Game Review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Before I get into my impressions of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, let me preface this post by first stating that I’ve never really been a big fan of the Grand Theft Auto series. In fact, it wasn’t until the release of Grand Theft Auto IV that I actually appreciated and enjoyed one of the GTA titles. I barely played the original top-down games, and I thought the controls were absolutely horrendous for the PlayStation 2 iterations — Rockstar tried to cram way too many things into those games, and as a result, they never really mastered any of them (and it didn’t help that the PlayStation controller was, and still is, ridiculously terrible).

Of course, that all changed when Grand Theft Auto IV hit the scene. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the controls actually worked! Finally, a GTA game that was playable — it was a miracle! Needless to say, I had a lot of fun with Niko and the gang, so when Rockstar announced plans for a brand new GTA game for the Nintendo DS (my system of choice for the past couple years), I was quite intrigued.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

I’ve been playing the recently released Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars since last Wednesday, and while I’m nowhere near completing all of the missions or finding all of the little secrets that Rockstar likes to sprinkle throughout its games, I feel I’ve seen and experienced enough of the game to give it an honest opinion.

And my honest opinion? This game is awesome.

First, the game looks really nice. Yeah, I know, the screenshots leading up to the game’s release weren’t very convincing, but trust me — seeing the game in motion is a thing of beauty. Will people confuse the game for a PSP title? No, of course not. But for what it’s trying to achieve, the graphics in this game are among the best on the Nintendo DS. In addition, there’s always a ton of stuff happening on screen and there’s no slowdown in sight, proving what the little handheld is truly capable of in the hands of dedicated developers. Good job, Rockstar.

Trust me ... it looks even better in motion.

A great looking game that looks even better in motion.

Second, there’s the gameplay, which melds the previous 2D and 3D GTA experience into something refreshingly new, yet comfortingly familiar. Whether it’s driving or shooting, everything controls quickly and easily, and the camera does a great job of following the action while you’re navigating the streets of Liberty City.

Police chases are a hell of a lot of fun in Chinatown Wars. No longer can you just run and hide and hope the heat goes away. While that’s still a viable strategy on the lower wanted levels, when the intensity cranks up, you need to be the aggressor and reduce your wanted level by forcing the cops to crash their vehicles and abandon the chase. Indeed, escaping the long arm of the law is much more satisfying when you’ve caused an entire squadron of police cruisers to slam against a brick wall or careen off of a dock into the murky depths below (complete with the always hilarious “dying police siren” stock movie sound effect).

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Nintendo DS title without some sort of touchscreen use. While the touchscreen is mandatory in many situations, it never feels like a cheap gimmick. If anything, it heightens your immersion into the world of Liberty City by using your PDA to check email, plotting waypoints on your GPS, rummaging through dumpsters, using screwdrivers to steal cars, smashing panes of glass, assembling sniper rifles, signing your name on safehouse leases, etc.

The variety of touchscreen "mini-games" is tremendous.

The variety of touchscreen "mini-games" is tremendous.

My only complaint comes when you need to use the touchscreen while driving (paying the toll on the bridge, tossing grenades and molotovs from your car, that sort of thing). One hand is on the control pad to steer, the other hand is on the face button to accelerate … if only I had a third hand to hold the stylus, I’d be set. Still, it’s manageable (you just have to let off the gas for a moment), and it never really feels too limiting or demanding.

Finally, there’s the most controversial aspect of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars — drug dealing. If you think about it, adding drug dealing to a game about organized crime makes a hell of a lot of sense, but for whatever reasons, this is the first GTA game to really dive headfirst into this area — and based on how well it’s pulled off, it probably won’t be the last.

Organized crime and drug trafficking. Makes sense to me.

Welcome, stranger! I'll buy it a high price.

Using the same general premise as old school classics like Dope Wars, the drug dealing economy in this game is simple at first, but is suprisingly robust and often very rewarding. While it seems perhaps a little too easy to make a boatload of cash simply by buying low and selling high when you get the right tip-off, at least there’s plenty of stuff to spend your money on (unlike GTA4), including dozens of safehouses, plenty of weapons, and the cleverly implemented scratch-off lottery tickets.

So, my final verdict on Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars? It’s exceptional. It’s fun. It’s pure awesomeness, plain and simple. It’s also highly addictive — like most GTA games, you could spend hours just wandering around Liberty City looking for more dealer contacts, stunt jumps, street races, cool vehicles to jack, etc. while completely ignoring the story missions.

If you own a Nintendo DS and have even the slightest interest in this game, buy it now. Because if you don’t, it will show developers that high-quality “mature” games can’t sell on the system and we’ll all have to suffer through more awful mini-game collections and mass-produced Babyz and Petz titles. And believe me, nobody wants that.