The comic-book style suits the game like a glove. Although one might wish to have seen more details, especially on the main map, the game already makes Liberty City looks good.

Sound

Chinatown Wars features five radio stations while you are driving (and none when you are out of the car). You are welcomed to turn it off. While it is not intrusive, it is noticeably repetitive. But with some much content stuffed into one cartridge, I'm not complaining.

Sound effects are well done. Different weapons produce different sounds, different engines make different sounds, even different people in different parts of the town make different sounds. There is a lot of swearing featuring the F word in multiple languages.

One thing that is missing is voice acting. That said, the graphic style works well without sound. In fact, having voice over would probably be more of a hindrance.

Replay value

GTA Chinatown Wars is never meant to be played just for the story. You have to explore the city, hi-jack a taxi and take on passengers, or do some shady dealings with the drug dealers, or take on the dark side in a police car when your guilt finally sets in.

Completing the game 100% will take you a lot longer than the 10+ hours for the story mode. So there is always something to do long after the war for power has ended.

Overall

Grand Theft Auto has always been about breaking the law. Chinatown Wars continues that tradition quite well. The story might not be to everyone's liking, but the gameplay is nothing short of the usual GTA quality, letting you do anything you could possibly want to do.

However, GTA's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Many times you will get sidetracked by other things just because you happen to be there. I know I was sidetracked by so many things en route to my destination, not the least running away from cops after a high speed collusion with a patrol car.

Chinatown Wars is not a glorified version of the very first 2D GTA game, nor is it a scale down version of the later games in the series. It is, in its own right, a quality game that differs from the 'modern' GTA games as we know it. True, there are some quirks with it, but it is not something that will break the game.

Rockstar has done quite an amazing job with Chinatown Wars, and got away with it.

Good:

* Touch screen mini games fun to play
* Plenty of stuff to do
* Addictive and refreshing gameplay

Bad:

* Touch screen sometimes feel awkward
* GPS not very useful
* Lack of music / radio stations

Score (out of 10)

Plot: 7
Gameplay: 9
Graphics: 7
Sound: 7
Replay: 8

Overall: 8


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 04/29/09

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


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