Grand Theft Auto is a series with humble beginnings. It began as a 2D PC and PS1 game a decade ago, with simple drive-and-shoot gameplay and not much else. As Grand Theft Auto continued to release more games, that started to change. While the simple rush of driving and shooting was still there, the series became one about freedom by allowing the player a massive amount of optional ways to play aside from the main missions. Chinatown Wars is a unification of both the old style and new levels of content.
Chinatown Wars takes place in Grand Theft Auto IV's version of Liberty City. It's in the same time-frame, and all the landmarks are identical with only a few things missing from GTAIV's massive city such as the area of Alderny. You play Huang Lee, a rich son of a triad boss. Huang returnins home to Liberty City to deliver a sword to his uncle so that he can become the new leader of the triad, and avenge his recently assassinated father. The story isn't particularly complex, but it is fun. The characters range from funny to hilarious, and Huang is full of witty retorts. If Grand Theft Auto IV is the prime example of a serious narrative in GTA, then Chinatown Wars is the example of how to keep things light and fun.
Chinatown Wars is played with a top-down perspective, but the world is fully 3D rendered. All vehicles and characters are fully rendered 3D objects with physics-based interactions. Cars can lift on two wheels, jump, flip, and take damage. This means the gameplay as well acts as a combination of the top-down 2D gameplay and the 3D physics-based gameplay of the more recent console games. The game includes a variety of cars, bikes, boats, and trucks, and each vehicle handles differently. Vehicles are controlled with the D-Pad, with the standard accelerator, brake/reverse, and parking brake controls. There is also an auto-align function that makes it easier to align your cars to the roads. Whether you use the auto-align or not the driving controls great, and you can feel the weight of the cars.
On foot you can sprint, lock onto enemies, melee them, and shoot them. Because of the lock-on style there isn't really much aiming in the game with guns. The distance and whether you are moving or standing still effects the accuracy. You can strafe while shooting, and most of the challenge in the gun fights comes from staying alive in the extremely fast pace. Grenades and molotovs are thrown by by flicking the touch screen in the direction you want to toss them. The firefights in Chinatown Wars are fast-paced and thrilling, but they do lack some difficulty.
Hijacking cars has gotten an overhaul in Chinatown Wars thanks to the functions of the touch screen. Older cars will require some twists of a screwdriver in the ignition, newer cars will require you to open the dash and hotwire them, and the very expensive new cars require you hack the computerized immobilizer. These minigames are fun and never tedious. The best cars can even be challenging to crack. The police chases have also changed. When your wanted level raises you have to actually trash the pursuing police to lose them. You get the chance to lose 1 star for each cop car you take down. It's extremely rewarding to trash the pursuing cops, and a great addition to the GTA formula.
If you've played any GTA games in the past, you shouldn't have any trouble picking up the basic mission-based gameplay of Chinatown Wars. The main gameplay is the usual routine of taking missions from different employers and completing them. As expected of GTA, there are a lot of missions for stealing cars, driving, racing, and shooting. Chinatown Wars takes things even further though, with missions making excellent use of the touch screen. In one mission near the beginning of the game you have to drive an ambulence while being chased by cops and restarting the patient's heart on the touchscreen as it fails. There are a wide variety of missions of all sorts, and even more important, a wide variety of things to do outside of the missions.
Variety really is the name of the game for Chinatown Wars. If you prefer the variety of previous GTA games to the seriousness of GTAIV, I've got great news. Chinatown Wars excels in providing a wide variety of gameplay options. In addition to the standard missions, the taxi, firefighter, ambulance, and vigilante missions return. The Rhino tank also makes its triumphant reappearance, along with the ability to buy safe houses and order weapons from Ammunation via a website. Numerous touch-screen based minigames are also found throughout the game, such as filling your own molotovs at the gas station.
The biggest of the additions to the gameplay options for GTA is the drug wars game. Players can buy and sell drugs, kind of like playing the stocks, to earn money. Environmental factors effect prices (such as police activity), as does the territory of the gang you happen to be in. Sometimes you'll also get tip-offs via PDA emails for certain people wanting to buy a specific drug high or sell it cheap. You can also steal drug running trucks from the gangs and stash them in your safe house to loot the goods. The drug running is incredibly addictive, and adds actual meaning to getting busted by the cops for the first time. You may not mind losing $200 for bail, but you definitely will mind losing $150,000 of coke.
Graphically Chinatown Wars is very pleasing to look at. The world is detailed and large and beautifully cel-shaded in 3D. The dark outlines give a comic book feel to the game, and it's full of style. Cut scenes show stylized drawn versions of the characters, which works well with the style. The game runs without slowdown, even in the midst of explosive action, and the attention to detail is astounding. The top-down view can actually be adjusted some to give you more view in front of your car if you wish, and the auto-camera is nothing short of excellent. Chinatown Wars is easily one of the most technically impressive games on the Nintendo DS.
The audio is sort of hit and miss. It's disappointing that the radio stations aren't full of the series' standard licensed music, but the stuff they do have on them is still decent enough. There isn't really any voice acting in the missions, but there is some from the pedestrians on the streets, which is more important for the immersion.
Grand Theft Auto will last most people well over 20 hours for just the main story. New missions can be downloaded for free via the online Social Club, and stat sharing, item trading, and chatting is also available. Competitive and co-operative multiplayer are available via local, and both are a blast - it's just too bad they aren't online. Even without them the amount of post-game content is enormous. There are numerous things to collect, missions to complete, parts of the city to explore, and minigames to master. Chinatown Wars is an incredible value, and easily one of the best on the DS.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is an astounding game. It's managed to combine a 3D console gameplay formula with an oldschool 2D formula on a handheld with enormous success. It's filled with variety, wit, replayability, and is downright fun to play. If Grand Theft Auto IV is the premier serious Grand Theft Auto experience, then Chinatown Wars is the example of how to make the game silly and fun. If that's what you look for out of Grand Theft Auto, you can't do much better than Chinatown Wars whether you are searching on consoles or handhelds.