Gang shootings. Drug Trafficking. Smoking Meth. Nintendo DS. One of the words in this group doesn’t belong. Of course your first thought is ‘Nintendo DS’ right? Wrong. The correct answer is ‘Smoking Meth’. You don’t smoke any meth in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS. First off, let me start by saying how hard it was to play this game for a day or so. This was because every time I ran over a cop, or heard someone drop an f-bomb or one of the many other incidents which nets this game an M for Mature rating I had to make sure it was actually a DS I was holding and not a PSP. After that I had to take out the game cartridge and stare in disbelief at the Nintendo Seal of Approval proudly emblazoned on its side. Finally I had to pinch myself to make sure this wasn’t some crazy dream.
Congratulations Nintendo, you finally got me to cave in. For a long time I have held out from purchasing one of your handheld systems while cradling the belief that if I want an over the top game, that even at the smallest exposure would send our youth down the tragic path of gangbanging, such a game would need to be purchased for the PSP. Imagine my surprise when the next iteration of Grand Theft Auto was announced not only to be on the DS but would in fact be a DS exclusive. Fast forward: my DS Lite is now lying comfortably next to my keyboard yearning for me to peddle just one more suitcase full of heroin.
Oddly enough for all the hype and good reviews the game starts out completely underwhelming. For a GTA veteran the graphics appear almost cartoony, the cut scenes are subtitled instead of voiced and fairly abrupt at that. It’s almost as if they are doing their best to remind us that the DS, while an incredibly versatile and entertaining system, is nowhere near the powerhouse that its’ handheld Sony brethren is.
While we’re at it lets get some other gripes about the game out of the way. The radio music we’ve grown to love while we joyride around in whatever car we decided to jack pales in comparison to what we’re used to from GTA’s console counterparts. Also the number of different rides available for jacking is again a fraction of what was available in the previous entrants in the GTA series. Of course this is all due to the DS cart memory limitations and while it sucks there wasn’t more wiggle room when adding content such as this it was to be expected.
This is of course where the gripes end and GTA:CW shifts from underwhelming to overwhelming. Even with memory limitations Rockstar Leeds managed to pack in 3 of the 4 major islands from GTA4 into the DS iteration. We also see the normal hustle and bustle of the city that we grew to love from GTA4 with pedestrians wandering, plenty of traffic passing by and the occasional aerial vehicle zooming past. They managed to keep their tried and true formula of multiple main storyline paths with a healthy dose of bonus and side missions to keep you occupied for hours and hours.
The main storyline is pretty compelling and enough to keep you interested in the meat of the game. You play Huang Lee, the son of a murdered Chinese gangster, who has come to Liberty City to avenge his father’s death as well as continue the prosperity of the family name and his gang, the Triads. The actual dialogue of the story tends to get a little tedious as the people you end up dealing with (from various gang members to crooked cops and more) have very obvious character flaws to which Huang constantly replies with smartass remarks. While this is par for a GTA series I feel spoiled by GTA4 where I really ended up invested in Niko Bellic’s feelings. Remember when his cousin Roman got kidnapped and he flipped out? That was powerful. I have yet to run across any similar occurrences in Chinatown Wars but needless to say dry dialogue aside the plot moves forward at a gratifying pace.
The side missions and activities are where it is really easy to lose hours of your time. Your main money making venture is to buy and sell drugs from various dealers all over the city. It is literally a drug marketing exercise to the extent that you get weekly profit and loss statements in your email that break down your capital venture by various categories and let you know how you’re doing. Anyone remember playing Drug Wars on your Texas Instruments calculator? Imagine that game on crack... excuse the pun. On top of that we get a healthy dose of your typical taxi, vigilante and other such missions depending on what kind of car you steal. Needless to say I’ve been yawning at work for the past few days due to fundraising campaigns in game.
GTA:CW does include some unique features to the DS that are incredibly well executed. The first is an auto-driving assist feature that will line your car up with whatever road you are driving down. This is a very welcome feature considering the DS lacks an analog stick to help give you that gentle touch when careening down the road in some souped up sports car. Also there is a well implemented auto-lock feature to use when trying to gun someone down. This is a very acceptable substitute to not having the ability to go into a first-person mode to fire a gun. Finally when being chased by cops it’s not always necessary to outrun them. GTA:CW has introduced a feature where destroying cop cars that are chasing you causes your wanted level to go down so long as you don’t do anything illegal to re-agitate it. This makes for much more interesting cop car chases as you are not just trying to outrun them, but also trying to force them into wall and barriers to help yourself escape.
Of course what everyone was wondering about is how well Rockstar Leeds would utilize the DS’s touch screen. The answer is ‘very’. The main component to the touch screen is operating your PDA. Yes, long gone is the day of the GTA4 cell phone. I suppose since Huang is from the epicenter of the technological revolution he has access to some much better electronics. From the PDA you can check email, set routes on your GPS, purchase ammo from an online store as well as adjust all of your game settings. Aside from the PDA functionality the touch screen is used for a variety of mini games. These include things like making Molotov Cocktails at a gas pump, hotwiring cars and defusing bombs along with much more. These mini games are generally entertaining and not intrusive so I feel fine in saying they are a welcome addition to the game.
The last big aspect of this game is the multiplayer action. If you have some friends with other copies of the cart you can get together and battle it out in a variety of mini games from a GTA version of capture the flag to something more along the lines of defending bases. Nintendo wi-fi can be used to share stats and other minor details but unfortunately if you want to get down with your gang to do some killing you need to be in the same room.
Limitation gripes aside Rockstar Leeds did an absolutely amazing job cramming almost every aspect of GTA:CW’s big brothers into it and even after a week of substantial game play I find myself coming back for more and more. It is very infrequently we give this out but Chinatown Wars is getting a 5 out of 5. If you have a DS (and are 17 or older of course) you are doing yourself a disfavor by not jumping all over this title. Now if you all will excuse me someone is running a sale on ecstasy across town and I want to get there before he runs out!