Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Review
Grand Theft Auto is a game best played with a nice hip-hop soundtrack behind you, and in some instances, to give it a more mafia-esque flavor, a set of classical tunes also go well. I'm listening to Fabolous' new "Loso's Way", and it's super slick production, flow, and beats fit quite well with the quality you'd find in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. You may think to yourself, 'what's a Nintendo DS game doing on the PSP?' Well, first, it's offering PSP owners an all new GTA game, that's a start. And to switch things up, instead of going for a visual overhaul, Rockstar kept the traditional angle of the game, and it works very well.
If you're a true fan of the GTA series, then you should've played the original PC games, back when they utilized a top-down perspective and much more simplified visuals. That traditional style is long gone thanks to the advent of more powerful consoles, but the camera angle has always found its way into the newer GTAs as a sort of little nostalgic bonus. But here we have Chinatown Wars, it's camera angle isn't exactly like the top-down perspective of the past games, but rather it has a bit of an isometric tilt to it to help you see ahead, and it's rotable.
Beyond the camera angle, fans of the modern-day GTAs will find very little to complain about here. The story is truly fantastic, probably the best since Grand Theft Auto III. It's a very personal tale driven by all the elements that have made GTA stories so solid, but with a bit more emphasis on personal feelings, so you feel connected with your main character, Huang Lee, more so than other GTA characters from the past. Huang is the son of a huge Asian mob boss who was murdered. Huang was given an heirloom sword that his father won during a poker game, and after his arrival to Liberty City, Huang is ambushed, his escorts murdered, and Huang left for dead in a sinking car.
The sword is gone, but Huang makes it out alive out of the water. You go to meet with your uncle Kenny, and from here on the adventure begins...and the drama rises quickly, I must say. As is the usual, through the many contacts you establish in the game, they will provide you with your missions, rewards, and so forth. You'll have numerous places to stay in, which, I'm sure you knew too. Your menu is designed very much like the PlayStation 3 and PSP's XMB (Cross Media Bar), and here you can manage your Communications (Email, Contacts), view Business reports (Ammu-Nation, Trade Info), view Personal info (Game Stats, Music Player), view Out & About features (GPS/routing, Briefs/Objectives), set up Multiplayer sessions, and view various System settings.
As far as the gameplay, Chinatown Wars plays superbly well. You've got the guns, you've got the fun, you've got the cars, and you've got missions that are unusually more fun than the console games. Don't ask me why or how they're more fun, they simply feel that way to me. Perhaps it's the portable nature and the more traditional gameplay, or perhaps it's the simplicity of it all, which I really dig. There's also the car jacking feature which activates when you try to steal a parked car. For example, one car will require you to use the analog stick to hot-wire the car, another car will require you to jam a screw-driver into the ignition and turn it with the analog stick, and another car will have pin-code protection enabled, which will require you to use your in-game PDA to find the code - it's a nice little feature. Chinatown Wars proves that you can be simplified and yet still feel like a proper console game would, because, honestly, I'd have loved to play this with even better HD visuals on the PS3 - that'd be divine.
And on that note, the visuals are really, really nice. You may think, 'but this is a DS port', well, it doesn't matter. Sony doesn't like direct ports, so of course you should expect the visuals here to be redone for the PSP, and they are strikingly sharp. Once you're in the game world, especially when it's bright outside, take a look at the buildings and the textures that make them, you'll notice the organic look, immediately. The colors and the lighting makes the textures stand out more, giving this game a very fine mixture of aesthetics that blends the true colors of New York/Liberty City with the look of GTA. I also quite liked how the cars reacted to crashes, and the damage is decent too. Just because Chinatown Wars looks simple, doesn't mean it is; a classic example of judging, books, and their covers. Also, for those wondering, the cut-scenes are artistic stills, instead of in-game. And the framerate is perfectly stable.
Due to time constraints, there is no voice acting here in Chinatown Wars, unlike other GTA games. The game measures somewhere around the 500MB mark, leaving almost another gig of space for the voices, but that would delay Chinatown Wars considerably, and make porting the game very expensive for Rockstar. As it stands though, I didn't mind reading the lines during the cut-scenes. That said, the ambient sounds of Liberty City continue to deliver the feel of a living city, as Chinatown Wars sounds pretty good, especially with a pair of headphones on. The PSP version also features a much larger soundtrack, but don't expect big licenses here, it's lower-key more underground stuff. But regardless, this game's got a solid soundtrack too.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a solid game with a ton of things to do. It is a very well featured GTA game that should provide GTA fans continuous enjoyment for hours on end. The story is really good with tons of twists, as you'd expect from a GTA game, and the gameplay is there to make everything feel super polished and practically full-scale. The visuals are nice, clean, and very sharp, and I highly doubt anyone would complain about them. I sincerely hope that Rockstar decides to do an HD release of this for the PS3, as a downloadable game, it's surely be a treat. But this is a superb handheld game, a definite must own.
11/11/2009 Arnold Katayev