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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Redefining GTA on handhelds
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was the first GTA handheld game released on the Nintendo DS before the Sony PSP, but now after more than half a year of waiting, Chinatown Wars is finally on the PSP. If you count all the Grand Theft Auto games including the expansions as separate games, Chinatown Wars would be the thirteenth GTA game and sixth ever to appear on a handheld. Now the PSP finally gets its own version of Chinatown Wars and this port offers several improvements over the original Nintendo DS version.

Chinatown Wars puts you in the shoes of Huang Lee, the son of a murdered Triad boss. The game starts out with Huang Lee having to deliver a sword to his Uncle Kenny, but like most things involving planes and airports in the GTA universe, the plan goes awry. Huang Lee is robbed of the sword and left for dead by unknown assailants and goes to his Uncle minus a sword but with a wish to find the sword and the robbers. From this starting point, itís up to you to uncover the mystery and help your Uncle Kenny become the leader of all the Triads.

The game may look like a throw-back to Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the game plays most like the GTA 3 with the top/down perspective permanently enabled. If you were hoping to pick up the game and expect anything like the previous Stories games, youíll be sadly disappointed. Chinatown Wars is a completely different animal than the Stories games and is much more refined and polished. It makes a lot of changes to the classic GTA formula (some for the better, some for the worse) and adds in a ton of stuff that makes the game a richer and deeper experience.

The top down perspective looks great, but at times youíll absolutely hate it because it just doesnít give you the chance to see oncoming obstacles and cars that an isometric view gives. It also doesnít give that personal feel that an isometric view gives, like being able to actually see the characters up close. However, the view is fine for the most part and doesnít really detract all that much from the game. The controls in Chinatown Wars are pretty well thought out, though there are times when it becomes apparently that this was originally a DS game. If youíve ever played and of the GTA games on the Playstation 2, then the controls will be completely familiar to you right from the start. Also like the Playstation 2 GTA games, if you hated the lock on system in those games, then youíll also hate the lock on system in Chinatown Wars. Itís clunky and oftentimes youíll find yourself locking onto the wrong target and will have to waste precious time to switch targets.

One aspect of GTA that theyíve managed to drastically improve over the previous versions is the Wanted system, which no longer requires you to get out of their search radius. Now, you have to disable police cruisers in order to take down your wanted level the fast way. You can still try to hide and lay low if you wish to lose your stars that way, but itís much slower and tougher than simply ramming police cruisers out of the way. Overall, this change is actually for the better since the frustration of getting surrounded on all sides doesnít mean that everything is lost. Another change to the classic GTA formula has to do with the minigames, which were introduced in the original DS version. They arenít bad, but they certainly feel out of place on the PSP. These games were meant to be played with a stylus or touch screen, but on the PSP itís all done with buttons. Itís a part of the game that feels unnecessary and actually a bit of wasted time. These minigames are often set up as trying to put gas in bottles to make Molotov cocktails or trying to disarm alarm systems in a car youíre trying to steal.

Multiplayer in Chinatown Wars is made up of several modes such as Single Race, Season Race, Stash Dash, Defend the Base, LC Survivor, and Gang Bang. Unfortunately, Free Roam is nowhere to be found. The game makes use of Rockstarís online Social Club feature, which allows you to post stats and share items online with other players, much like GTA IV but in a much more in-depth way. Linking the game to your Social Club isnít required to enjoy the game, but it allows you to get more out of it.

The most immediately noticeable difference between the PSP and DS version of the game is the fact that it has moved to a widescreen 16:9 format and the game no longer has a completely cartoony feel to it. After playing the PSP port of the game, the updated graphics are enough to make me completely forget about the DS version. Even the cutscene drawings look smoother, most polished, and less pixilated than the DS version. There are a few issues with the graphics in Chinatown Wars though. Namely, pop-in rears its ugly head again. Drive fast enough in the game and there will be times that models and textures suddenly appear out of nowhere, or maybe even the road can disappear only to appear when you stop. These occurrences are rare, but they do happen.

Like previous Grand Theft Auto games the radio stations provide nearly all the music that you hear in the game, though this PSP port has 6 more stations than the original DS soundtrack. The stations are varied and youíll hear everything from Rock and Hip Hop to Electronica Ė there is even an Eastern Asian music station that plays classical Chinese music. One interesting fact is that most stations in the game are linked to a specific artist. For instance, the station Deadmau5 plays mainly music by Deadmau5 and associated acts. As for the sound effects, they do a pretty good job of bringing all the sounds that youíd expect to hear in a city into a hand held. Of course, nothing is perfect and Chinatown Wars is no exception. The lack of voice acting is one area that the game falls short, especially considering that the previous Stories games had fully voice casts with some big names behind the characters. Does Huang Lee have a huge accent, or does he speak perfect English? Weíll never know.

Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars is the biggest and most ambitious handheld GTA game ever, and the production values really show in the PSP port, with its vastly improved graphics and audio. However, itís still plagued with GTA 3 era problems such as pop in and a subpar lock on system. The lack of voice acting and in-game cutscenes is also disappointing, but not game breaking problems like texture pop in. Once you get used to these issues, the game is actually very fun and offers tons to do (there are even extra missions for the PSP port). Even if youíve already played the DS version of Chinatown Wars, do try it on the PSP and enjoy a vastly improved game.