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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars


Rock Star Takes Us Respectedly Towards a Touch-Screen GTA
Let's face the facts: bringing Rock Star's legendary Grand Theft Auto series -- a legacy of quality games plagued with scorn for its controversial content -- to Nintendo's family-friendly Nintendo DS handheld system is, well, an odd decision. Carrying over similar gameplay and graphical prowess to the PSP for its line of Liberty City / Vice City offshoots makes much more logical sense, largely because of the Sony handheld's demographic of teen-to-twenty-something males. When Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was announced at E3 in 2008, it was uncertain what direction Rock Star and Nintendo would take the mature series on a touch-screen gaming console … mostly because of the ominous “gimmick” stigma firmly fixed on its potential output.

It's only worth mentioning this doubtfulness with the concept because of how well Rock Star defied these thoughts and accomplished something great in packing a massive cartridge-sized punch into Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. Somehow, it retains the like-minded depth from the other installments while incorporating stylus-based gameplay in a unique and, mostly, novel arrangement of play mechanics. Together with a few legacy spit-shines and a holistic pick-up-and-play paradigm, this is unquestionably the most fun I've had with a Grand Theft Auto game to date.


Introduction and Storyline:

As with the rest of the Grand Theft Auto series, plot infrastructure and development aren't exactly the paramount elements we're concerned with here. Chinatown starts out with a fresh entrant into an urban crime syndicate, relying on family connections to get him in just like a good majority of the rest of the series. Eerily similar to Niko's story in GTA IV, only involving an erratic uncle instead of a cousin, this plot again leans on the family bickering style of communication with a rough-and-tumble thug fresh off a trip to the "land of opportunity". Huang Lee, the son of a recently assassinated crime lord, has been dropped in Liberty City to bring a family heirloom – a sword – to his uncle, a relative bigwig in the Chinatown sect of the metropolis.

After nearly being killed and having the sword stolen by rival gang members, Huang Lee quickly falls under his uncle's wing and begins his trail of vengeance for his father's death. Once Huang Lee begins to pick up the rhythm of Chinatown's crime syndicate, he starts to make his own decisions about whom in the underworld he's interested in working for. With that, there are several different missions that each of many bosses will offer Huang – from arson with Molotov cocktails (read: gas with cloth hanging out of a bottle) to street races with fast cars and take-out missions concerning either heavily-armored vehicles of quick sports cars. With PDA / GPS in-hand and an e-mail address for easy communication with all the bosses, Huang becomes easily integrated into the network. There are several twists and turns, many of them steering Huang Lee towards recovering the sword, but many of them are merely diversions set in action just to throw him into cockamamie situations that satisfy the player's urge for crazed activity.

Generally, Huang Lee's story, filled with a scattering of testosterone-infused upshot dialogue between all characters involved, develops on enough of a compelling level to keep its audience trucking along across the map to see what'll happen next. A stereotypical, signature Rock Star assortment of characters enters the picture: an elderly crime boss with a penchant for aggression, a silly fun-loving twenty-something gangster with his eyes on a combo of power and partying, and a crooked cop with a taste for narcotics. They all toss little missions in Huang Lee's way, sending him around doing their dirty work as he climbs the ranks and earns more and more income. Momentum builds to the conclusion, even if it all feels familiar enough to guess on what's coming around every corner.


Gameplay Nuts and Bolts:

Underneath the story, it's all about the experience that the player feels willing to invest in a sandbox game. Most of Grand Theft Auto, for those inundated, revolves around boosting car after car to get from Point A to Point B on a map. Plowing through the storyline itself nets a decent array of gameplay that offers plenty of enjoyment. However, that's undoubtedly not the core entertainment value behind the game. I mean, would Scarface have been as interesting of a film if it weren't for his narcissistic thirst for wealth? That same frame of mind, along with sheer completist desire and collective joy, becomes some of the bread and butter behind Huang Lee's time in Liberty City. Even more so than previous Grand Theft Autos – largely due to the stripped-down yet functional nature of the graphics – collecting cars isn't the most attractive of ventures and, as per modus operandi, deems them as disposable resources to be banged around and run into the ground for rough transportation purposes. Along with cars, Huang Lee also has extensive access to water-based transports as well – including speedboats and jet skis.

