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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Score: 100%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Rockstar
Developer: Rockstar Leeds
Media: Cartridge/1
Players: 1 - 2 (Local Only)
Genre: Action/ Free-Roaming/ Adventure


Graphics & Sound:

I'm usually one to refrain from making gross over-estimations. That being said, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is simply one of the greatest handheld games to come around in years. The Nintendo DS has a library teeming with quality titles, yet Chinatown Wars manages to put many of them to shame. Both Rockstar's flagship franchise and Nintendo's handheld have enjoyed an incredible level of success over the years. Rockstar Leeds could probably have gotten away with a watered-down installment of the venerable series - but they didn't choose the easy path. As a result, Chinatown Wars is an outstanding evolution of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. I won't stop at that - this game will probably change your perception of what the Nintendo DS can really do. After sinking hours and hours into Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, I can say with absolutely no hesitation that it is the best DS game I've ever played. If you give it a chance, I think you'll feel the same way.

If you've been following Chinatown Wars since it was announced, you've probably noticed that there is a visual resemblance between it and the first two Grand Theft Auto titles. It's one thing to look at screenshots of this game, and it's another thing to see it in motion. The game sports a cel-shaded look and an isometric (bird's eye) point of view. Liberty City has been fully rendered in 3D (with the exception of one island), and you will recognize much of the city if you've played Grand Theft Auto IV. Cutscenes are not animated, but they are presented through still frames and text. It's an interesting and effective stylistic decision - the cutscenes read like pages from a graphic novel.

From a purely technical standpoint, Chinatown Wars doesn't sound as impressive as other Grand Theft Auto games. From an artistic standpoint, however, the sound design absolutely nails the atmosphere of the series - from the clicks and beeps to the hustle and bustle. There is very little voice acting, but what's there is excellent. The soundtrack consists of a number of differently themed loops, but they are all catchy enough to remain fresh for quite some time. The different vehicles sound unique, the radio stations are diverse, and pedestrian chatter will keep you laughing. Gunfire and explosions sound great, too. Each of your contacts has his own appropriately fitting theme song, and considering the diversity of the cast, that's quite impressive.

With regards to presentation, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a pretty big departure from the latest entries in the series. This is not a bad thing, because this game finds its own ways to impress the player. That's no small feat.


Gameplay:

In Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, you play as Huang Lee, the son of a recently murdered Triad boss. Huang is on his way to Liberty City to a deliver a symbolic sword to his Uncle Kenny. However, he is ambushed when he reaches his destination, and the sword is stolen. Huang is shot and left for dead. It goes without saying that he survives, but his situation can best be described as "out of the fire and into the frying pan." Hsin Jaoming (the aging Triad Boss in Liberty City) needs to name a successor, and Uncle Kenny wants the job. The problem is, Kenny was supposed to offer the sword to Hsin as a gift - a gesture he hoped would earn him Hsin's favor. Over the course of the story, Huang comes into contact with several new characters, and they all have their own agendas (as they always do). Things get really hairy for the Triads, and it becomes readily apparent to Huang that the theft of the sword was the work of a police informant. The story isn't as involving as Grand Theft Auto IV's, but it's good enough to keep you interested. The cast of Chinatown Wars is... colorful. I'll be blunt about it: no character in Chinatown Wars seems to possess a single redeeming quality. Huang shares his company with the lowest of the low. His contacts include, but are not limited to: a bent cop, a sadistic egomaniac, a mob boss with a hilarious secret, and a man Huang refers to as "a walking coronary in a gimp suit." It's just as well, too - Huang is a snotty little punk, and he knows it. You won't like any of these characters, but you will laugh at them - a lot.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is structured almost identically to other games in the franchise. You are set loose in the open world of Liberty City. You can advance the story by completing missions for your contacts. These missions are imaginative, well-developed, and a total blast. However, if you don't feel like progressing through the campaign, you don't have to. You can explore the city, complete bonus activities, or create as much chaos as you can before the cops take you down. Regardless of how you approach this game, there's an awful lot to do.

There are two key differences between the core gameplay of Chinatown Wars and that of last year's console offering. The first key difference has to do with the cops. Dealing with the police is much more fun in Chinatown Wars than it is in any other Grand Theft Auto game. Running away is no longer the most viable option. The best way to reduce your wanted level is to battle police vehicles - Burnout style. This is much more satisfying than running away, and I would really like to see this part of the gameplay return in a future title. The second key difference has to do with traveling speed. In Chinatown Wars, you can zip across Liberty City in a matter of minutes. You can get a lot done in a relatively small amount of time, and that's very important for a handheld game.

Earning money is essential to becoming a powerful presence in Liberty City, and there are many ways to do that. You can tattoo people, participate in street races, complete rampage challenges, buy lottery scratch tickets, drive a taxi cab, and much more. These diversions are all unique and fun, but you'll have the most fun and make the most money in the drug trade. Drug dealers are hidden across Liberty City, and if you find them, you can do business with them. You can deal in six different kinds of drugs. What makes this side-game so great is the fact that it is actually quite deep. There are different ethnic factions around Liberty City, and they all have their own turf. On the supply side, these groups specialize in a single drug. On the demand side, they each have preferred purchases. For example, you'll be able to buy large amounts of coke from the Spanish Lords, and you'll likely profit the most by selling it to the Russian Mafia. You have to be careful - if a cop witnesses the deal going on, you'll have to make a break for it.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars has a strong multiplayer component, but it is limited to two-player multi-card local matches. There is some Nintendo Wi-Fi functionality here, but it is not related to multiplayer. In this game, you'll only use Wi-Fi connectivity to build a friends list and put yourself on the leaderboards. It would have been nice if complete Wi-Fi multiplayer was included, but considering the number (and quality) of the multiplayer modes, it's almost a non-issue. There are six multiplayer modes, and many of them feel like they've been taken straight out of Grand Theft Auto IV.

