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PLATFORM: Nintendo DS

ESRB RATING: M
DEVELOPER:
Rockstar Leeds
PUBLISHER: Rockstar
 
I’m not quite sure when it was during my playtime of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars that I had to put my Nintendo DS down and reevaluate all my stereotypes of the system. Could I really be playing this on a Nintendo system? I rubbed my eyes and looked again, trying to make sure I wasn’t playing my PSP instead.

What drove me to this breaking point? Could it be when I drove by a drug dealer and through my speakers heard a guy yell “This shit will get you fucked up!”? Possibly the moment when I went looking around in a dumpster and found a dildo? Or maybe it was when I found my first Rampage, and killed dozens of gang members with a chainsaw while cackling madly?

Getting past all of the very mature content doesn’t do you any favors, either, because then all you’ll be doing is wondering how in the hell they managed to cram all these incredible graphics and content onto one little cartridge.

Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars is a revelation, a kick to the balls for other Nintendo DS developers. This is how you make a hardcore game for hardcore gamers.
 
THE PITCH

You are Huang Lee, the latest in a long line of immigrants to Liberty City that waste no time at getting down to dirty work. He’s flying in from Hong Kong because his father, a high-ranking Triad boss, was recently assassinated. Huang is set to meet with his Uncle Kenny (yeah, not a very Chinese name, they make a lot of jokes about it) and deliver the family’s sword. As soon as he touches down things turn sour, and Huang is ambushed. Shot in the head, relieved of his family sword and left for dead, his car is pushed into a nearby river where he manages to escapes and make his way to his Uncle. There he finds out that a power struggle has started since his father’s death and a few big bosses are all competing to be the head of the family, including his Uncle. Huang is tasked with finding the sword and avenging his father.


CHUDTIP- You won’t get the full GTA experience without piles of dead cops.


The story has you dealing with the usual dregs of humanity in Liberty City, everything from the mob to dirty cops to biker gangs. This isn’t the usual story of trying to get to the top of the heap, though- you’re only in this for yourself.

THE PLAY


Want to know how it plays? It plays like the last few Grand Theft Autos. That’s the crazy thing. The cars all handle differently and control beautifully, your little man can run and hurdle with the best of them, and he’s even a decent hand-to-hand fighter. Even the buttons are mostly the same.


The view takes a little getting used to, however. The camera floats in the air at about a 3/4 perspective, allowing you to better see things on the little screen but it will throw you off at first, making you spend more time crashing than anyone would be comfortable with. But for the most part this game will be easy for GTA fans to jump right into.

Of course, it’s a little more simple than GTAIV. There’s no cover system, for example, and you auto-aim with the right trigger which may bring back horrifying memories of locking onto little old ladies walking down the street in the middle of a fierce gunfight from GTA III. But your character can soak up a lot of bullets and it’s easy to kill dozens of enemies with no problem. The large amount of weapons (including the return of fun ones like the flamethrower)  means that it never gets old, either.

The car chases might even be more fun than the console iterations. Instead of trying to get out of the cop’s circle of awareness, you’re trying to take those suckers out. Not kill them- not if you want them off your back, that is. No, to get them to stop chasing you’re going to have to put a few of their cars out of commission, more depending on how many crimes you’ve committed and how large your wanted level is. It makes for a helluva entertaining car chase, because you’ll be trying to smash them head on and try to fake them out and make them plow into buildings and other cars to wreck their vehicles.

Cop chases are a big part of the game, but the missions will be familiar to people as well- it’s the usual assortment that has you killing off gang members or blowing up buildings, but the nature of the system means that they’re much shorter and more action packed.


CHUDTIP- You deal with a lot of explosives- cut the wrong wire here  and you’ll find out how to eat through a straw.


The touch screen gets a lot of use, but it never gets annoying or feels gimmicky, even though it might well be. Get into a parked car and you’ll have to use it to jam a screwdriver into the ignition and turn it back and forth till it starts up. If it’s a newer car you’ll have to hack the alarm using your ever-present and incredibly handy PDA. Getting into locked structures requires you to smash a lock or rewire a panel. It’s used so well that you’ll find yourself wishing for them to happen all the time, and thankfully there are a lot of different little minigames.

The top screen is where all the action happens, while the bottom serves as your PDA. Here you’ll see a world map, your health and weapons, and access to your email and information about the world. It’s all laid out so that you can get into nearly anything you need with one touch, which is essential since you’ll get new missions (and sometimes spam) through your email.
  
A big portion of the game involves buying and selling drugs. Unaware parents will doubtlessly be pleased if they pick this up for their kids and find out that they are dealing real drugs, from heroin and acid to weed. The game plays a lot like the classic Drug Wars- it’s all about buying low and selling high. Periodically you’ll get updates via email that lets you know when a good deal is going on, and it’s pretty easy to get a lot of cash by pulling a few good jobs. You just have to be careful, because any drug deal has the potential to get busted up by the cops…. and getting busted with tons of drugs in your bag is something you most definitely do not want to do- you can lose a lot of money that way.


