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July 28, 2009 / Joe Osborne

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars [Review]

Grand Theft Auto - Chinatown Wars

Don’t you just hate it when after buying some ecstasy off an Italian mob pusher named Vincini (at a great price, mind you) the cops decide to show up and rain on your paraphernalia parade with a high-speed chase? Maybe not, but I know I do. I’m referring to playing Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, of course. My life is not at all that exciting (nor that illegal).

This Nintendo DS title, developed by Rockstar Leeds and Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games, drew me in as soon I pressed start. GTA: Chinatown Wars begins with its main protagonist, Huang Lee, in a jet headed for Liberty City only to be greeted upon landing with gun wounds and left for dead underwater in a locked car. This is where the game gives you control with your first task to escape the car by breaking the windshield (tapping it furiously with your stylus) and swimming to the nearest dock. Roll intro credits over a dialogue scene. GTA: Chinatown Wars begins, plays and looks as if you are watching a comic book in motion. Find out how the rest of my adventures went after the break.

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GTA: Chinatown Wars continues this action-packed comic book feel by setting up missions through clever, believable and sometimes hilarious dialogue scenes with illustrated stills. It’s through this formula that the title teaches the controls and nuances of the game that you need to know on your way to finding out who killed your father.

The controls are responsive and well-mapped, but hold somewhat of a learning curve especially when faced with combat. The action takes place on the top screen while your bottom screen is your PDA, something exclusive to this DS edition of Grand Theft Auto. The PDA is basically the city map, or the GPS, and how you select your various forms of gang bustin’ weaponry. Because you will be switching weapons fairly often during play, be prepared to tuck your stylus under your index finger while playing.

This PDA system is your lifeline: It’s how various mentors and proteges dole out missions to you through email (these gangsters be tech savvy!), it holds your GPS which allows you to plot mission destinations and points of interest for travel and allows you to save your game on the fly. Another very important feature of the PDA is the “Trade Info” which tracks your drug trades and dealers’ locations.

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This drug trade feature, new to the Grand Theft Auto series, is quite frankly, exhilarating. A mission titled “Tricks of the Triad” introduces you to drug dealing and then allows you to take part in this miniature economy as you please. Trust me when I say it’s simple (maybe too simple) and easy to use because I couldn’t math my way out of a paper bag and I still, somehow, turn profits left and right. After this mission, drug dealers will have heard word of you and begin tipping you off on deals that might interest you. Every dealer sells one drug at a cheaper price and buys another for a whole lot more than they should (these drug dealers skipped economics class in high school), which allows you to take full advantage of their stupidity. This is GTA: Chinatown Wars’ cash flow system (you’ll be lucky to make 50 smackers out of taking out a van carrying valuable drugs) so get used to it. Some deals can be busts (see above) and will cause the po po to be all over you, which leads to GTA: Chinatown Wars’ other new feature.

The way in which you lose the cops has been re-tooled by Rockstar Leeds and North to be a little more exciting (as if I didn’t spend hours provoking and dodging cops in GTA III). Once you reach above one star wanted level, the only way to lose the cops is to disable their vehicles and this turns out to improve on the already visceral and engaging wanted system. My favorite method of disabling police cruisers: leading them to the docks at high speed only to turn away with my emergency brake as they helplessly fall to their watery demise. I know, Grand Theft Auto brings out the worst in all of us.

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This leads to GTA: Chinatown Wars’ few glaring flaws. Considerable frame rate dives occur generally when you reach the three-star wanted level and above as the number of police cruisers chasing you doubles accompanied by helicopters laying a reign of bullets. The DS simply cannot handle this many moving objects on screen at once (Rockstar Leeds and North really outdid themselves this time).This would’t be as big an issue if it occurred less often, but since you find yourself in these extreme situations in later missions it becomes commonplace.

Since GTA: Chinatown Wars’ visual were done in fully drawn 3D by Rockstar Leeds and North (even the light posts and basketball nets!), this game eats a lot of power. Generally with most DS games I can squeeze about three hours of play from the system before that dreaded red light appears, but when playing GTA: Chinatown Wars that time is cut by about an hour. Granted, this is while playing with the systems screen at full brightness, but if I can play Guitar Hero on my DS this way for a full three hours I should be able to do the same with GTA: Chinatown Wars. [Seriously, you own GH on DS? –ed.]

A few more minor flaws include a somewhat kooky targeting system, which sometimes is unresponsive in combat with several enemies where you might need to be more tactical in your offings, but can generally be alleviated with shotguns or explosives, which I tend to use with reckless abandon. The GPS system, like some GPS devices in the real world (damn you Tomtom!), can tell you to go around your finger to get to your you-know-what so listen to your gut when it tells you otherwise.

The Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection is enabled with the game and allows you to trade items and weapons with players as well as take part in multiplayer modes including race tournaments, death matches and a co-op mode named “Defend the Base” where you and other players must defend a location from waves of gang members — as long as you exchange friend codes first (get with the times Nintendo!). This is nice, but where GTA: Chinatown Wars’ online play truly shines (or will shine) is in its integration with the Rockstar Social Club. With this Wi-Fi feature you can access leaderboards, tournaments and take part in online events and download new missions for free in the future (yes, that’s free DLC) after you link your friend code with your registered Social Club account.

GTA: Chinatown Wars brings Rockstar Game’s knee-jerk and magnetic open world franchise to Nintendo DS in a big huge way, possibly too huge with a few frame rate issues. Finally, I can escape to my drug dealing, gang banging fantasies while sitting on the R7 train headed for my real life and real responsibilities (who needs them?).

Other Stuff You Might Wanna Know:
Release Date: 03/17/09
Available for: Nintendo DS
Price: 34.99
Rating (Buy It, Don’t Buy It, Rent It): Buy It

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