While Grand Theft Auto has previously been on Nintendo's Game Boy platform, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars marks the first time the franchise has appeared on the Nintendo DS. The good news is that from our hands-on time with CTW so far, it seems the game not only captures the unique tone and flavours of the much-heralded series, but does so while introducing new and genuinely entertaining ways of interacting with the gameworld. In our hands-on time with a preview build of the game, we used the DS touch screen to do everything from nimbly racing timers to creating Molotov cocktails, hot-wiring cars, and assembling a kit-form sniper rifle.
The game takes place in the Liberty City you've come to know and love, complete with Dukes, Broker, Bohan, and Alogonquin boroughs. While the locations are familiar, you're going to be looking at them from an entirely different perspective. The most obvious change in GTA:CTW is the game's camera. It falls halfway between the classic top-down view of the original Grand Theft Auto and that of an isometric third-person action game, with the camera zooming in and out as dictated by the action onscreen. The environment initially appears quite flat, but once we found out we could twirl the fixed camera, we saw buildings and vehicles rendered as full 3D objects. Our Rockstar tour guide explained that while the city is modelled as closely as possible on the maps from its console big brothers, some minor tweaks had to be made to accommodate the new gameplay. Therefore, while you'll drive under overhead train tracks (which become transparent as you pass below) there are no split-level roads. Progressive game streaming also means that despite the city's enormity, you'll never bump into a load screen while crossing zones or driving across town to complete a mission. Pedestrians have their own individual AI routines, and following them around you'll observe them heading to and from work, eating hotdogs, and getting into fist fights with total strangers on the road. Full day and night lighting cycles and dynamic weather effects are also present here.
As the game's name suggests, Chinatown Wars focuses largely on Asian crime syndicates and rival gangs scrapping for turf control. You play the role of Huang Lee, the son of a syndicate boss who is killed during a triad power struggle. The game opens with you returning home to Liberty City to meet with your uncle, Wu "Kenny" Lee, to pass on the family's Yu Jian sword--a priceless family heirloom Huang's father won in a card game.
Animated cutscenes with accompanying text explain the backstory as you make your way home. On arrival at the airport, you meet some of your uncle's bodyguards, but before you can even get your bags off the carousel, a bloody shoot-out takes place and you're hit. Left wounded and presumed dead in the back of a car, you regain consciousness in time to find out you're being disposed of as your vehicle careens off the road and plummets into the harbour. It's here that the actual gameplay begins, and you'll immediately be introduced to some of the new stylus-driven interactions with the game. Naturally you'll need to escape the rapidly sinking car, and with doors notoriously difficult to open underwater, you opt to smash the rear window. You'll do this by rapidly stabbing at the DS's touch screen to chip the glass. Though it didn't appear to be velocity sensitive, a few strikes were enough to get us out of our waterlogged coffin and back on dry land.
Naturally, the first thing you want to do is get to your uncle's place and fill him in on the details. This is a GTA game, so there's no real surprise that since your ride is totalled you need to liberate one conveniently sitting at the docks. During our time with the game we stole some cars with screwdrivers, but we also found some with electronic security systems that needed to be hacked before they could be started. Once you get to Kenny's restaurant, Sum Yung Gai, you'll find out that the family sword has been stolen. A subplot unfolds, and though he's family, Kenny seems set on finding the sword not to rightfully return it to your kin, but to pass it on to triad mob boss Hsin Jaoming, with the purpose of winning his favour so as to assume his role when he retires.
Kenny hooks you up with an apartment that you use as your central hub for day-to-day activities. Here you'll be able to manage your contacts, take jobs, and store your drug stash. Once completed, any mission can be replayed at will using the whiteboard at your apartment. Though we didn't see the stats and scores in action, we were told that they will hook directly into the Rockstar Social Club, so you can compete with and compare yourself to friends as well as share in-game items. Given that the mission length tops out at around 10 minutes each to maintain the portability of the game, you'll also have a PDA that lets you save while out and about as well as line up missions without retuning to home base.
