Grand Theft Auto: China Wars (Nintendo DS) - Review by Chris
Over the past few years, the Grand Theft Auto series has grown and flourished, setting the precedent for all sandbox style games to hit the market. This title continues this tradition. Chinatown Wars is the eleventh entry into the series and but only the fourth to hit a Nintendo console, with GTA 1 and 2 being released on the Gameboy Color and GTA Advance on the Gameboy Advance. It has to be said that the series hasn't been particularly strong in any of the iterations it's seen on the Nintendo consoles. However, with a large development team encompassing both Rockstar Leeds and Rockstar North and a considerable budget, it looks as though Rockstar has finally taken one of Nintendo's platforms seriously and created a game catered to it and filled a gaping hole in the mature title market on the DS.
Anyone who has played a GTA title will instantly be familiar with the formula set out here. For those who aren't up to speed on the series, here's how Chinatown Wars sets itself up: You play as Huang Lee who has come to America looking to exact revenge on those who killed his father, a high ranking member of the Triads, and to relinquish a sword from said father to his brother. Unfortunately, things don't go to plan and on arrival in Liberty City, Huang is jumped, kidnapped, shot and nearly drowned and this all happens within 4 minutes of arriving. That's one hell of a way to start a new life in a new city. Anyway, the story goes on as Huang helps his uncle to try and get back his reputation which he has lost so he can become the leader of the Triads when the current leader steps down as well as getting revenge on those who killed his father.
Those familiar with the recent console iteration, GTA IV, will instantly be familiar with what they are presented with as the game brings with it the majority of Liberty City that was present in that title, minus Alderney which isn't that much of a big deal seeing as I found Alderney to be rather lacklustre in terms of its layout and design. The action takes place on the top screen, displayed in full 3d cel-shaded graphics with a fully rotatable aerial camera view, with the touch screen being used as a PDA where you can access emails as well as map info and stats.
Unlike GTA IV, Chinatown Wars goes back to the series' roots creating a more action oriented sandbox title. GTA IV was infamous for having plenty of pickup and drop off missions and this was one of its biggest flaws. Here, though, Rockstar have remedied this so while you'll still get some basic pickup/drop off missions, the majority of the missions you'll be playing will be much more action oriented and it's a change for the good. You'll also be using the touch screen quite a lot both in missions which are built specifically around it and outside of the missions. In missions and outside, the touch screen will be used for everything and anything from hotwiring a car to searching dumpsters for weapons to drawing tattoos on initiate Triad members. These add a substantial amount to the gameplay and keep everything fresh and it's truly something that could only be done with the DS' touch screen, although I wouldn't be surprised to see Rockstar try and implement it into the home console versions.
Another big inclusion to this title and the series is the inclusion of the drug dealing game. The main story is substantial enough but Rockstar have effectively managed to fit an entirely separate game onto the cartridge. The drug dealing game is so deep that it could easily have been released as a standalone title. Missions will give you a certain amount of money but if you're looking to make the big bucks to buy that apartment, car or gun you want then you'll be delving into the drug dealing game to make the money. Each area of the map is effectively zoned off in terms of which drug is the most popular in that area, and there are 6 in total, and so you'll be able to sell specific drugs for high prices in some areas and be able to buy drugs at exceedingly low prices in others. There are a large number of dealers placed throughout Liberty City to hook up with and through your PDA, you'll receive emails informing you of specific deals on drugs or hotspots where prices for selling specific drugs have gone through the roof. As I've said, it's a very deep side game to accompany the main story and you'll find yourself spending a large amount of time on it and find it hard to pull yourself away from it because the market conditions for the drugs are constantly changing.
Taking a series which is known for offering up large open environments as well as a long, twisting story and bring it to a handheld such as the DS is one hard task but making the controls work is another. Movement is done with the d-pad with the B button being used to run, which can be done for a small amount of time. The A button is used for doing attacks. Depending on whether you have a weapon or not, the A button will either be used for punching or discharging you weapons. The Y button is used to roll or climb fences and the X button allows you to enter and exit vehicles. They're virtually ripped from the console versions and this is a good thing because in those games the controls work exceptionally well and so there really was no need to implement unnecessary touch screen controls. While using vehicles, B is used for acceleration and Y is used for braking and the R shoulder button is used for either handbrake turning, rudder movement or sliding and this depends which of the 3 main types of vehicles you are using.