He drives, boats, bikes, runs, walks, and swims across a rather sizable stretch of land to do his dirty work, one that's surprising in size for a DS environment. Rock Star have become legendary for packing in as much density into a game as humanly possible, at times sacrificing exactness of graphical rendering and pristine lines in an effort to give the player MORE TO DO. Even considering that, they always concentrate on detail; here, in Liberty City's Chinatown, Rock Star have done it again. Spread across several compartmentalized metro areas separated by bridges (some with tollbooths), each sect offers a broad array of convoluted roads, parks, alleyways, and construction sites to explore at leisure's whim. Around each corner, there might be a new dumpster to scurry through or a hidden side game to partake in – or maybe even a new drug dealer, if the little blue dot shows up on the GPS. It'd be impressive on a console, which makes the DS capacity even more impressive. There's a ton of land to explore with many shady corners to turn in search of the seedy and entrepreneurial elements of Chinatown Wars.

A big way to earn sizable wealth in a short time period is through the (semi-optional) drug dealing activities. Flipping several different types of narcotic (weed, acid, etc) for profit becomes an easy way to earn thousands of dollars in one sharp shot, making the process of purchasing safe houses – save spots for more informal, non-blitzed analysis of data and secure narcotics storage – and weapons from the Ammu-Nation, the Amazon-like gun emporium that delivers weaponry to your doorsteps, a heck of a lot easier than completing the missions and knocking off random strangers on the street. The availability to earn different cars through street races is also available, along with some added cash in the bank, but it's a little hard to indulge in this part of the game with the graphical limitations and the ridiculously destructive nature of driving from point to point in this particular installment from the series.

It's hard to describe exactly the ways in which Chinatown's controls feel in relation to the rest of the Grand Theft Auto series. It would probably be easier to outline if it didn't feel so strongly familiar to the rest. While holding the DS, the signature feel of the gameplay felt locked in place – even though the visual angle actually sits at the top looking down. Movement, thankfully not connected to the stylus, sticks to traditional operations with the directional pad. Due in large part to the four-button familiarity, each of the active commands felt familiarly intuitive – button for car theft, button for action / fire, button for running, and a button for rolling / jumping. With a trigger button available as a centered viewing angle toggle, movement with the directional pad never feels stifled or constrained. Normal movement, though looking down at Huang Lee and his car of the moment from the top, feels very, very familiar. That's a good thing, as it allows for slight tweaking and innovation to occur in pleasant degrees with the touch-screen functionality.

The DS stylus becomes one of the neatest and, strangely, most practical implementations within all of Chinatown Wars. Now, that's not really referring to the earmarked "realism" aspects, which add an interactive panache in, thankfully, only moderately toy-like / gimmicky ways. Jacking parked cars actually becomes a lot of fun, as there are several different security measures that must be taken with different targets. Some vehicles require a four-button code used with an electronic hacking device, while others just need a little hot-wiring (imagine twisting the wires) or screwdriver twisting. Other little things, like buying and scratching down scratch cards at a shop, become ridiculously amusing. One of the ways to build up cash quickly is to find one or two favorite card spots, purchase a safe house nearby, and make return visits to that Scratch Card location. Along with that, you also use the stylus to place charges for bombs and rotate cranks during specific challenges, and they're implemented in non-insulting ways. Furthermore, the stylus also comes into play when launching certain projectile elements, such as grenades and, to an entertaining level, flame-throwers.

