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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Grand Theft Auto

While Grand Theft Auto has been making waves with its recent more serious approach to storytelling, a few frumpy fans have been pining for the old days. In the old days, Grand Theft Auto was all about spectacle. Planes and chainsaws! Miniguns and tanks! Back when cameras were locked high in the sky, absolute mayhem was the goal. Chinatown Wars, back when it first hit the Nintendo DS, brought back some of that classic gameplay. The PSP edition strives to do everything the DS version did, albeit without a touchscreen.

Chinatown Wars on the DS was something of an anomaly for the system. Often perceived as a child’s handheld, Grand Theft Auto was one of only a handful of games aimed squarely at an older demographic. It had no equal. On the PSP, however, Chinatown Wars is squaring off against two of its own brethren: Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories, both of which capture the essence of the console series on Sony’s little portable. In comparison, Chinatown Wars may even seem like a step backward from other PSP Grand Theft Auto titles, thanks to its throwback overhead camera. Of course, it’s anything but.

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While it lacks the same gameplay the Stories titles had, Chinatown Wars presents Grand Theft Auto in a way perfectly suited for handhelds. Stories was an emulation of a series that had made its mark in recent years on a console. Chinatown Wars cuts away the fat, and instead offers a Grand Theft Auto experience tailored to portable gameplay: shorter missions, slicker controls, and smoother graphics. In a sense, it’s a proper sequel to the classic Grand Theft Auto games for PC; the bursts of action and outrageous presentation are almost nostalgic.

Set in the same Liberty City as Grand Theft Auto IV, Chinatown Wars casts players as Huang Lee, a Triad grunt who, thanks to a valuable family heirloom, gets caught up in the gang wars rampant in Liberty City. Ripped straight from a gangland B-movie, the plot is loose and silly, filled with (intentionally) cringe-worthy dialog delivered by various Asian mobster stereotypes. The story is essentially an excuse to string together guns, cars, and lots of drugs – drugs that will be sold by the player. It’s all very gritty without an ounce of seriousness, with stylish character art and witty sound bites taking the place of Grand Theft Auto IV‘s long-winded cutscenes.

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Chinatown Wars delivers the core Grand Theft Auto experience, i.e. lots of shooting and driving. The camera is raised to an isometric perspective, reminiscent of the older games from the 90s. The action is perfectly ludicrous, too; Huang Lee has access to loads of neat toys Nico Bellic would have killed for. Blood and fire tend to start filling up the screen fairly quickly in Chinatown Wars, and if that wasn’t mature enough for you, the game also revolves heavily around drug dealing. It’s quite possibly the most mature and immature game all at once; the cheesy mobster movie vibe lets the audience in on the joke immediately, and then uses it as an excuse to go nuts. It’s all the better for it, too, as the over-the-top script segues neatly into an even more over-the-top game.

Not much has been lost in the transition from the DS. The touch screen controls and minigames are gone, but the difference is so minimal without them it’s barely worth mentioning. What has changed is the presentation. The graphics on the PSP are much smoother than those on the DS. The fact that most of Liberty City made it into the game is still a marvel. Everything runs at a much faster framerate, and the action stays smooth in a few areas where the DS chugged. The style is the same as ever, however: thick black lines accentuate the simple graphics, giving everything a very vibrant look. Chinatown Wars is less of a technical feat on the PSP than it was on Nintendo’s little handheld, but the increased power does the art design better justice.

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For those who haven’t played Chinatown Wars yet, the PSP version is definitely the one to get. The DS version was an instant classic, simply because it was unrivaled. People who already own the DS version, however, aren’t missing much. On Sony’s portable, the game isn’t as unique, but the bigger screen and more advanced visuals help what is already a fantastic game really shine; it’s simply a high octane game at a higher resolution. The loss of touch control is a drop in the bucket compared to the smoother experience on the PSP. It also helps that Chinatown Wars is a great game, regardless of control systems. It may not rock the boat as much as it did on DS, but Chinatown Wars is still one of the finest examples of handheld action on the market.

10 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in October 2006.

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