Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Hands On

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The first screen shots of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars brought to mind Rockstar’s initial forays into its now famous franchise. A top down perspective, some figures running about; it was about what we expected of a game forced into the constraints of the DS hardware. The PS2 worthy incarnations of Liberty City and Vice City Stories would just have to remain on the PSP. Given the scope and ambition of the GTA series, bringing it to the DS seemed like a futile exercise at best. And yet here I am, in the hot stuffy van Rockstar is using as a demo station, watching their ambitions overwhelm me again.

Rockstar Leeds wisely realized GTA: Chinatown Wars was a game that had to be more than a simple port, it had to be built from the ground up for the eccentricities and demands of not only a portable console, but one with limitations and unique control scheme of the DS. This is much is evident as the opening of the game ends and the player finds himself tapping on the windshield glass of the sinking car the game’s main character, Haung Lee, is trapped in. A few taps and you’ve broken through the glass and you’re out of the water and into the streets of Liberty City.

Driving through Liberty City, you’re struck not by the ever changing bird’s eye view perspective and bold outlines of the cell shaded graphics, but by the amount of activity and detail in the game. Every building looks different and there’s a wonderful variety of architecture that makes your journeys through the city far from monotonous as you drive underneath train tracks and bridge I -beams. Mailboxes, light posts and store signs have all been individually rendered and react when cars careen into them. Just as impressive are the numbers of pedestrians, all of whom go about their daily business on separate AI routines. You’ll also notice the size of the city. While I didn’t get the sense it was as large as the city in Grand Theft Auto IV, it still had every borough and many of the same landmarks. The living breathing world of GTA IV has found a way to exist on the DS on its own terms.

*More screenshots on last page of preview

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To be sure, Chinatown Wars does exist on very different terms on the DS than it does on your Xbox360. The game is unabashedly fun. The seriousness of GTA IV, which was supported by the complicated gameplay and incredible graphics, just wouldn’t have worked here, and Chinatown Wars at times has the feel of an arcade game. Evading the police turns into a game of wrecking their cars – each car commensurate with a star on your wanted level. Molotov cocktails are as simple as going to the gas station with a few bottles and playing a touch screen mini-game where you direct a gas nozzle spewing fuel into the bottles. The flamethrowers and chain guns are also back and available early on for you to wreak San Andreas style mayhem.

There’s still plenty of serious game for everyone as well. Drug dealing is a major theme, and learning how to manipulate the drug economy based on market forces is important to success. For instance, the equivalent to the pigeons of GTA IV are security cameras, only instead of being a benign mini-game, by shooting out security cameras near drug dealers it lowers the price of their product. Another aspect of the game that was hinted at, but not really discussed, is the presence of other gangs. The game map I saw had other gang territory represented by colored circles which looked like they shifted about. I can only guess that the game might also involve edging in and wiping out other criminal organizations.

The missions are classic GTA, but they’ve been carefully tailored to meet the DS’s needs. One mission I played had me pick up a briefcase, use the touch screen to assemble a sniper rifle and then guide the cross hairs with the stylus over the character I needed to kill. I should note that as much as I’ve mentioned the touch screen, it’s really a secondary control scheme, as your character and driving are guided by the d-pad. I’m curious how cumbersome it will be to constantly switch between the stylus and d-pad. Also the script was written by Dan Houser who was responsible for GTA IV‘s, so it’s probably fair to say there will be a fair amount of interesting characters, humorous asides and surprising twists to keep the player entertained.

*More screenshots on last page of preview

It’s an impressive game, but questions remain. As well as the game organizes itself for the player, through the PDA and easy mission reloads, will this game be able to straddle the line between immersive experience and pick up and play accessibility that the DS is now famed for? Because the graphics are more iconographic than realistic, will people be able to experience the same vicarious thrills the other GTA’s provided by so clearly showing chaos in three dimensions? Will the game, with its contextual touch screen games, feel like a violent collection of mini games or will the feeling that you belong to something bigger, a feeling that defines the GTA series, remain intact? Will anybody be particularly interested in the more limited online offering of the game, which is presently focused on sharing secrets and stats? These are questions that only the final release will answer. It’s clear that this game is taking some major risks; the GTA hallmarks are there but this doesn’t feel quite like any GTA you’ve played before. It’s a new type of game for Rockstar as well as a new gamble, one that will likely pay off.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars releases March 17th in North America and March 20th in Europe.

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