Review by Donald Love 87
"Whilst I write this review, I hold a DS in one hand and a stylus in the other"
For those of you not familiar with it, the title of this review is paraphrasing an old letter that was written during the Irish Revolution - "Whilst I write this, I hold a sword in each hand and a pistol in the other." I thought that quote was very fitting to this game, considering the control style is mainly for using the buttons, but very often you need to break out your stylus for a minigame of some sorts. But enough of the history lesson, I'll return to the stylus stuff when discussing controls, but now let's begin with...
The style of the game seems to have more in common with the dark and grimy GTA2 and GTAIV than the brightness of the first installment and the PS2 games. Even the green areas like parks seem a bit washed-out and plain dirty. The cutscenes also follow this style and are played out as static pictures looking like the concept art from earlier GTA's, so we finally have a GTA where the characters look like their concept art! I'm not really sure if this is a good way to go for a portable game like this - since the PS2 GTAs couldn't be very realistic due to limitations in the hardware, they went and did them rather "cartoony" instead. I think they should've gone back to that for this game.
The city you play in will be recognized by many fans of the series - it's Liberty City from GTAIV. They couldn't fit the whole thing onto the game card, though, so we only get the first two islands while the "mainland" part called Alderney is cut. Still I'm pretty impressed that they managed to take two thirds of that big city and squeeze it onto this card and still having it recognizable. Of course some roads has to change place and such, but you still feel it's very much the same city. That's not only good, it poses a problem too - while GTAIV had a lot of environments that felt unique due to the insane amount of detail put in there - street signs, billboards heck even building textures. Since you can't show the same amount of detail here it just feels dark and repetitive.
Another returner is the top-down view, even if it is a bit more isometric and "free" than in the older games it's still more above than behind. In this game, the camera is centered around you and can be rotated to a degree, while in GTA1 the camera always was stuck with up being north. The city has been remade from GTA4 to eliminate most situations where a top-down camera wouldn't work - there are no car tunnels or subways between the islands anymore, and there are no big elevation changes. Sometimes, if you're familiar with GTAIV it will feel very obvious what's been done to cover up for elevation - like very poorly placed fences. While they could've done the city a bit more bright and interesting and added a few more "big" landmarks, everything else is pretty much as you'd expect it from a portable GTA.
Sound effects and music
Audio files are, of course, also a thing that had to be modified to get it to work on a portable. Gone are the long conversations of lip-synched cutscenes, gone are the big loads of radio stations with playlists filled with hours of music.
The replacement for voice acting is like in older games just text boxes - both in cutscenes and during gameplay. This is easy to see and works well, even if you miss the voices a bit since the actors really helped giving life to the characters. It bothers me that cutscene text is automatic (it's not scrolling, but even if you don't press A the next line comes up after a while) since sometimes you'll want to re-read a sentence just to know exactly what was said. There are still some voices recorded in the game, but they are just small pedestrian or police dialogue snippets of maximum a few seconds. Of course, they did what they could with the console it's on by going back to the text-based roots, and it surely works.
Music, on the other hand, is handled pretty badly. As in all GTA games, music is mostly played while entering a car. What I would've liked to hear is MIDI (or whatever a similar format for the DS is) versions of licensed songs, and while that might sound highly unlikely I think some Guitar Hero game for DS did just that. Instead all you get here are original tunes, and what bothers me a bit is that I think it lacks diversity - all of them just sound boring. They're not very memorable either, and I haven't found a single one I like. There are some that sound pretty electronic, one jazzy. I really miss some kind of rock? Maybe a country song (aah remember Sideways Hank O'Malley with the Alabama Bobble Boys from GTA1? good times!)? Even if the songs are original compositions, I still don't see any excuse to why they're this uninteresting. A honorable mention goes to the intro tune, though. It's good, but one good song isn't enough.
This one came as a shock to me. Since GTA3 came out, we know that Rockstar can tell good stories. Surely, they can range from the stranger and stranger ones of the PS2 games to the extremely good immigrant criminal drama of GTAIV, but they've all got one thing in common - they're interesting. The story in this game is not.
You play as Huang, a young Chinese who has gone to Liberty City to deliver a package from his dead father to his uncle. This package holds an ancient sword which is used as a "leader symbol" within the Triad. Everything don't work out as planned, though, since as soon as Huang steps out of the plane the sword is stolen, and he is locked in the trunk of a car driven of a pier. That's where the game starts, with you needing to kick out the rear window of the car and get back on land. After that, the hunt for the sword starts.
Of course, like the console GTA games, the story is never a straight line from A->B. It takes skips and jumps and you end up working for some really odd guys from all parts of Liberty City, even if most of the main story take place within the Triad. That by itself is not a problem, but the characters and conversations feel pretty boring, and everyone you work for has their private scheme ending with the same ultimate goal meaning it can be hard to keep apart who actually said what. Another problem is that Huang just feels uninterested and seems to try to play cool all the time. The problem is that if I'm playing a game where the main character isn't interested in what's going on, why should I be as the player? Still, since even a blind chicken finds a kernel of corn every now and then there are some funny one-liners in the game, but while I can quote large chunks of GTA3 dialogue, I can't remember anything from this game.
