Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Being old enough to fondly remember the original top down PC versions of GTA I'll admit to feeling a warm nostalgic glow when Rockstar announced they were returning to a similar approach for the franchise's DS debut. So impressive was the resulting Chinatown Wars that a conversion to the PSP was almost inevitable. Fast forward seven months and here we are, conversion in hand, ready to see if the same GTA magic has transferred to Sony's handheld intact.
There are of course two subtle yet important differences this time out. First up this isn't GTA's PSP debut, instead it has to battle for a place in gamers hearts with the impressive Vice City Stories and Liberty City Stories GTA games in the handhelds roster, both of which sport the series' more recent third-person viewpoint. Secondly the PSP's lack of a touch screen forces Rockstar to adapt the controls somewhat for Sony's handheld, something many games have struggled with.
To start at the top however, for those who missed the DS original, Chinatown Wars sees you take control of one Huang Lee following the recent murder of his crime lord father. The game starts with you flying into Liberty City from Hong Kong ready to avenge your dad. Things don't quite work out as planned however and it's not long before you are thrust head first into a gangland turf war.
The general formula of what follows will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever played a GTA game as you undertake the missions offered by the variety of underworld characters you meet along the way. Missions themselves involve the usual mix of driving and shooting all the while avoiding the local police and opposing gang members, in fact on paper it's really just more of the same GTA goodness. This is by no means a bad thing. In fact it's really rather good because Chinatown Wars actually plays like a GTA game stripped down to the essentials, optimised if you will for the handheld experience.
Viewed from the aforementioned top down perspective this version of Liberty City isn't quite as large as the one you may be used to but what it lacks in size it makes up for in content with plenty going on in and around the central plot at all times. The camera zips around the city nicely with the height of the buildings only occasionally causing a problem as you drive around. On foot things work just as well although the game does sometimes get a little confusing when you lose track of your character in the environment, trees especially can be a pain.
Controls are simple to grasp with the same basic logic applied on foot and in-car to keep things simple. The optional control assists from the DS version return here and are actually more help on the PSP, a system not blessed with the greatest control scheme in the world. Things like the automatic targeting for drive-by shootings, the ability to have the game help with the steering by straightening up your vehicle automatically as you drive and GPS directions that overlay onto the road as you drive making it crystal clear where you need to go are all worth turning on from the start.
As ever there's a whole lot of fun to be had simply playing in the world and GTA veterans will be pleased to know there's just as much to do if you want to simply mess around as they're used to. Often this creative 'exploration' will open up side games and missions, stealing some cars for example (police cats, taxis, delivery vans, et al) will give you the chance to make a little cash by impersonating their owner's chosen career.
Then there's drug dealing. There's actually a whole narcotics economy at play in Chinatown Wars, ready and waiting for you to use to raise funds. Your trusty PDA feeds you tip-offs about fluctuations in prices in different areas of the city and it's up to you to best take advantage of the market's fluidity. This side business of yours is a way of raising lots of money outside the regular game and depending how far you go with it could threaten to unbalance things later on. However, there's no denying how much fun, not to mention tension, gets added to the game when you're worrying about getting stopped by the fuzz while carrying all your stash.
As ever the police of Liberty City play a large part in the game and as ever the more obvious and serious your criminal activities the more attention you garner. Escaping when the heat is on can be done in any of the normal GTA ways, out running them, fighting them or re-spraying your car but there's also a new option to add to the mix here that takes the car chases to a whole new level. Basically the idea is that if you can take out as many cop cars as you have stars in your wanted rating you'll knock it down by one, keep going and you'll eventually push it all the way back to zero and be free, the trick is to only destroy the cars, not kill the cops. It may sound hard work but there's something undeniably fun about actually trying to keep them close enough to ram rather than simply aiming to outrun them all the time.
The move from DS to PSP has seen a few tweaks to the game here and there, often for the better. The lack of a touch screen actually makes some things easier, changing weapons and tossing grenades are now far less fiddly, mapped to a button rather than requiring a stylus. Graphically too things look a lot nicer. While the game sports basically the same engine, it has been spruced up a tad for the PSP with higher resolution textures and some lovely new lighting effects to gawp at. The audio has been given a boost, and while the cut-scenes remain text only there are six new radio stations to add to the DS console's five. The downside to all these positives is that the mini-games, so enjoyable on the DS touch screen, become little more than button tapping affairs here losing most of their charm in the process. Huang's PDA also becomes far more of a faff with button based navigation annoyingly fiddly considering how important it is to your progress.
Multiplayer sport comes mainly in the form of local Ad-Hoc two player options. There's a wide selection of modes here including destruction derby style street races complete with traditional GTA vehicle swapping and the delivery based Stash Dash where you fight for control of a delivery truck and try to complete its jobs. There's also a small 'true' online mode of sorts, it doesn't offer real competitive play but instead lets you exchange messages with other players, trade weapons and even swap GPS locations of interesting things you've found.
It' is hardly a surprise that the PSP version of Chinatown Wars is a success; this is Rockstar after all and they are quite good at this GTA lark. What is impressive is that it loses nothing in the translation and ends up a better game than both the previous PSP GTA titles because of, rather than in spite of, its return to the top down viewpoint. If you somehow missed out earlier in the year then there's no excuse now, the DS version was one of the best handheld games on any format and this PSP version does nothing but re-enforce its position.