By far, however, the best thing about Chinatown Wars above the rest of the series is the practical usage of the stylus with GPS / PDA functionality. With a quick stylus tap on the inner circle on the bottom screen, many different options are made available much like an actual GPS system – including basic functions like settling a course from designated points on the map to more complex bits like favorite locations and nearby “attractions” like dealers and spray paint parlors. Simply clicking on the golden initials of the locations or the blue-ish icons for attractions is exceedingly helpful, as it highlights the route with just a few touches. It's a shame that an obnoxious voice doesn't come up and say “Recalculating” every time you deviate from the path. Though the drastic separation of the map from the actual gaming screen takes a while to get used to, it eventually feels comfortable enough to approach innate movement after a few hours behind the wheel. Once on the GPS map, the stylus can drag across its entire length and click on points of interest – making it the quickest way out of the Grand Theft Auto series to select specific points on a map, set a designation, and easily follow a direct path to get there. Some might even argue that it adds some "easiness" to the proceedings.

Along with the GPS, the touch-screen functionality also hovers around the PDA / Blackberry style intercommunication aspects. Plain and simple, e-mail is the way information gets around in Chinatown. Different levels of important e-mails regarding weapons purchases, hot deals with neighboring drug peddlers, and outside missions all pop in Huang Lee's mailbox. Urgent messages and side missions are color-coded to help better navigate through the mail box. He also can monitor his statistics, income, and drug trade information through options on the interface, points that feel both unique to the new navigational framework and similar to the past tracking capabilities in other (mainly the more modern) Grand Theft Auto games.

One of the more entertaining secondary events plays out like this: Huang Lee receives an "exclamation point" e-mail from a dealer with a good buy, he sets the GPS to scramble over to snag it before the two-or-three day timeframe expires, then he sets out to find another dealer willing to purchase the goods for a higher price. It's a semi-mad scramble to do so without the cops zeroing in on him (or crashing into his car), which adds a flair of excitement about the optional mission – which is the case for many of the others, including geographically-placed “swarm” fights. These statistical values can also be compared to others via the Wi-Fi connection with a quick tap of the red globe icon in the Stats menu. Some sacrifices have had to be made, like a mini-map riding alongside the car and the availability to look out on the horizon for turns like in the previous Grand Theft Autos, but the usage of handheld electronic devices in the game and the fluidity of Rockstar's aesthetic make up for the gaps.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars does have one major flaw: a goofy eye for tinkering with realism. Sure, suspended belief is a key element to consider when stepping into the Liberty City realm as a whole, and steps taken to make the controversial activities in the game more "lighthearted" are sure to be appreciated; however, the liberties taken with practicality are fairly extensive here. Glocks, machine guns, and grenades can all be easily delivered to your doorstep at the snap of a finger, while scratch games offer pieces of real estate as prizes – and can be won multiple times in one sitting (two or three of my safe houses were lottery wins).

Police activity is probably the biggest reality buster. Stealth boosting cars, first off, is annoying difficult, almost to a point where it's near impossible. Once on the run, squad cars appear in oddly frequent patterns. On top of that, the prospect of "destroying X cars to purge wanted level" gets a shade on the ridiculous side. Take, for instance, the fact that Huang Lee can kill several cops, blow up a few SWAT vehicles, steal a car nearby, and bolt away from the swarm of sirens, then can smash up a handful or two of their squad cars and remove his appeal to the cops. Granted, running police cars off the road and into walls and buildings can be outlandishly entertaining – but it's also a little absurd. Leaving a digital paper trail with the frequency of e-mails and such, especially with the eccentric "order confirmation" e-mails received fro Ammu-nation, also adds to the disbelief of the scenario.

That brings up the key thing to take away from the entirety of GTA: Chinatown Wars' gameplay, despite the realism factor: it's simply a hell of a lot of fun to play, easy to grab a hold of, and adaptable to a pick-up-and-go rhythm not quite as befitting of the other games. Grabbing the DS, making a few grand with random drug deals, scratching a few cards, and looking into safe houses can offer a few solid shots of pure entertainment for a 10-15 minute spot of time – and then, when all is said and done, the game can be saved and take Huang Lee to his nearest safe house instead of the necessity to drive to one and save the game. Though built to be a touch-and-go kind of experience, there's also enough density at work here to keep even the die-hard GTA fan at bay. Rock Star and Nintendo have found a way to compress a large map, a dense and twisty story, and a slew of earmarked improvements and new quirks to the Grand Theft Auto formula with Chinatown Wars, and the results are nothing short of addictive and precise.


