Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Review: GTA Chinatown Wars

It’s been while since there was a bona fide must buy game for the DS. Professor Layton was a blast – an enjoyable oddity, definitely worthy of attention, but never destined to be carried around compulsively for a quick puzzle on a tube, months after purchase. Likewise, it’s been a long while that anything has persuaded me to leave my Korg DS10 at home. GTA Chinatown Wars is such a game. A game of such sweet, melodic harmony that you want to weep and thank the person sat next to you on the bus that such a gem of a game was brought to light, and may mean you’ll never turn your ds all the way off again. This is pure bred, brilliant design, from the opening screens to the final sound byte. Rockstar have surpassed themselves in connecting to what makes a system unique and have exploited every inch of the DS’s hardware to bring a thorough bred GTA game every bit as engrossing as its forbears and bringing the same humour and style to the party, but with a heavy sackful of new tricks on its meaty shoulders. You're going down to Chinatown..

You are Huang Lee, a young triad returning to Liberty city delivering a treasured family heirloom from your recently murdered gang boss father to your uncle. The sacred sword that’s been in your family for genera- oh yeah sorry, won by your dad in a card game, is promptly pinched by assailants unknown on your arrival in the city, and you are left for dead in a sinking car in Liberty harbour. Without the backing of a spiffy 3d engine, the cut scenes throughout are presented as stylish cartoon cinematics much in keeping with previous GTA art styles, and suit the game perfectly. These seamlessly introduce plot and mission, and are consistently well made. Worth a mention is the brilliant written dialogue which crackles with humour worthy of happier GTA times when your protagonist wasn’t always moaning about the weight of the world and instead revelled in a good dick joke.

You quickly run into a cast of characters also more reminiscent of earlier instalments, wacky in disposition and outlook and perfect foils to your dry sarcastic protagonist, they introduce you to the struggle underway between the triad under bosses to secure their claim on an impending power vacuum as ageing uber triad Hsin Jaoming nears the end of his reign. Perhaps you'll get a chance to avenge your father and get back the sword along the way.

So the plot, characters and cinematics are up to snuff, as you would be right to expect from Rockstar, but what of the gameplay? In a word; stunning. The game is viewed from an old school top down view, slightly isometric and presented in gorgeous cel shaded style which gives the world a unique edge right away. People lack a huge amount of detail being as they are, little more than blobs of pixels, but in the context of the street and with so much detail on the screen, the overal effect is amazing considering it's your little ds chugging these visuals out. Sound is likewise top notch, the streets are alive with people who all talk at you (I’m still a virgin!), and the radio is full of surprisingly sophisticated instrumental tracks that could easily appear in a “proper” console version of GTA. What’s really amazing though is the scope of the city crammed into the little cart. Rockstar have managed to faithfully recreate the Liberty city of GTA IV (less a couple of the more boring islands, who liked Alderney anyway?) down to every last corner, and what you have is a fully realised urban playground in your pocket. It’s all here; hijack any vehicle, beat down any pedestrian - you'll recognise many of the locations and landmarks if you've played GTAIV. But then there’s so much more brought to the gameplay table thanks to the inspired use of the touch screen.

On the one hand, it’s your ever present tool used to interact with inventory items in your pda, select weapons and maps as well as the various stats screens it's so much fun poring over in GTA. But then it’s also used for an ever changing series of disposable mini-game tasks, never revelled in but trotted out to not be seen again for ages, and all the more effective for it. Steal a parked car in GTA CTW (ok this happens a fair bit) and rather than speeding off, you’ll be required to hot wire it via the touch screen, simulating unscrewing of cover plate, and twisting of wires, or just jamming a screwdriver in the key hole and twisting until it starts. More expensive cars even have computerised immobilisers – no match for your perfectly timed touchy code cracking. Use the screen to toss grenades and molotovs, tattoo your crew (!), assemble sniper rifles, search dumpsters, start boat motors, search stolen van panels for drugs the list goes on and on.