All in all, the button controls work exceptionally well. Vehicle handling has been superbly implemented into the title. The controls were already good enough but Rockstar have added physics to all of the vehicles so that they move and react in a realistic way and it really makes the vehicles handle well and adds to a sense of realism that the title, and the series as a whole, tries to step away from.
For a handheld which is considered by some substantially underpowered compared to its competitor, Rockstar have done a phenomenal job in creating a fully living and breathing 3d world on the DS. Ok, the title has had to return to its roots and to a similar view point to the original titles but that doesn't mean that what you see is anything less than impressive. Buildings looks superb as do vehicles and they all show a high amount of detail. Many of the graphical attributes, environmental factors and scenery present in the Liberty City of GTA IV are perfectly replicated on the DS. It's so familiar to anyone who has played that title yet still retains that feeling of being entirely new. The city streets are litter with people, vehicles and other jargon and vehicles will explode in explosions that take up a decent proportion of the screen and look great.
It's just truly unbelievable how much Rockstar have managed to pull off on the handheld. The game does, unfortunately, suffer from a slight slowdown but again, this happens very rarely and for the vast majority of the time, the title will race along at a brisk 30 frames per second. The game is a testament to both Rockstar's ability to get the best out of the technology available but also to the DS for being able to cope with such an impressive array of detail. The cutscenes which follow the story are nicely drawn and continue on with the anime style visuals which can be seen in loading screens and on box art for all of the other titles.
The DS' cartridge capabilities are only so big and so Chinatown Wars was never going to be able to produce a soundtrack as grand, with licensed music, as it's console brethren. However, Rockstar have performed amicably and provided a selection of 5 radio stations, catering to 5 distinctive style of music, made up entirely of music created specifically for the title. While it would have been nice to have heard some licensed music, we have to remember the limitations of the cartridges and what we have is actually pretty good. The game possesses all of the sound effects present in the console versions, such as horn beeping, sounds from crashing, pedestrians speaking and screaming. They have taken a small hit in terms of quality and again this is to do merely with the DS' limitations but they still sound good.
The game uses touch screen controls for several of the mini-games that occur throughout, such as hotwiring a car or creating Molotov cocktails. Thankfully, these have been implemented and work really well and look to have had a decent amount of time spent on them by Rockstar to make sure they work as they do. There is the occasional hiccup where the touch screen won't recognise small movements but these are few and far between.
Like GTA IV, Chinatown Wars lets you link your save file to Rockstar's Social Club where your stats can be checked on your PC against those of your friends. You are also capable of having MSN like conversations of the Wi-Fi connection and while it's a long way away from the online multiplayer in GTA IV, it's an amicable use of the DS' online functions given the limitations of the hardware.
People walking into a store not knowing anything about this title may be remise in thinking that it's going to be a toned down iteration in the series. But this couldn't be father from the truth because quite frankly, Chinatown Wars is a phenomenal piece of work on behalf of Rockstar who have really shown why they are so exceptionally good at making this style of game. It takes full advantage of what the DS has to offer and really pushes it in terms of what can be done. Graphics are superb, the touch screen mini-games are excellent and a breath of fresh air and the return to a more action oriented game and a move away from the pickup/drop off gameplay of the console titles is greatly welcomed and is something which should continue in later titles. If that wasn't enough, the drug dealing game adds a substantial amount to do outside of the main story and you'll easily lose yourself in its depth and this is definitely that should be incorporated into the home console versions. Anyone who is a fan of the series should definitely pick it up and those looking for a fantastic mature title should also pick it up. This is a definite must have for any DS owner.
Pro: Truly phenomenal title pushing the DS to its limits, drug dealing game will sap away your time
Con: Very occasional slowdown, occasional detection issues with the touch screen
Final score: 9.6