There are two racing modes. In Single Race mode, you can race your opponent on one of several tracks (all of them contained in Liberty City, of course). You can play it out as you would a regular race, or you can turn on the Death Race option, which rewards players for killing their opponents. You can also set up a number of consecutive races in Season mode (the Grand Theft Auto equivalent of Super Mario Kart's Mario GP).

The objective of Stash Dash is to jack a van full of goods and deliver it to a set location before your opponent takes you out. Getting to the van is difficult, but it gets really tough once you steal it - the van does not move very fast at all. On top of all this, whatever damage the van sustains is docked from the final delivery score. The rules and limitations make this mode quite intense.

Defend the Base is the cooperative multiplayer mode that pits you and a buddy against wave after wave of thugs. It's kind of like Horde Mode from Gears of War 2, but there is more to it than just surviving. You and your partner must protect a number of vehicles that are littered across your base. The goons come from every angle, and you will have to keep moving to increase your odds of success.

LC Survivor is the same one-on-one Deathmatch variant seen in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, and there's not much to explain. The in-game descriptor sums up the mode's simplicity: "Meet up with your friends, then shoot each of them in the face."

Finally, there's Gang Bang. The object is to complete a number of randomly-generated objectives before your foe does. This mode forces you to adapt on the fly. It's fast, frantic, and fun.


Difficulty:

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is one of the easiest games in the series. You'll get wasted or busted every now and then, but overall, the game is quite forgiving. With regards to the different missions, you'll always know exactly what you need to be doing.

It's hard to pinpoint just how long the Story mode is, because you will inevitably stray off the beaten path during your first playthrough. If you concentrate solely on the missions, you should finish the story in under ten hours.

It wouldn't be Grand Theft Auto if it didn't have a ton of replay value. After completing the main story, you'll want to keep exploring every nook and cranny in Liberty City. There's a lot to be found, and a lot of money to make. You can earn a number of rewards, which are stored at all of your purchased safehouses.

Further boosting the game's longevity is the ability to replay missions once you've passed them. On each safehouse's refrigerator is a photo of each of Huang's contacts. Tapping a photo will take you to a list of missions you've already completed for that contact. It's yet another feature that I'd like to see return in a future installment.

Chinatown Wars is not particularly difficult and it won't take too long to finish, but it'll be quite some time before you put it down.


Game Mechanics:

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is instantly accessible. If you've played any game in this franchise, you've already got the basics down. 95% of the action occurs on the top screen. Huang is controlled with the D-pad. The face buttons control the exact same functions they do in the last-gen Grand Theft Auto games. With these four buttons, you can sprint, jump, carjack, and attack. The DS's two trigger buttons are reserved for centering the camera and targeting enemies.

In Chinatown Wars, your Nintendo DS functions as a PDA - one that is positively loaded with features. For starters, it includes a GPS. While you're actively using the GPS, the entire city is displayed on the upper screen, with a small window indicating what part of the city is displayed on the bottom screen. By dragging your stylus across the touchscreen, you can move the window to focus on other parts of the city. By tapping twice, you will create a waypoint. The GPS system is fast, intuitive, and extremely convenient. The PDA also includes an e-mail box. Not only will you receive story-based messages, but you'll find out where to buy cheap drugs and sell them for a huge profit. You'll eventually earn the ability to order weapons straight from your PDA.

What makes Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars really shine is the fact that just about every unique part of the Nintendo DS is put to good use (this includes the microphone, which you must blow or whistle into if you want to hail a taxi). You'll switch weapons using the touchscreen. Thrown weapons are located underneath the weapon selector tab. By drawing a line from an icon with your stylus or thumb, you determine the strength and direction of your throw.

I especially like how the developers of Chinatown Wars have included WarioWare - esque "micro-games." When you attempt to hijack a parked car, you must complete one of three touchscreen actions before the car alarm meter is completely filled. If you are trying to steal a jalopy, you'll have to jam a screwdriver into the ignition in order to get it going. If the car is somewhat recent, you'll have to hotwire it. If it's a beast of a machine, you'll have to plug your PDA in and decipher the immobilization code. The game is chock full of touchscreen-based actions, and they're all very cleverly designed. You'll make Molotov cocktails at gas stations, crack safes, sabotage vehicles, use a fishing boat's sonar, pay toll booth attendants, and a whole lot more. This is the kind of innovation DS owners have been looking for since the handheld's inception.

I simply can't shut up about how awesome this game is. It offers everything you'd hope to find in a Grand Theft Auto game. It probably won't win over any skeptics, and it shouldn't be played by anyone under 17. However, everyone else is in for a real treat. As far as the Nintendo DS goes, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars has raised the bar of quality to an unprecedented height.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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