But ah, the drugs, oh the sweet, sweet drug dealing! Amazingly I haven’t seen this game in the pages of the Daily Mail yet (ban this filth etc!) but GTA CTW features a fully fledged drug dealing meta game that is in itself as addictive as crack coated haribo. Discover the dealers dotted around Liberty City and they’ll occasionally send you an email to let you know when they have sale on or if they’re trying to get hold of something specific. Keep an eye on supply and demand and you’ll quickly find yourself earning a packet, and before you know it you’re racing across the map to get to a dealer who is paying big for acid that you just happen to have a stash of you picked up cheap days ago in anticipation of this very moment, cos you
just gotta have that profit! Buying drugs is a bit riskier – go for a bulk purchase and you may attract the attention of the cops, who will chase you down and if caught relieve you of your hard won merchandise. Which is the most painful experience I’ve come across in recent gaming memory – finally a consequence to getting busted. The drug dealing game is, it quickly becomes apparent, where you’ll make your money. Missions pay out miserably at first so to get on the property ladder you’re going to have to get your hands dirty.

The po-lice themselves are also nicely tweaked in gameplay terms. Now you can lose your wanted level by taking out your pursuers in satisfying prangs, leaving them piled at the side of the road. Once enough of them have been driven off, lie low and watch the stars vanish. It’s a nice logical addition that would be welcome in other iterations.

Also notably absent in GTAIV and reinstated here are the classic GTA missions that should always be a staple; taxi driving, ambulance driving, putting out fires, vigilante missions and crucially, rampage mode! Yes! Devastate enemy gangs with the huge array of weaponry, and watch as their little cartoon bodies run around screaming in flames. Yes this, is old skool, juvenile good times. Add in new funtimes like hijacking rival gang shipments, Ammunation delivery trucks or even raiding enemy warehouses and you've got a ton of fun and variety for every criminal mood.

Control is handled via the actual buttons. Imagine that. I was a little taken aback at first, I’d had it in my head that this would be a Zelda style touch screen led party, but the actual control of Huang is all via d-pad and buttons. This can seem a little unnerving initially, but you soon become accustomed to using those little buttony things you’d forgotten were there. Driving it should be noted is a particular joy once mastered – the ds helpfully aligns you to the road slightly (unless you turn it off) but you’ll still have
your fair share of prangs as you get carried away bombing down a huge straight by Middle Park and jamming it around the corner with the handbrake on. Bikes are also very fun, if a bit on the suicidal side. All of the vehicles handle uniquely and appropriately.

Downsides? Every now and again you’ll hit a mission with one of those annoying arbitrary timers that screws you over. Also, you may find it’s very easy to get unwittingly busted by a cop who manages to open your door although you’re accelerating away. The streets as well, while detailed and beautifully realised aren’t too dangerous. It’s rare to fear traffic like you learn to in GTAIV, – you can pretty much run down the middle of the road with impunity, often outrunning the traffic, and you rarely stick to the sidewalks. On reflection though this is almost certainly a well considered design choice more than a flaw.

Generally though, no this is a truly top class title with no real negatives that has left my xbox idle and my pc weeping. Every aspect of the design has been carefully considered and fine tuned to perfection. I haven’t even mentioned the zero load times, the option to save any time you like, the ability to replay every mission on a whim, hunting down the elusive cctv cameras, the multiplayer and stat sharing, the way you can hail a cab by whistling into the mic - there’s innovation in this games pores that in the hands of a lesser developer might have come off as gimmickry. In terms of design and being perfectly embedded in the system it’s on, this is simply the best GTA game so far. A brilliantly comic and very adult game for the most unexpected system that has too long been written off as the mainstay of shovelware and puppy simulators. It is a perfect joy to pick up and play for five minutes or five hours. I’m off to play it right now in fact, Boris is buying weed for a fortune and I’ve got a glut in my stash I ripped off the Spanish lords. Ka-ching!

Treehouse Rating


Handheld heaven

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