This on-the-go GTA experience doesn't cut any corners in showing off clever DS abilities and superb open-world action.
The story follows Huang Lee, a man whose father was recently murdered. Huang arrives in Liberty City to deliver the family heirloom, an ancient sword called Yu Jian to his uncle. Immediately after arriving, Huang's mission is compromised, the sword is stolen, and Huang is left for dead by assassins. Huang barely escapes death and enlists in a number of crime syndicates to find Yu Jian and save his family name. The multiple crime bosses each have their own attitudes, though a majority of the characters aren't particularly likeable. Fortunately, Huang is a smart-mouthed, sarcastic main character and while he's no Niko Bellic, he is a good protagonist. Much of the dialogue can be pretty adult (and sometimes ridiculous) but it's a solid storyline with a pretty good sense of humor. Huang's journey is one with multiple twists and happenings, keeping the player interested throughout the course of the lengthy story.
At first glance, Chinatown Wars seems to mimic the original style of GTA and GTA II, two games in the series that followed a top down view instead of the full 3-D world of GTA III. That's at first glance. In reality, the game follows an isometric view with a remarkably well-constructed camera system. You can control the camera to a very small extent using the L button, and although this is really just a quick centering, navigating using the camera system is good. A majority of the work is done for you in keeping the camera consistent. You can run with the B button, attack with the A button, and do the ever-popular carjack with the X button. Exploring Liberty City from such a perspective and control scheme takes getting used to, but the steady difficulty curve consistently lets the player experiment with these moves. Even things like swimming and hopping over fences, ideas brought from console GTA games, work incredibly well in Chinatown Wars. Every piece of navigation and action-based control feels tight, thanks to a cooperative camera, accessible controls, and well-tuned lock-on system that makes firefights simple and easy to jump into.
If you're looking for a full GTA title on a handheld, Chinatown Wars is all that and so much more. Nearly everything found in a "modern" Grand Theft Auto game is present in Chinatown Wars, from the carjacking to the firefights to the simple time wasters like scratch cards and wandering around using your GPS (which is extremely easy to navigate, thanks to a solid precision with the stylus.) The main storyline holds the most of the unique aspects, but as far as other missions, there's plenty to do in Liberty City. Hijack a taxi cab and drive people to their destinations to earn money, be a vigilante by stealing a cop car and taking out criminals. Or if you're more enterprising, try your hand at the drug trade in Liberty City. Dealers abound in the metropolis, each one buying and selling their wares. Players can receive e-mails signifying drops in prices or top buyers, so knowing when to buy or sell is crucial to mastering the drug trade. Combat is superb, both in frequency and ability; you never feel overwhelmed thanks to a collection of weapons that can be equipped simply and easily. Hammering on the A button works for a while, but the game's steady difficulty curve helps the player master navigation in combat. Even throwing Molotovs is unique, thanks to a nice throwing sight and use of the stylus. The GTA formula is preserved in Chinatown Wars, and the subtle inclusions like the drug trade make the entire game a healthy rival to its console counterparts.
One of the most fun aspects, oddly enough, is the minigames. Tasks like hotwiring a car's engine, constructing a sniper rifle, or filling bottles at gas stations to make Molotovs are used with the stylus and touch screen. While some may scoff at the implementation of these types of minigames into such a serious action game, the overall design is simple enough (thanks to helpful prompts) and fun. The diversity in the minigame design is absolutely incredible, but remarkably intuitive. The only serious problem that I had with these minigames is the constant switching between the stylus and face buttons, which felt distracting, especially in the heat of a chase or battle. However, these minigames don't feel like simple gimmicks; it's obvious that the developers didn't simply integrate these in the gameplay just to say "this is a DS game." The end result is a fun one, and strays as far away from "gimmick" as possible.
I didn't know what to expect when playing Chinatown Wars, but to my surprise, the game is amazingly deep. A vast majority of the options available in the console GTA games (even those found in GTA IV) exist in Chinatown Wars. The replay value is massive. The 50+ story missions will keep you hooked thanks to a solid variety in the objectives, and the many side missions (rampage missions, earning cash, unlocking weapons, finding car jumps) will no doubt keep you hooked. Being able to replay missions and upload your stats online over Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection is just the icing on the cake.
The presentation in Chinatown Wars may not look too spectacular at first, but being that there's so much in Liberty City to explore, it's hardly a problem. The load times are short and infrequent, and the cel-shaded design of the environment looks great. Animations look fluid, as do the many graphic effects like explosions and fires. The comic-book-like cutscenes look good, even if they're delivered by text, but the whole graphic design feels fine-tuned to the DS, while going above and beyond the expectations of the system. The soundtrack is upbeat and full of great tracks, and the minor quips from the people in Liberty City can be pretty funny. All in all, this is one of the best presentations you'll find on the DS, both technically and aesthetically.
+ Excellent culmination of GTA's finest gameplay concepts
+ Technically proficient presentation
+ Controls are solid
+ Touch screen minigames are actually fun
+ Tremendous amount of content on a single DS card
- Switching from D-pad to stylus can be distracting
- Storyline can be a little silly
Rockstar has set a huge example when it comes to offering a content packed adventure for the Nintendo DS without suffering from the system's weaknesses. They didn't try to make a full 3-D GTA (quite honestly, I don't think it would've been good that way). Instead, they played to the system's strengths and novelties, producing a brilliantly presented story with plenty of action-packed sequences and diverse objectives to complete. The fact that the game has so much unique content is absolutely astonishing. The minigames are just plain fun, each one offering plenty of creative uses of the touch screen and stylus, while never feeling silly or gimmicky. A great control setup and helpful camera system make navigation easy, even if switching from the stylus to the face buttons can be a bit overwhelming at times. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is the antithesis of a quick cash-in; this is the result of developers taking the DS hardware seriously and making a game that feels fine-tuned to the utmost detail. The fact that Rockstar retained the GTA experience, despite the system's limitations, is just as incredible. A massive accomplishment for the system, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is one DS card that will stay in your system for a long time.