Review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

The GTA series has become a bit of a mixed bag throughout the years. Upon changing up formulas, catering to different audiences, and bringing change to a formula that wasn’t exactly broken, its popularity continues to surge. With the recent release of Grand Theft Auto IV and its very first DLC episode, the franchise has gained and lost a myriad of fans. However, one thing remains unchanging: the fact that Rockstar has never been, nor will be, afraid to go there.

When Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was announced for the Nintendo DS, gamers collectively sighed with noticeable disgust. And why not? The DS has never particularly been seen as a platform for which more adult-oriented games could truly shine, that is, until now. A spectacular and intense throwback to the games that kickstarted the series’ success, Chinatown Wars is destined to become one of the DS’s must-play classics.

Fire up Chinatown Wars, and you’ll get acquainted with one Huang Lee. He’s making his way to the ubiquitous Liberty City in order to pass on a sword to his uncle. It’s no ordinary sword, as it’s symbolic in nature. After the slaying of Huang’s father, it’s his job to pass on the sword to the Triad head’s father. After some shady and unfortunate events unfold, Lee finds that the sword has been stolen and he’s tossed out into the sea, thought to be dead. With this, you’re thrust into the seedy underbelly that comprisees the single-player mode of Chinatown Wars.

Perhaps the very first thing you’ll notice is the long-awaited return of the top-down perspective from the heyday of Grand Theft Auto. What’s presented here is essentially a classic console installment downsized in every proper way imaginable to fit the DS like a glove. However, though it may look entirely alike, there are many ways in which it’s a bit different from its predecessors. Though everything is seen through a bird’s-eye view, the game is entirely 3D. Of course, that’s not exactly saying too much due to the DS’s graphical restrictions, but regardless of the bells and whistles expected these days from gaming youth, there is too much fun to be had here.  The best way to describe Chinatown Wars is a modern-day GTA title with a different camera angle.

Liberty City remains relatively unchanged from the days of the console releases, and if you feel the urge to explore right away, the entire city is unlocked at the onset. GTA wouldn’t be the mother of all sandbox titles if they didn’t cater to those of us with the burning desire to explore.  Exploring the city is one of the absolute biggest draws – if you see something that could possibly take you from point A to point B,it’s up for grabs. Commandeer a truck, a car, a bike, anything you want.  However, a good portion of your time will be spent exploring every nook and cranny on foot, because you can aim much better that way. You’ll be faced with many, many missions that require the sweet sound of shots ringing out –  a regular series staple.  There is a bevy of weaponry available via the ammunition dealer, ensuring that you always receive the proper tools to get any job done right. The implementation of a targeting system will ensure that you’re shooting to kill, but as the game wears on you may find that it makes certain areas of the game a bit easier than you’d like.

If you’ve ever wanted to live out the life of a drug dealer, Chinatown Wars delivers with its network of who’s buying low and who’s particularly needing a fix. It’s a living, breathing economy that works well, even incorporating real-life elements that could completely screw up even the best-laid of plans.  That’s right, a surprise sting could ruin your precious trade, leaving you with nothing if you hadn’t the presence of time to stockpile some goods. I found myself spending loads of time on this aspect of the game, forsaking storyline elements and productivity to make some quick cash and to forge some bonds with respected dealers around Liberty City. I can’t imagine this element going over well with whiny parents, but to be honest it really made the game for me. This level of interaction with the world was rather impressive, coming from a DS title Rather than relying on a cell phone to make plans, keep in touch, and all of those other important aspects, you’re given a PDA that works fantastically – allowing you to contact NPCs, and providing a great little GPS that you can use the stylus to navigate. It’s all about making the connections and networking.

Of particular interest is the new method in which you must lose the heat. Rather than simply evading cops, you must now take an offensive stance against those pigs, er, respected members of law enforcement. Driving away just won’t be enough anymore. Now you’ll find yourself going after the cop cars, effectively disabling them in order to lose your wanted level. This is an extremely satisfying addition to the series, and personally I hope to see it implemented in future, “big brother” console ports.

Chinatown Wars looks great, considering the hardware it’s got to work with. Music tracks as well as audio fit the mood perfectly, as well as score the action to a T. Rockstar has done a truly admirable job here in utilizing every bit of power the DS has to create a smashing new entry into the Grand Theft Auto series.

If you’re a veteran of the series, or if you’re just starting to get into the madness that is Grand Theft Auto, this is a  great first choice to start with, as it’s very accessible, reasonably priced, and you can take it with you. It’s a fantastic throwback to the original days of the series, if you remember the very first few iterations. This game is indeed a breath of fresh air for the franchise, and going back to basics is always a good thing. Check it out at your first convenience.

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