Review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Condensing chaos
By MIKE ROUGEAU  |  March 30, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars | For Nintendo DS | Rated M for Mature | Published by Rockstar Games | Developed by Rockstar Leeds
One of the most successful and controversial gaming franchises of the decade has made the jump to modern handheld gaming with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for DS. Chinatown Wars condenses the highly produced modern GTA experience into a portable form easily digested in small bites.

Several smart design choices allow the game to function on the quirky DS hardware. Like the first two GTA games on PS1, Chinatown Wars is played from a top-down perspective, which is well-suited to the DS's tiny screens. Few missions last more than five minutes, which is ideal for a portable game. The camera rotates with your vehicle as it turns, doing its best to stay behind you. And for the most part, it works.

Unfortunately, the game is as miniscule in narrative prowess as it is in the scope of its gameplay. Players takes the role of Huang Lee, described in the game's parlance as an FOB (fresh-off-the-boat) from China who arrives in good old Liberty City to deliver his recently wacked Triad father's ornamental sword to the new boss, his uncle. Predictably, the sword is stolen, and Huang must do various dirty deeds to recover it and avenge his father's murder.

The problem is that Chinatown Wars' tone is somehow even more sophomoric than that of its console big brothers, only without the depth of storytelling that helps sustain those games. A standard cut-scene in Chinatown Wars involves numerous profanities and ethnic slurs, as if Rockstar Leeds needed to prove that they could make an adult game despite the kid-friendly image of the DS. The not-so-riveting cast of characters includes moronic gang leaders, drug- addled cops, bumbling detectives, and double crossing, cross-dressing mob bosses. All are grating, except for the mob guy in a dress and pearl necklace (definitely didn't see that one coming). Bafflingly, the only interesting character gets killed in the third mission.

Thankfully, the cut-scenes, like the missions, are always short and to the point; and joyriding and carjacking your way around little-big Liberty City is sufficiently entertaining, especially when the fuzz is hot on your tail. For some reason, destroying pursuing police cruisers is a quick way to reduce your wanted level and cause the force to back off (a departure from previous GTA games, where such behavior would cause your wanted level to increase), and the crunchy explosion that results is nothing short of satisfying. Sniper rifles, though rare, are particularly fun to wield from the top-down view. You earn cash by dealing drugs, buying low and selling high, a fun tribute to addictive PC game Dope Wars.

The obligatory touch screen mechanics are present and obnoxious as ever. Wielding the stylus to throw a grenade or molotov cocktail (by dragging along the bottom screen in the direction you wish to throw it) is fun, but it starts to feel clumsy before long, especially in the middle of an intense firefight with multiple enemies. Manually hotwiring cars is just plain irritating.

Chinatown Wars does an acceptable job of miniaturizing the modern GTA experience, and I don't doubt that it can provide a few hours of fun to gamers needing a dose of carnage on the T or in class. A truly great portable game, however, makes me want to keep playing even after I've come home to my Xboxes and Playstations, and I can safely say that on the T is where Chinatown Wars will stay.

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