With so many readily available weapons, the Liberty City Police Department is an ever-present danger, and they're quick to give chase if they witness you doing anything untoward. Similarly to previous GTA games, a rating of between one and six stars lets you know how badly the police want to get their hands on you. The more trouble you cause the higher your rating, and the higher your rating the more cops will come after you. With a one-star rating, you rarely have more than one or two patrol cars on your case, but by the time you get up to the maximum six stars, you can expect roadblocks, search helicopters, and riot vans.
Traditionally, getting away from the police in a GTA game has involved outrunning them, finding a secluded spot to lay low, or ducking into a Pay 'n Spray auto shop to give your car a makeover. You could fight the police if you really wanted to, but your aggression would generally just anger them more. In Chinatown Wars, you have an additional option that turns the old system on its head to some degree, and the resulting car chases are better than those in any previous game as a result. The new system is simple but immensely satisfying; if you have a three-star wanted rating, destroying three cop cars will knock it down to a two-star rating, and so on. You can destroy the cop cars either by crashing into them at great speed or by racing around and narrowly missing environmental obstacles in the hope that they'll make a mistake and crash themselves. The key thing to remember is that you have to destroy the cop cars without actually killing the cops inside, so stepping out of your vehicle with a rocket launcher isn't the way to play on this occasion.
Wrecking police cars to escape from them makes cop chases more fun than ever.
The in-game camera does a superb job of following you around for the most part, and you can reposition it behind yourself at any time with a quick tap of the left shoulder button, but it seems unavoidable that your view will still be obscured from time to time. There are a lot of tall buildings in some neighborhoods that get in the way when the camera is slow to reposition itself, and good luck if you're involved in a gunfight while surrounded by trees--you won't be able to see much of anything. The verticality of Liberty City's architecture adds to its already impressive sense of scale, but occasionally it gets in the way of the gameplay.
On the subject of gameplay, taking advantage of the local multiplayer support for two people in Chinatown Wars is arguably even more fun than playing through the story. Support for more players or via Wi-Fi would be welcome, of course, but there's a great selection of modes here that are a blast in spite of the low player count. There are races that almost always involve you destroying one another's vehicles or ditching them when you find a faster vehicle, especially if you opt for the Death Race variant and set the default vehicles as tanks. There's a Stash Dash mode in which you rush across the city and fight for the controls of a delivery van, after which you attempt to make deliveries while your opponent does anything they can to stop you. And there's a surprisingly fun one-on-one deathmatch mode called Liberty City Survivor that's action-packed from start to finish because police are watching your every move and are quick to join the fray the moment you give them an excuse to. Defend the Base mode challenges you to work together and prevent a number of targets that are coming under fire from being destroyed for a period of time, and Gang Bang is an objective-based game in which you're each accompanied by a number of henchmen and take turns to attack and defend your respective assets. Gang Bang games can take a long time because the winner not only needs to destroy a series of objectives, but must also plant a bomb that takes several seconds--an eternity when you're unable to defend yourself--to arm. There's a small problem in Gang Bang mode that results in characters sometimes wearing the colors of the opposing team rather than their own, but--like all of the multiplayer modes--it's still a lot of fun if players are evenly matched.
In addition to local multiplayer support, Chinatown Wars offers Wi-Fi functionality that doesn't involve head-to-head gameplay, but is still pretty neat in its own right. After exchanging friend codes with other players, you can send messages to each other in-game, trade weapons and other items, and even exchange GPS locations that you've marked as favorites. If you connect to the Rockstar Social Club, you can also upload your in-game stats to the site's leaderboards and, purportedly, unlock bonus missions that unfortunately were not available for us to check out at the time of this review.
Hot-wiring cars is one of the many minigames you play on the touch screen.
It's hard to imagine anyone with even passing interest in Chinatown Wars not having a great time with it, but what's even more impressive than the open-world gameplay is the quality of its presentation. Technically, no other DS game even comes close to achieving what Chinatown Wars has by squeezing GTAIV's Liberty City onto the system. And that feat is made all the more impressive by the clean, black-outlined art style and staggering level of detail that's evident on every inch of the map. Cutscenes are impressive in a different way; they're not animated or voiced, but the quality of the stylized illustrations is uniformly high, and the series' dark and self-referential humor is evident in practically every line of conversation.
Chinatown Wars' audio also does very little wrong. Five radio stations offer instrumental rock, electronic, dub, hip-hop, and jazz tracks that either complement or serve as perfect counterpoints to the action depending on which you listen to. Furthermore, every item in the city appears to have a believable sound effect associated with it, whether it be the shattering of glass when you destroy a bus stop, the squelch of a pedestrian becoming a roadkill statistic, the satisfying spin of a minigun, or something as mundane as the thud of a traffic cone being displaced.
Perhaps what's most amazing about Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is that it doesn't feel like a scaled-down handheld version of a GTA game. Rather, it feels like a logical and somewhat experimental progression for the series, introducing a handful of great new features that seem destined to become standard in future iterations. And don't let the art style or the presence of simple minigames fool you; Chinatown Wars is every bit as deserving of its mature rating as previous games. It's also one of the best GTA games yet.