Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
On the surface, Chinatown Wars is everything the DS stands for: bold colours, cartoony graphics and a devout adherence to stylus-based mini-games. It's an undeniably ironic twist, the DS's first 18-rated game practically immersing itself in the very tropes that made the system so family-friendly to begin with.
It's also a step back into the absurd world of GTA-that-was. It's a warm, welcoming sight to see the return of the army tanks chasing you around the same Liberty City that gave sanctuary to GTA IV and The Lost and Damned. Then there's the return of taxi, vigilante and paramedic missions, each with a permanent power-up upon completion. It's a less serious, more comical representation of the formerly staid Liberty City. Well, two thirds of it anyway, as they've chopped Alderney clean off the map.
In real-game terms, the smaller overall area mixed with the tweaked faster cars means the game can zoom by at an astonishing pace. Travelling from one end of the city to the other isn't nearly as daunting a task as it is in III and IV, and the zippy, pared-down focus of Chinatown Wars actually works to its advantage: it's especially accessible and perfect for the handheld format.
When it comes to controls, Rockstar have chosen to have the cars automatically align themselves to the road; a quick nudge left or right with the D-pad will have the car both move and straighten out. It feels bizarre at first, definitely alien and slightly unwelcome, but it soon proves to be an efficient way of weaving around the exhaustive amounts of traffic cluttering up the roads. It can also be turned off in the options menu, if you're that way inclined.
In Chinatown Wars you're driving those cars around as Huang Lee, spoilt playboy son of a recently assassinated crime lord. Returning to Liberty City to pass on a family heirloom he's kidnapped, shot and driven into a river. The game starts with Huang bashing the glass of the car to make his escape by having the player tap the DS's touch screen: the first nice touch of many. It quickly descends into the familiar tale of rivalry, deceit and power in a city frequented by scum, crooked cops and merciless gangsters, but GTA's strengths come from characterisation, not plot, and the ragtag bunch of personalities you encounter in Chinatown Wars keep the game feeling edgy.
The narrative exudes a delightful sense of wit.
As is tradition, story is told mostly from customary briefing screens. The limitations of the 128mb SD card forces the narrative to be told in text with 2D art, but instead of coming off as a watered down GTA, Rockstar Leeds's writing team have produced a script that's a delight to read. It's sharp and crisp, with Huang's dry, acerbic remarks effectively and brilliantly written. Every exchange is peppered with a series of jokes, all consistently funny. The tone is perfectly handled, characters are defined entirely by their dialogue, and it's a testament to the quality of the writing that each has a definite sense of personality.
Then there are the mini-games. Parked cars often have to be started up by playing with the stylus, ranging from swivelling it around to unscrew dashboards, rotating it to jam a screwdriver into the ignition and tapping at the right time to deceive the immobiliser. At garage stations you can build your own Molotovs, and newsagents sell scratch cards that you reveal yourself. One mission has you using the bottom screen (usually your in-game PDA) to restart the weak heart of your passenger. Then there's the time you use the touch screen to assemble a sniper rifle. That's just a handful, but it's safe to say Rockstar haven't ignored the bottom screen.
When you actually complete a mission it'll yield a paltry sum of cash. At the start of the game you're given a meagre $50 for each one. Your main source of income in Chinatown Wars comes from trading drugs; what I can only assume was a feature added intentionally by Rockstar to prove contentious with the media. It's not nearly as bad as they'd like to make out, though, and basically operates as a text-based economy adventure. Its about buying a stash of contraband at a low price and selling it on for a higher one, with various tips fed to you by your in-game PDA. Well implemented, deceptively addictive.
What's clear from Rockstar's appreciation of the DS's minutiae is that they fundamentally understand the strengths of Nintendo's device and have fashioned their game around it. Their competence at developing for the hardware is rivalled only by Nintendo. Missions are designed to have appealing brevity, perfect for popping the diminutive device open and playing for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. For your efforts you'll get a nice balance of action, driving, drug trafficking and a few mini-games for good measure. Liberty City is extensive, sure, but Rockstar's ability to create a sense of accomplishment from even the tiniest of time investments lends credibility to the overall product.
Its bitesized, then, but it's also staggeringly moreish. It is just as easy to play for an hour or two as it is for fifteen minutes, as tasks seem to blend effortlessly into one another: a drug delivery ends with another valuable tip-off, which leads into a couple of missions, then you realise you're driving a taxi and you might as well take a few fares. It's a compulsion.
The whole thing is a more active process than in previous games. Shaking the cops is now an aggressive action, for instance: evade isn't a viable option until you've disabled enough squad cars. Along with the speed, they've ramped up the action. Enemies pour into the screen, and die easily. It's another tweak, one of the many, that complements the handheld format.
It's clever, it's funny, it's engaging. It's not perfect, however, and occasional minor niggles such as fiddly aiming and squiffy camera rotation can prove a bit meddlesome. Also, as a leftie, I had no real problem with throwing the odd Molotov from the bottom screen, as it was viable to keep the stylus in my left hand whilst driving. For right-handers, however, I am a little stumped as to how you could perform such manoeuvres without having the particularly dainty little digits required to render the stylus unnecessary.
The lack of chatter on the radio stations is one feature that couldn't make the transition, however, and one that is sorely missed. In its stead they've got arty, trendy producers to come in and mix the instrumental soundtrack. The stations are named after the producers themselves: deadmau5, Alchemist, Truth & Soul, Prairie Cartel and Ticklah. If you're particularly cool you'll already recognise some of the names.
It says something about the virtues of Chinatown Wars that the only thing possibly denying it the perfect GTA status is the soundtrack. The mini-games are plentiful but never outstay their welcome, the slick presentation pushes the boundaries of the DS, and the range of content creates an extensive but wonderfully accessible game. It's phenomenal, a game that I keep dipping into whenever the possibility arrives, and a desperately needed addition to the DS's library.