All the vehicles we came across included GPS to help point you towards where you need to go. There's also the option to turn on a giant yellow arrow indicator so you can stay focused on the road and not your minimap. The GPS will calculate the fastest legal path to your objective, but you can always take your vehicle off-road through parks or back alleys. The system is also smart enough to redraw on the fly if you deviate from the suggested path or take a wrong turn. Burnouts make a return, and by holding the B and Y buttons you'll streak fire and whip the rear of the car around with a temporary speed boost. It's incredibly useful for getting out of a pinch in a hurry or to take out errant rival gang members who are in the way. Multiple radio stations make an appearance in each car, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding cruising or fleeing tunes to suit whichever situation you find yourself in.
Controls are handled using the face buttons. X will let you enter or exit vehicles, B accelerates, Y reverses, and the right shoulder button locks up the handbrake to perform tight turns. The D pad is used to steer. When you're on foot, the A button shoots your selected weapon (chosen by opening a submenu on the touch screen), which can also be fired while inside cars for drive-bys. The right shoulder button locks onto targets. Like the gameplay, the city is interactive, and if you take the time to search red dumpsters scattered around the capital, you'll often find weapons and other goodies.
We saw several missions during our time with Chinatown Wars. The first, Streets of Rage, introduced us to a crooked cop named Wade Heston. Trying to both crack the Korean Wonsu Nudong crime family and keep the Internal Affairs department off his back, he seeks out your help. A hot tip tells you the gang might have your family sword, so it can't hurt too much to team up with Wade even if you have different agendas. After finding his apartment abandoned, we got an e-mail from Wade telling us that he was caught in an ambush. Once we located him, we faced a miniboss fight of sorts that saw us pinned down behind a wall in an alley as a guy with a minigun ripped the place apart. Since running out would get us shredded, we used grenades to stun the guy before scampering between cover and eventually taking him out. It's not the most complex puzzling we've seen, but it's a nice addition to straight run-and-gun shooter gameplay.
The second mission we played had us protecting a shopfront from a firebomb attack by rival gang the Spanish Lords. After barricading the street by stealing cars and parking them strategically at the choke points, we waited for the gang to turn up. The action kicked off pretty quickly after their arrival, and we were involved in a heated gun battle. Setting cars on fire with a hail of bullets proved to be particularly helpful to keep them at bay. It was then simply a case of picking them off from range with our assault rifle.
The third mission, One Shot, One Kill, saw us driving a limo to a hotel to perform an assassination. Once we had parked and entered the building, we found a briefcase. Inside was a rifle in pieces and in need of assembly. By dragging and dropping the pieces together with the stylus, we got the basics assembled, but we still needed to rotate the stylus to screw in the barrel, insert the cartridge, and attach the scope. Moving into a first-person perspective, we were given instructions on acquiring the target--a man in a white shirt--and lining up our shot. Naturally, once we had completed the deed we attracted a little unwanted attention. We were immediately awarded a three-star wanted rating and needed to find a car to get the hell out of Dodge.
The wanted system for CTW has been changed up a bit. Instead of outrunning cops until they get bored and go away, each star rating you add increases the number of police cars you'll need to destroy before you can get away. Running them off the road or into oncoming traffic to cause head-on collisions usually does the job, and you'll be off scot-free soon enough.
Drugs play an integral role in this game. They're your primary source of income, and by buying and selling them across the city you'll build up your cash reserves, which you can then use for buying weapons. Illegal trafficking isn't without its dangers, though, and the game features its own mini-economy. Buying low and selling high has never been easier, and by following the upwards-pointing green arrow when trading one type of drug for another you can turn a tidy profit. Video cameras scattered around the city make trading near them risky and increase your chances of being caught but also up your profitability. Like with GTAIV's pigeons, you will need to destroy the cameras to achieve 100 percent game completion, and while doing so reduces your risk of getting busted, you'll also bring down your ability to earn. Trading with other dealers is never smart when within eye line of the police, but wherever you do a deal there's a possibility it could go sour, forcing you to flee if you want to keep your wares.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars looks to be a unique take on the well-worn franchise while adding a new twist to the control system and interactivity with the city itself. You don't have long to wait now, with the game due to hit shelves in mid to late March this year.