Graphics, Sound and Longevity:

Spread across both screens, Rock Star have pieced together some exceedingly impressive work with keeping the graphical presentation simple, detailed, and interesting enough to hold visual flavor across a very large playing map. Leaning on simpler cel-shaded style of models for environmental elements, the grid-like navigation space oftentimes contains several mine-Hot Wheels looking cars, multiple buildings, a street lamp falling over and an explosion all going on at the same time – and there's rarely any slowdown. In a few instances with too much commotion, the game drags just a hair. However, that's when many, many elements all fight for time on-screen. Though kept streamlined, some of the small details – waves in water, gradation of color in explosions, textures in industrial settings – add a semi-realistic flavor to the graphical presentation. As for the storyboard / comic style conversations, they sport decent character models that resemble the cartoonish artistic style of the "loading" screens in the other Grand Theft Auto games. They serve their purpose without standing out.

On the audio front, GTA: Chinatown Wars is, much to my surprise, rather impressive. Ambient sound effects have become a staple in the series, and Rock Star have concentrated heavily on replicating the experience to the handheld system. Mutterings from passersby still fill the soundstage, while the musical accompaniment from the radio belts out across the speakers. Though the selection of tunes for radio channels is limited and repetitive, they're not quite as monotonous or grating as one might expect. Vehicle crashes and explosions all sound really strong for the system, never distorting to an obnoxious degree even with the volume cranked up to full blast on the system itself. The lack of voice acting never encroaches on the experience – maybe even doing one of Rock Star's problematic areas a favor by keeping it text based.

As with other Grand Theft Auto games, Chinatown Wars can either provide a 10+ hour blitz through a storyline or a countless hour spectacle in amassing wealth, prestige, and completion of a myriad of side missions and mini games. On a secondary level, there are plenty of elements to tackle: obtaining drug dealer trophies for selling specific product, building up style points for doing flips and wheelies with vehicles, collecting tattoos, and the usual menagerie of other aesthetic collectibles. Missions also have the availability to be repeated for time values as well, while other competitive side obstacles – mowing down aggressors with several types of ammunition, racing through a gravesite on a motorcycle – also open the way for more achievements. To say the least, there's tons of GTA to be found underneath the top layer, one that holds the capacity to sucker loyal fans in for as lengthy of time periods as its console brethren.

Chinatown Wars also has online functionality for co-op and head-to-head competitive play. They're mostly branches off of similar missions available in the single-player mode, only opened up to play over the Wi-Fi connection. It's a Card-to-Card communication option, so both players will have to own a copy of the game to battle it out. Modes include several fast-paced racing and defense style competitions (Defend the Base, Single Race) as well as destruction derby style racing competitions (Stash Dash).


Final Thoughts:

To say that the DS concoction of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars carries the same depth and entertainment value as the rest of its predecessors is a bigger compliment than someone might realize. Cramming together a spacious map, a fluidly developing storyline, and a signature array of side missions and organizational infrastructure can be staggeringly impressive on any console, but Rock Star have come together to factor in the portability and touch-screen elements of Nintendo's console to make it into something that carries the lineage of the past games while adding a few novel dashes that don't insult the player's intelligence.

It's still Grand Theft Auto when it's all said and done, and most gamers who can't soak into the series won't find a different enough experience to sell them otherwise. However, the novelty behind its concentration on the DS's unique properties – most prominently the stylus and its capacity to mirror modern tech like the GPS and portable organizational devices – makes it into a diverse experience that could impress some typically indifferent about the series' inherently redundant nature. Chinatown Wars will satisfy the urge for a new entry into the GTA series, all while earning its own merits for its concentration on making the series more enjoyable for those itching for a true pick-up-and-go rendition.