CHUDTIP- If someone’s selling drugs on the cheap, pick up as much as he has to offer. Stash whatever you get at your house and just wait for someone in need of your product, and you’ll make a ton of cash.


The big thing that will please everyone is that this is a return to the series’ roots… it’s very tounge in cheek and much less serious than the last installment. Look, I absolutely adore GTA IV, but it’s a mostly serious affair that kept me focused on the main storyline missions I didn’t find myself exploring the world like I did in older games. Here it’s completely different- I found myself looking all over the place, marvelling at all the things to do. Exploration is rewarded with new drug dealers, rampages (yep, they’re back!), cars and even some random encounters with strangers that give you a few hysterical missions (gotta love the crazy woman who starts stalking you). The sense of humor is reflected in the weapons given (flamethrowers, miniguns and proximity mines!) and in the vehicles you can drive (including herses and tanks!) This is a game made for one reason- for you to have fun. And you will.

There are a few niggling issues. Like every other GTA game there comes a part where you’ve got a shitload of money and nothing to spend it on- here the only thing to purchase (besides cars and guns) are safehouses, which is a bit lame when the money starts coming in from big drug deals. The camera will also have a hiccup here and there and get stuck behind a building, although it’s very rare.

But there’s nothing that will quench your enjoyment of this game. This is a GTA title, through and through, and they’ve made very few compromises in bringing it to the DS.
 
THE PRESENTATION

The level of detail is unprecedented. You won’t even realize how much is going on until you sit back and think about it. 3D modeled cars with realistic damage (hoods that pop off, exposing an engine that smokes and shoots off sparks) that have working lights and turn signals? Yep. Street lights and electrical wires and subway cars and newspaper dispensers on the side of the street that send papers flying when you run over them? Oh yeah. You’ll see pedestrians getting into fights, making phone calls and going about their lives. When you do ambulance missions sometimes you’ll pick up car accident survivors, bleeding near wreckage of their flipped car. Tourists pop out cameras and take pictures of Liberty City Landmarks. Cop chases will happen right in front of you and give you a scare that you did something wrong.

This is a real world they’ve created here, and there hasn’t been a DS game that ever indicated it could create something like this. The other amazing thing is for anyone familiar with GTA IV, because Liberty City is almost entirely recreated here. Lots of places look familiar, and while it’s much more condensed (and missing Alderney/Jersey) there’s a remarkable amount of the city here.

While there’s a tiny bit of slowdown when things get really hectic, this game runs smooth and looks great. Videos really don’t do it justice, you need to put this sucker in front of your face and see how smooth everything is. A tremendous job from Rockstar Leeds.


CHUDTIP- When you first start up the game go into the options and turn Top Screen GPS ON. It will lay down arrows on the ground and show you where you’re going without having to look down to the map on the bottom screen.


The music and sound is no exception. The music is all instrumental, mp3 quality stuff. It comes out real crisp whenever you’re driving around and there are plenty of tracks that you’ll catch yourself bopping your head to. The only problem is that with a game so long there really aren’t enough tracks. With only around eight per station you’ll catch yourself listening to the same ones a bunch over your campaign, but it’s nothing that’ll kill it for you.

The cutscenes are done very cleverly. Mostly it’s portraits of people talking, animated slightly, with subtitles for the dialogue. The script is very witty and even laugh out loud funny at parts, because much like the game it’s not taking itself too seriously either.
  
THE REPLAY


I beat the game in a little over nine hours, a great amount of gameplay for a portable system, but even with that, I’ve only done 60% of what there is to do in the game- there are still tons of races I have to complete, rampages to find, stunt jumps to hit, and security cameras to destroy. Anyone looking for a couple of more missions past the end of the game should check out the Rockstar Social Club, which will allow you to access two new missions if you join and synch your game. It’s a little bit of a pain that they’re not just unlocked but it’s nice to compare stats with your friends on there.

In a first-ever for a GTA that we can only hope becomes a trend, you can replay any of the missions from the game. Do them fast enough to get medals to show to your friends.

Speaking of friends, there is multiplayer but it’s unfortunately not online. You can chat with your friends and show them places to go by trading friend codes, but that’s it for wifi. No, you need a friend with a DS and his or her own copy of the game to play some multiplayer, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to try it out just yet. There are a lot of modes to try though, everything from head to head games like deathmatches and races as well as a co-op mode where you defend a base from rival gang members.



CHUDTIP- You’re pretty fucked if tanks show up. It usually happens at six stars- hope you have a tank of your own or you have no chance of surviving.

 
But the replay value is very high just because all of the missions were made specifically for the gamer on the go- which means that they’re all fairly short and very, very sweet.

THE VERDICT

There are plenty of great games on the Nintendo DS but there is nothing that has ever pushed it the way that Chinatown Wars does. If you’re an adult and own the system there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t have this in your collection. If you don’t have a DS this is the reason to own one.

10 out of 10