Review: My early vote for DS Game of the Year ? heck, Best DS Game Ever.
The gaming world was stunned last year when Nintendo announced a new Grand Theft Auto game exclusive to the DS. Stunned because everyone was wondering how the heck Rockstar could squish a GTA game into the underpowered DS (with bad memories of GTA Advance rearing its ugly head) and if the game would be a watered-down PG-rated compromise to fit the platform's family-friendly image. Even with developer Rockstar Leeds at the helm ? the same group that created the acclaimed GTA: Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories for the PSP ? fans had their doubts.
Well, doubt no more because Rockstar Leeds has pulled off what many thought impossible: a true GTA experience on the market's technologically weakest platform. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a fantastic addition to the famed franchise and in many respects exceeds not only the PSP titles, but also the mighty GTA IV. In fact, it has raised the bar for all DS games as consumers can now rightfully demand of developers, ?Hey, if Chinatown Wars can do that, why can't you??
Take the graphics, which not surprisingly, look nothing like the console versions but look incredible for the DS. Rather than go for a realistic look, GTA:CW uses a cel-shaded art style that emulates the franchise's distinctive box cover artwork. This not only looks great but saves on precious processing power.
Although screenshots make it look like the 2D top-down GTA's of yore, this is only because the camera is set at a high bird's eye view to avoid drawing objects in the distance. In actuality, Liberty City is entirely 3D ? every building, bridge, lamp post, hot dog stand, tree, mailbox, car, boat, everything. The only compromise compared to GTA IV is that elevated freeways have either been eliminated or moved down to ground level to better accommodate the high camera angle, and all streets are strictly north-south, east-west to make navigating on the cramped screen easier. In comparing the map with GTA IV, I would guess that they recreated at least 90% of the full-sized version; basically, if a location or landmark is in GTA IV, you'll find it in Chinatown Wars. The one big omission is the island of Alderney, but since it wasn't used that much in the console version, it's really not missed here. Other than that, the entire city is yours to explore right from the start, from Algonquin to Bohan, Dukes, Broker, Colony Island, Charge Island and yes, even Happiness Island. It's very impressive to say the least.
The only things that are 2D are the characters and pedestrians, but this doesn't distract from the overall feeling that you are truly in Liberty City. Like its console big brothers, the world in GTA:CW is alive and vibrant with lots of traffic and pedestrians, hot dog vendors hawking their wares, police chasing criminals, ambulances responding to accidents, and people saying random things at you. The amount of detail Rockstar Leeds put into the city is amazing: cars use turn signals; paper flies into the air when you smash into mailboxes; pedestrians open umbrellas when it rains; take a boat out into the water and you'll see shipwrecks and rocks beneath the surface; there is a true day/night cycle with dynamic shadows; and there are some very cool lightning effects during thunderstorms. Every car handles with unique physics and can flip, roll and send body parts flying if you're a bit too reckless at the wheel. I've even seen drivers ejected through their windshields. We expect all this on the consoles but on the tiny DS? Amazing.
What's even more impressive is it all runs at a silky smooth 30 frames per second, even when you are barreling down the street at insane speeds in heavy traffic with the cops hot on your tail. There is no pop-up or slow-down, something that couldn't be said for the PSP titles.
Of course, all of this wonderful technology would be wasted if the gameplay didn't meet fans' high expectations ? which it does, and more. Granted, the mission structure isn't revolutionary as it sticks to the classic GTA drive-to-a-location-and-kill-the-bad-guys or pick-up-and-deliver-a-package. Even the story itself is average: you play as Huang Lee, the rich spoiled son of a recently murdered Liberty City Triad boss, who flies into town to deliver an ancient family sword to his uncle. The moment he arrives he is shot, stuffed into the trunk of a car and shoved into the water to die as his attackers escape with the sword. Once he escapes the car (by smashing out the window using the touch screen) he spends the rest of the game trying to recover the stolen sword and discover who killed his father.
What really makes the gameplay so engaging are the uniquely immersive touch screen mini-games that pull you deeper into the experience. The term ?mini-game? is a bit of a misnomer since most of them are simple tasks like smashing locks, hooking up car bombs, digging through dumpsters, assembling a sniper rifle, filling bottles with gasoline to make Molotov cocktails, cutting through car door panels to look for contraband, scratching lottery tickets, tattooing fellow gang members, and so on. They're simple little extras that should feel gimmicky but they don't; instead, they add a level of interactivity that far exceeds anything you could experience on a full-sized console. For example, in GTA IV you simply flick the triggers on your controller to ?hot wire? a car; in GTA:CW, you use your stylus to jam and jiggle a screwdriver into the ignition, or unscrew a panel and twist wires together. Now which sounds more fun to you?
The touch screen is only used for the mini-games and accessing your PDA; movement and actions are through the D-pad and buttons so it controls just like any other GTA game. The one exception is when you use the touch screen to aim and throw grenades and Molotovs.
Missions are fairly short and straightforward, perfect for quick bite-sized handheld entertainment. Combat is simple, thanks to a target-lock system that is smart enough to lock onto enemies instead of nearby innocent bystanders. However, the lock-on mechanism only works in the direction you're facing rather than on the closest enemy, so there are times when you'll be locked onto someone at the far edge of the screen while an enemy is standing right behind you untouched. This can get frustrating when you are being swamped by six or more enemies at a time. Of course, you can turn the auto lock off but the twitchy nature of the D-pad makes free-aiming more of an exercise in luck.
Missions have great variety, from sniping a snitch to manning a chaingun on the back of a speedboat to tossing Molotovs from a helicopter (unfortunately this is the only time you'll be in a helicopter as you cannot fly one yourself). They're all ridiculously fun with loads of action and just the right amount of difficulty.
If you fail a mission, you can restart from the point where the action starts, rather than having to start all over from the beginning and drive to the location ? a very welcome feature that gamers have been wanting for years. You can also replay any story mission by selecting it from the whiteboard in any safehouse, another great addition that will hopefully make its way to the console versions. Overall, completing the story missions will take about 12 hours or so but this only scratches the surface of what the game has to offer.