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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Grand Theft Auto

Darting through the city at top speed, many could be forgiven for thinking this is just a top-down Grand Theft Auto game, forcing the series to take a step back into the PC days that seemed long gone. Weaving in and out of heavy traffic to escape the cops, you’ll recognise that something here is very different. Before, you would strive to outrun the pesky law-enforcers, aiming to find a subtle diversion in order to successfully escape. Changing pace dramatically, you’ll now hit these officers’ head on in a locking of horns that’ll send them tumbling towards the pavement and into the nearest lamppost. It may be on a smaller scale, but Liberty City is packing a fiercer punch than ever before.

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For all his talent and scripting prowess, it’s great to see Dan Houser hasn’t taken the franchise too seriously in this one. Opting for a quirkier, in-your-face narrative, you’ll assume the role of spoilt rich kid Huang Lee, as he journeys to the big city in order to maintain the traditional values of his family. Travelling after his father’s death, Huang undertakes a simple mission: delivering his father’s sword to his unwelcoming Uncle Kenny. Although sentimental on the surface, this weapon is steeped with importance. Its ownership is vital to the world of crime in Liberty City, as its possessor is destined to become the feared and respected boss of the notorious Triad gang. Wielding the Yu Jian by his side, Huang Lee quickly realises this isn’t a simple delivery task, as his vicious blade is inexplicably stolen in an attempt to leave the newcomer for dead. In true GTA fashion, you’re thrust into the underground world of guns, drugs and death without the chance to kiss normality goodbye.

Immediately, you’ll realise this game begs to be set apart from the recent console successes, and more importantly, the PC era that started it all. Looking stylishly sharp and colourful, Rockstar Leeds has ensured this is one of the prettiest games on Nintendo’s mega-selling system. Vehicles are brightly coloured to offer players a sense of familiarity, as you’ll quickly learn which are the fastest (pointed out by the classic ‘go faster’ stripes), and which suit your handling skills. Buildings are marvellously filled with detailed signs and structural work, as you’ll no doubt point out places you remember from Niko’s adventure in GTA IV. What’s more, as you travel through the caricature-like world, smaller details will begin to unfold with impressive regularity. Overlying the vivid colouration of the title is a whisking of bold, darker monochrome that acts a proverbial eye shadow: outlining the vibrancy of proceedings with a lash of contrast.

War is necessary

Gamers will be able to show some community spirit by working alongside (or against) their friends via multi-card play. With three racing modes and a gun-toting ‘Defend the Base’ set-up ready to tackle, Rockstar have covered all possible areas by making sure multi-player addicts will get their fix whenever a trash-talking mate starts running their mouth.

To be fair, Chinatown War’s visual cleanliness is more than roughed up once the story gets rolling, as you’ll tackle dilemmas that have been causing sleepless nights in the minds of gang wannabes for years. Receiving missions from a number of characters who are tussling to become the new Triad boss, you’ll quickly find out that Huang Lee is willing to help anyone in order to avenge his mishap on arrival. Before long, you’ll be sarcastically humouring Huang’s embarrassing uncle, playing friends with an easily scared contender to the throne, and even working alongside a drug-infested cop in order to gain respect and make money. There’s nothing new here, as the storyboard presentation acts as an adequate alternative to the fantastic voice-work that was one of the console versions greatest successes. Presented in stylishly drawn panels that replicate the visual flair of the comic book trade, it’s the text that is the most entertaining part here. Often blunt and to the point, this is the kind of narrative that’ll have mothers everywhere gluing Nintendogs into their child’s game slot for fear of misguidance.

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Although only two islands are on offer this time round, they’re still packed with missions, side-quests, and a host of odd jobs to complete. By the time you’ve gotten into the flow of the main quest, you’ll have opened up a set of possibilities that are brand new to the series. On top of the traditional taxi and rampage tasks, you can now earn extra cash from buying scratch cards, as the DS stylus is put to great use, forcing you to physically sketch off each section to reveal a possible prize. If you’re feeling creative, you can even head to the local tattoo parlour and make some cash from filling in a selection of traditional Chinese designs. It’s simple fun, but the fact that the city feels full of life and opportunity is vital to the longevity of the game, as you’ll continue to experience new and exciting events all the way through.

To allow players to get to grips with the city as quickly as possible, Rockstar Leeds have employed the use of an excellently designed PDA system that streams any information relevant to your character. Mission information will be sent to your inbox for instant reference, contacts stored to act as a reminder, and the ability to order weapons from the new Ammu-Nation site make this interface a superbly designed ‘gadget.’ Ensuring the whole adventure is accessible, you can save from anywhere in the city, returning to your nearest safehouse the next time you decide to boot the title up.