Here is the biggest problem of the game. While I do like the usual controls, you need to break out the stylus WAY too often - hotwiring cars, selling/buying drugs, throwing molotovs/grenades, using the menu system. Of course, the hotwiring system is fun and you always have a choice of GTA'ing a car to skip it, but the others are purely irritating. Especially that the menus are extremely slow without the stylus is a pain; setting a marker on a map is possible but way to clunky to do without the stylus. I understand a lot of stylus control in games where you won't really need both hands for the buttons, but here you will. And no, I won't use my fingers. My DS screen has stayed ungreasy and fingerprint-free for so long, I can't let this game ruin it for me.
Other than that, the controls work very good. There's even a feature (which I have turned off, since I like to be in control) to make the game auto-align the car you're driving to the road. Sometimes I feel that it can be a bit hard to drive fast, since the camera won't zoom out that much, but most of the time you aren't in a hurry and most cars can take more of a beating than you'd think. So overall, I like the controls, but it's a problem that you need to use the stylus as much as you do.
So, how good could the gameplay be of a game with an uninteresting story and overly complex controls? Surprisingly good. While I don't really feel the urge to play on with the game (probably thanks to the story), it always seems like I can find something to do when playing for an hour or two.
This is one thing that's kept from the other GTAs - random stuff to do. It seems like they took the misc missions from all of the previous installments of the series and put it here. Then they added some more. The collectibles of this game are hidden cameras; unlike earlier games you won't pick them up but rather destroy them, but unlike the pigeons in GTAIV you most likely won't get the cops after you as soon as you do. The reward is a bit odd though - as the cameras get taken out, the risks of getting a wanted level when no cop is around and you commit a crime lessen considerably. The most common crime (giving you 2 "stars" is you get caught) you'll commit like this is drug trading. This is a new feature of this GTA. Like with the cameras, you need to find drug dealers. They (there are 80 of them you need to find) sell different stuff, though it's mostly modified by where in the city they are (which gang they're part of) and what you need to do is to find someone who sells cheap and then someone who buys expensive. Every now and then, you get an E-mail to your PDA where you get information about people dumping the prices or are REALLY having abstinence for something special. Either way, if you play your cards right with the drug dealing, it's really the best way to make money in the game.
Other than that, there are tons of minigames. Step into a random car and you just might start something. The ambulance missions are back (though this time the ambulance is NOT as easy to flip over), taxi and firetruck missions are too, and new are the delivery and noodle truck missions. There are also rampages for you to finish, and a shooting range for you to practice on. You can also replay missions as time trials - though it's a bit broken since luck with getting a fast car early in most missions is a big factor on time. For some reason, my favorite minigame is when you step into a random car and have to drive a little street race or offroad time trial. Can't say exactly why but I like it. Unlike earlier games, it isn't just a matter of passing or failing a minigame; you can get gold, silver or bronze too. It's pretty fun in most cases, but sometimes it gets irritating when the gold level is way to hard - but that only happens on mission replays considering they're long and tedious and as I mentioned extremely luck-based.
Strangely enough, when they were so creative with the side stuff, it's surprising to see that many of the main storyline missions are so repetitive. Even if there are some exceptions, most of them involve just driving somewhere or following someone, then shooting some guys. We've seen it before, and it isn't that much more interesting this time, especially not with a story that can't hold it up. Getting the missions works the standard way - you drive to your boss and get the mission, and sometimes you've got multiple bosses to choose from. Saving is also done as in earlier games by entering a safehouse (there is also an autosave function if you prefer that). In your safehouse you can, in addition to save, also check your awards, read your E-mail and sync stats to Rockstar Social Club and manage your drug stash. At the beginning you can only carry 50 drug packages at once, so everything else needs to be stored at home.
So while the graphics make exploration a bit boring, it's outweighed by the fact that you can find so many interesting side missions to do when you just go out and wander aimlessly. Something it also seems like they've given an extra thought is that most things you do take less time than in the console games. This is a good thing on a portable, considering you might have it with you on the bus or toilet.
One thing which I really love about this game, and is a great improvement to the earlier games in the series is the map/GPS. Even if it's a bit slow and irritating with having to use the stylus to navigate, the map itself is wonderful. Every time you discover some new minigame, dealer, rampage or similar it's added to the GPS "hotspots" and you just need to go into the menu to set a GPS route to it. But what's even better is that the security cameras you've destroyed are added to the GPS menu too, so unlike the previous games where you could miss a single collectible and have to look at every spot again, here you just need to bring up your GPS map and compare it to one online! It's great, and really helps up the fun of "collecting" them since you can go out and search for yourself and just use a map for the ones you've missed.
This game is very mixed. While there are obvious sacrifices like graphics and sounds that needed to be made to make a GTA fit the small screens of the DS, it surprises by also being worse than the console counterparts on things that shouldn't have to suffer - controls and most of all story. What keeps this game from being totally bad is that the gameplay is fun, at least when you're not twisting your fingers trying to pull out the stylus and steer a car at the same time. I really want to love this game more, but I can't give it more than a 6 out of 10.
It might be worth to get if you're a GTA fan or just want a pretty unique game for the DS, but be a bit prepared for what to come. What I really can see is the best thing with this game is to (hopefully) see the map features implemented in future console games.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 09/06/11
Game Release: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (EU, 03/20/09)
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