Thursday, April 16, 2009
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars — First Impressions
Believe it or not, I do play games other than Grand Theft Auto. That is, I used to, until I bought this game. When I first heard they were making a GTA for the DS, I was understandably skeptical. I have played other portable GTAs, which have been produced to varying degrees of success. The PSP games (Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories) have been good, and the GBA entry was passable. The less said about the GameBoy Color ports, the better. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was designed by Rockstar Leeds, the studio responsible for the PSP entries, which gave this game some hope.
My biggest fear was with the touch screen features. Most games that make the journey onto the DS inherit worthless touch screen controls (Phantom Hourglass, anyone?), and pointless minigames (like the ones found in Super Mario 64 DS). Thankfully, GTA: Chinatown Wars has neither. While most of the controls are mapped to the face buttons, and the action occurs almost entirely on the top screen, other things such as your HUD, GPS, menus, and weapon selections are are found on the touch screen (though the game settings do allow you activate top screen HUD and GPS, which I highly recommend). This makes using GTA:CW's items a lot easier than its console counterpart's, especially since the game pauses while you select your weapon, eliminating the frustrating situation of getting shot to death while you're searching for the proper tool for the job. It also improves choosing your destination on your GPS. After playing Chinatown Wars, I found myself wishing for the same feature in GTA4.
The story is as disposable as any other Rockstar Leeds GTA game. Fortunately, due to the limitations of the DS, exposition is typically short and kept to a minimum. The story thus far revolves around a young Chinese immigrant and Triad member, Huang Lee, who arrives in Liberty City to deliver Yu-Jian, his late father's sword and a family heirloom, to his Uncle Wu "Kenny" Lee. As soon as he arrives, however, he is ambushed, shot, kidnapped, and left for dead in the back seat of a car that has been dumped into the river.
This is where the game's touch screen functionality takes you by surprise (unless, of course, you're reading this… then it'll be less of a surprise). In order to escape from the sinking deathtrap, you must break through the car's rear window by tapping the touch screen until it shatters (the window, not the touch screen). From there you're released into a mostly accurate recreation of Liberty City's Liberty State side.
As always, there are plenty of cars to steal, but taking a parked car may prove more trouble than it's worth, especially when evading the cops. Stealing a parked car is no longer a matter of breaking in and driving off. You now have to figure out how to start them without a key. Depending on the vehicle, you are faced with a touch based minigame (the game does not pause, giving police an advantage) that has you either hotwiring, jimmying the ignition with a screwdriver, or hacking the security code with your PDA. Oh yeah, and you only have so much time in which to perform this task before the alarm goes off. It's a feature that becomes second nature after a few turns in each, but still shifts the balance of high-speed chasing enough to make you have to think about what car is better to make your getaway, the parked Infernus sports car, or the Blista minivan driving by.
While the gameplay closely resembles old school, top down GTA, it fixes one major problem with previous incarnations: the camera. Instead of being static, with tank controls for driving, the camera rotates like a typical 3rd person game to give you better control over your walking and driving. The game also uses a variation of GTA3's auto-aim feature, which unfortunately is a little too auto in that you cannot fire freely. You are almost always aimed at something, and that something may or may not be something you want to attack.
These minor gripes aside, the game is an amazing achievement on Nintendo's oft under-powered portable. While the primary dialog is all text based, sound-bytes are plentiful as you explore Liberty City; and don't think being on a Nintendo system means they've toned down the language. You'll read and hear profanities galore from Liberty's citizens, though the swears are more tongue-in-cheek than in other GTAs.
Aside from the aforementioned touch screen features, two gameplay mechanics unique to this entry look to separate it from its console cousins in a big way. The first is the police chase mechanic. Instead of the original run-until-you-get-caught method, or GTA4's escape-the-circle, Chinatown Wars employs a new system which charges you with the task of actually taking out the cops. If one is chasing you in a car, you can try to nudge them off course into a building, or slam into them at full speed from behind (only works with fast cars), causing them to crash. (You can also try to shoot their car until it explodes, but this runs the risk of attracting more cops, and thereby, more stars.) For every star you have, that's another cop car you have to take out to reduce your wanted level. For example, if you have four stars, you'll have to take out four cop cars (or SWAT vans, and on higher wanted levels, FBI cars) in order to reduce your wanted level to three stars; then you'll have to take out three cops to reduce your wanted level to two; and so on. If you only have one star, you can choose to either try to take the one out, or duck into an alley or a park for a while until the heat is off. Of course, there are still the classic respray shops.
The other new feature is the drug trading side-game. Early in the game you are given a satchel to carry, and a safebox in your safehouse. The satchel holds 50 of any kind of drug (there are six), the safebox has unlimited capacity. All around Liberty City you'll find dealers offering various amounts of different kinds of drugs. Every gang has specialties, and trading becomes a combination of rock, paper, scissors, and the stock market. Every day or two (in-game), you'll receive an email from a dealer who's looking to either unload a certain drug for cheap, or buy a certain drug for way more than market value. If you follow these tips, and master the art of buy-low-sell-high, you'll find yourself a source of unlimited income. Just don't get busted while carrying! Along with all of your weapons and armor, and cash for a bribe, the police also take all of the drugs you have on your person, which can end up costing you a lot of money in goods and potential profit.
What Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars lacks in epic scope, it seems to make up for in innovation and creativity. Exploring the city is just as much fun as it always has been, maybe more so with the DS's enhancements, but time will tell. Considering how much time I've spent playing this game, and how convenient it is to simply pick it up anywhere and continue where I left off, I predict my Extended Play review not being far behind. Keep checking for more!
UPDATE: Extended Play is up! Click here to read it!