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With that said, the most important original gameplay mechanic that stems from the PDA is the ability to deal drugs with fellow lowlives. Receiving a heads-up when a certain product is cheap, this is the best way of making significant amounts of money, as the sums you’ll receive from successful missions will barely aid your cause. Seizing the opportunity to buy cheap and sell for a face-itching profit, they’ll be times where you spend a good half an hour traversing the city to seal a number of favourable deals. Forming decent relationships with each dealer is vital to your progress, as you’ll receive greater amounts of information in exchange of your business. It’s a superb ploy by the developers to get players thinking outside the box and managing finances in a manner that begs deeper thought. Next time GTA hits home consoles, you can bet your last stash of weed this’ll make an appearance.

Looking away from side-quests, the main bulk of missions are very entertaining indeed. Rockstar manage to mix it up so it stays feeling fresh, placing furious gunfights in between some courageously optimistic missions. Some of the highlights include escaping the ominous threat of a helicopter via a speedboat, setting fire to an enemy’s set of important stock piles, and even facing a mini-gun wielding madman in an attempt to save an associates life. As gunplay works effortlessly well, these missions are given the platform to unfold sublimely, as the familiar lock-and-shoot gameplay serve as well here as in the console versions. The spraying of bullets is immensely fun, as you’re greeted with an over-the-top burst of sunset oranges and, eventually, a splattering of red as blood seeps to the floor.

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If Chinatown Wars is held back in any way, it has to be the lottery of driving. Your map appears on the bottom screen, with events occurring on the top at an ultra-fast pace. Trying to get through traffic is a difficult and usually calamity filled task that needlessly gets the player in trouble. With police cars littering the streets in abundance, you’ll often crash into their inviting backsides, triggering a Burnout style task to ram them off the roads in order to get rid of those ever-present stars. Dealing with them can be fun, as the devilishly daring gameplay ensures you won’t have to manipulate your car into side-alleys or down small roads in order to escape. When driving freely, your route will often have to be pre-planned, as the correct corners will sneak up on you before you notice the accelerator has been hit. In this aspect, the top-down view becomes a slight hindrance, as it’ll take you a decent amount of playtime to productively fling your vehicle round bends at a pace that is needed to progress. Your vehicle is immediately sucked into a straight position that aligns you with the road, meaning if you play it right, you only have to dab a direction to quickly advance through the endless stream of traffic. For biker fans, I can pretty much guarantee a sadistic smile will run across your face, as these beasts are insanely quick and hard to handle, meaning you bounce off walls like a GTA version of Pong. It’s clear to see Rockstar have put a decent amount of time into the driving mechanics, it’s just clearer to see that they are extremely difficult to pull off with the limited birds-eye view.

Gunning for victory

For gun lovers, this game might match up as your perfect date. On offer is a dazzling array of the usual pistols, machine guns and shotguns. To mix it up a bit, you can take control of flamethrowers, chainsaws, and rocket-launchers, amongst many others.

As usual with Rockstar products, it’s the minute details that make this a joy to play. The DS capabilities are fully explored from the outset, as you frantically escape from a sinking car by bashing the windshield in. Throughout the main narrative you’ll be asked to build your own Molotov cocktails by filling a glass up with petrol and then stuffing it with a rag as quickly as possible. Moreover, players are forced to learn hotwiring tricks with haste, as many unattended vehicles needed a spark of life before you can take them away. Each interaction allows gamers to feel involved, like they are actually having an effect. With the chance to replay completed missions whenever you want, don’t be surprised if you have the urge to re-steal that truck full of goods just so you can take it home and slice open the dashboard to see what treasures await inside.

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It’s a testimony to Rockstar that after several hours play; you’ll still be witnessing events that make this feel entirely special. Whether it’s the brief glimpse of a helicopter whizzing past or a spontaneous murder that doesn’t involve Huang, it’s a delightfully unique universe to appear on the tiny screens. If you work hard enough, you’re troubles will be rewarded with special trophies that appear in each of your neatly designed safehouses, allowing you to roll down the streets knowing you are a master of the criminal underground. Minute changes such as a neon light beneath your sports car show that you are beginning to make an impression with the biggest hitters in town.

After experiencing Chinatown Wars, you have to applaud Rockstar. Not only have they presented their iconic city on a fashionably smaller scale, they have woven an intriguing story into the mix as well. Realising where the limits of the DS are most obvious, they have manoeuvred around most problems with a slickness that underlines how they work (most prominently shown in the use of radio stations that offer unlicensed but enjoyably stereotypical music). Chinatown Wars should be seen as a natural progression for the series, as it sheds light to a host of new ideas that are sure to be used in future projects. It’s almost certainly a contender for Game Of The Year, and not just because it’s a handheld title that pushes the boundaries.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in September 2007.

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