Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
It's probably fair to say that the ultra violent anarchy of GTA and the family friendly casual gaming image of Nintendo at the moment aren't the most natural of gaming bed fellows. So, to see Rockstar's colossal franchise making its way onto the humble DS is something of a surprise. A surprise made all the more pleasing by the fact it seems to have stayed true to the series' gritty crime-riddled roots.
Set in an almost completely recreated Liberty City, the first thing you'll notice about Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars is its return to the top-down view fans may remember from the first two GTA games way back in the mists of time. This shift in perspective, while clearly a hardware-based necessity, looks like it could suit the move to the DS perfectly, especially since Rockstar seem to have pulled a surprisingly speedy and detailed 3D engine out of the bag.
Although the city itself may be familiar, the game's protagonist isn't. This time your journey around Liberty City will be in the guise of Huang Lee, a young Triad member who's just flown in to deliver a sword to his uncle and investigate the death of his father. Things don't quite go according to plan however and within minutes of Huang's plane touching down at the start of the game he's been abducted, shot and dumped in a river in a rapidly sinking car while the bad guys make off with the aforementioned sword.
Needless to say Chinatown Wars isn't the shortest game in history so you're soon able to escape an early drowning and start the game proper. Structurally things seem quite familiar, accept missions, earn money, push the story forward, etc. That familiarity is by no means a bad thing however, the GTA formula works pretty well after all and the game's scope doesn't seem diminished by its transfer to a handheld console.
In fact it's pleasing to see just how much effort Rockstar have put into taking full advantage of the DS's capabilities. Much as Nintendo themselves did with Zelda Phantom Hourglass, Rockstar claim to have paid close attention to the new possibilities offered by the DS hardware and how they can enhance the gameplay of their key franchise rather than just port it. Such player-friendly thinking is welcome and additions like a customisable HUD, a GPS that can overlay directions onto the top screen as well as drawing a map on the bottom one and optional steering auto-correction (remember, you'll be back to using a d-pad again people) look set to ensure the game is as easy to enjoy as possible.
Stylus-based mini games a-plenty are also promised with Rockstar assuring us these will be more than just slapped on gimmicks and will fit naturally into the context of the game's wider world. Your initial escape from the sinking car comes courtesy of one such interlude and from then on everything from hotwiring cars to making Molotov cocktails is an excuse to get you tip tapping on the screen.
The missions themselves look set to be equally ingenious with the limitations/unique abilities of the hardware forcing/allowing Rockstar to play clever with even the most routine of objectives. From sniper missions where you have to first assemble the gun using the touch screen then look through the scope to search through the pedestrians for your target, to a siege where you need to block a street off using cars then hold your ground against hordes of enemies.
As you'd expect there's set to be no shortage of things to occupy your time with outside of the main story. In fact Chinatown Wars looks set to be just as rich in incidental detail as its predecessor. Probably most interesting, and controversial, of these is the ability to become a fully established drug dealer with a whole narcotics economy, complete with fluctuating prices and supply/demand issues, to immerse yourself in.
This being a GTA game you can also expect to meet a large cast of colourful characters along the way and while cross-overs with the GTA IV cast seem absent the inhabitants of Liberty City you'll meet this time look like being equally as entertaining. The storage space limitations of the DS cartridge mean that any conversations rely on the written word rather than recorded audio, but since the quality of the writing is set to be as good, and as 18-rated, as ever there's unlikely to be any complaints.
Releasing any kind of GTA game onto the hugely popular DS would no doubt be a licence to print money regardless of its quality. To pull out all the stops and do the brand justice by creating something true to the series, all the while embracing the opportunities the DS provides, is what looks set to elevate GTA Chinatown Wars to classic status. Look out for a full review in March to find out if the finished game delivers everything it promises.