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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Review

Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

One of the most controversial videogame series of all time makes a potentially disastrous debut on Nintendo’s ever so family-friendly DS. I can’t speak for how well media watchdog groups will receive it, but as far as gamers are concerned Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars isn’t likely to draw much contention; it’s simply wonderful.

When it was first announced that an original Grand Theft Auto title was in development for the Nintendo DS it sounded like a perfect bit of cross-promotion, the world’s best selling game machine meets one of the most popular series of all time, however nobody could quite picture how it would all work out. As it happens, with Rockstar Leeds and Rockstar North working together to pull out all the stops, it would work out quite brilliantly indeed.

We all had a perfect right to be sceptical; the sprawling, intricate urban tapestry of Liberty City doesn’t exactly jump out as ideal fodder for a machine that is more often that not used as a dumping ground for shovelware, minigame collections, and movie tie-ins. But the artisans at Rockstar remembered what so many had until now forgotten; that rush of potential we all felt when the DS was first released, it was a unique piece of hardware ripe for innovation. Chinatown Wars is a game developed with the system’s limitations pushed aside, its virtues gagging to be exploited.

The game once again shows us the untamed Liberty City through fresh eyes, this time as a young Huang Lee, spoilt son of a recently murdered Triad leader. Liberty City is where Huang was born but he has spent recent years living the good life abroad on his father’s crooked dime. With the mysterious death of his father Huang is once again called home, to deliver a supposed heirloom sword to the family’s new number one. Needless to say, things don’t go well.

Jumped as soon as he steps foot off the plane, Huang has the sword stolen from him and is dumped in the harbour for dead. Escaping, he meets with the sword’s would-be recipient, Uncle Wu ‘Kenny’ Lee, to deliver the bad news. The passing of the blade would have sealed Uncle Kenny’s place in the triad hierarchy, but without it the position of authority is open to all takers and Haung is swept up in a flurry of feuding gang lords.

The game is presented in a way the melds the ground-level view of recent GTA titles with the top-down perspective of earlier entries to the series. The player can position a fully rotatable camera to observe a scene angled above the action. This style allows the DS to overlook the more minute details of Liberty City as presented in GTA 4 while still offering a familiar, easily navigated rendition of the iconic map. The visuals are rendered in a charming cel-shaded style, giving the title a solid, bold comic book-type aesthetic that remains knowingly hard-boiled.

Rather than attempting to translate the feeling of home console GTA to the DS, the game’s developers have rethought the experience especially for the handheld’s quirky specifications. Touch screen segments, like hotwiring a car or assembling a sniper rifle, are inserted liberal throughout the action but never feel forced, rather they add a palpable level of immersion to the proceedings, the likes of which the DS has seldom been able to deliver.

The entire rhythm of the game has been remixed to a more appropriate tempo for handheld gaming. Gone are lengthy missions involving long drives, extended shoot-outs, and epic getaways. Instead the game delivers it’s mini-missions in a rapidly succeeded bursts; it’s easy enough to pick the game up and fly through a handful of story points in five minutes, but the machine-gun delivery of each job also makes Chinatown an absolute devil to put down.

If you can shake yourself free of the manically bounding grindhouse story, however, you’ll still likely be addicted to the game’s drug running element. Akin to the ancient DOS game Drugwars, in Chinatown Wars one stands to earn obscene amounts of cash participating in the drug game. Using your personal PDA the city’s litany of dealers will get in contact whenever they are buying or selling particular pharmaceuticals at good prices. In order to become a true high roller all you need to do is ferry the merchandise between interested parties while avoiding the cops; and you will never hate virtual cops more than when that goes thousands of dollars worth of wrong.   

Rockstar have performed the seemingly impossible task of shrinking the incredibly busy Grand Theft Auto onto two tiny screens so well that they almost make it look easy. The game is bold, engaging, addictive, stylish, and just plain irresistible. Easily one of the greatest games on the Nintendo DS (and if we take RPGs off the table it’s unequivocally first place), Chinatown Wars is a triumphant challenge to all other DS developers; handheld gaming is no longer an excuse for second-rate products. 

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