At first glance, Chinatown Wars could be mistaken for a return to the Grand Theft Auto series' humble 2D beginnings. The action is viewed from a more or less top-down perspective, and of course you still spend much of your time driving stolen cars and causing trouble with firearms. But the similarities between this superb Nintendo DS game and its '90s progenitors pretty much end there. Chinatown Wars actually has more in common with GTAs III and IV than it does with earlier games, and, remarkably, it even adds to and improves on the formula that made those games so successful. That's a bold statement for sure, but Chinatown Wars really is that good.
Liberty City is almost as impressive on the DS as it is in GTAIV.
Set in the same instantly recognizable Liberty City as GTAIV (minus one island), Chinatown Wars tells the story of a power struggle within the Triad gangs from the perspective of Huang Lee, whose crime-boss father has recently been murdered. Huang flies to Liberty from Hong Kong to avenge his father, and predictably becomes embroiled in the war between those hoping to step into the dead man's shoes. As Huang, you advance the story--which should take you about nine hours to play through--by undertaking missions for a number of different characters within the Triad organization, as well as for one or two people outside of it. Many of these missions involve the usual mix of driving fast, killing people, and not getting caught by the cops, but there are plenty of varied and memorable missions as well, a number of which put the touch screen to great use.
For the most part, Chinatown Wars plays just like any other GTA game, which is an achievement in itself. Basic controls for movement and car-jacking are mapped to the same button positions that they are on other platforms. The uncomplicated on-foot and vehicle controls are largely the same (sprint becomes accelerate, shoot is still shoot), so even those of you with no prior GTA experience should have no trouble picking them up quickly. There are some great options to make the game even more user-friendly as well, such as autotargeting for drive-by shootings and a subtle steering assist that automatically straightens up your vehicle so that it's parallel with the road that you're on. There's even an option to superimpose GPS directions directly onto the street, which works a lot better than having to look down at the map on the bottom screen.
One downside to Chinatown Wars being so uncompromising in its attempt to replicate the GTA experience is that, because the DS has fewer buttons than other systems, you're occasionally required to use the touch screen at inopportune times. It's not a big problem, but despite the fact that it's implemented well, having to use the touch screen to both switch between weapons and to throw projectile weapons such as grenades, Molotov cocktails, and flashbangs is a little unwieldy. It's unfortunate, because elsewhere in the game the touch screen really adds to the experience, with minigames that let you take a more hands-on approach to tasks that otherwise wouldn't be interactive at all. For example, when you attempt to steal a parked car, there's a good chance that you'll have to complete one of three minigames to get it started: rotating a screwdriver in the ignition, entering an immobilizer PIN, or unscrewing a panel on the steering column and hot-wiring. More imaginative touch-screen minigames include making your own Molotov cocktails at the gas station, tattooing gang recruits, searching Dumpsters for weapons and discarded food, and using a salvage boat's sonar to search for drug shipments lost at sea, to name but a few. What all of these minigames have in common is that they're quick, fun, rarely challenging enough to halt your progress, and are mandatory only once.
Story missions are also mandatory only once, but Chinatown Wars is the first game in the series to let you replay any mission that you've beaten previously in an attempt to achieve a higher score or a faster time. Another great addition for missions is the "trip skip" option that, if you choose to retry an eligible mission immediately after failing it, lets you bypass the road trip at the start of the mission and get right back into the action that killed you on your last attempt. None of the missions are so difficult that you should fail them more than once or twice, but this is a welcome feature nonetheless, and one that will hopefully be implemented in other GTA games down the road.
There are dozens of different vehicles, and they all handle differently.
When you're not carrying out missions handed to you by central characters and by random pedestrians that you encounter, there are an impressive number of other things to do in Liberty City, some old, some new. For example, stealing a cop car, an ambulance, a cab (you can hail these by whistling into the mic if you really want to), a fire truck, or a noodle delivery van will give you the option to make some money impersonating those vehicles' rightful owners. And if you successfully steal a delivery van that's being used to transport drugs or weapons and get it back to one of your secluded safe houses, you get to keep its contents. Weapons can be tricky to obtain this way because the Ammu-Nation drivers are invariably well armed. But stealing drugs is far less challenging, and if you get them for free then making a profit is inevitable when you meet with any of the 80 dealers who, once you find them, can be traded with to make relatively easy money. That's provided that there are no police in the immediate vicinity, because they'll either spook the dealer before you can make the deal or wait for you to close it and then move in to make arrests. Interacting with a dealer in any way adds him to your GPS system's database for future reference, so anytime you see a telltale blue dot on your map, it's well worth a quick detour to check it out.
Other things to look out for in Liberty City include parked vehicles that initiate checkpoint races and delivery missions when you climb into them, unique stunt jumps that are set up so that you can crash through billboards, a go-kart race track, and 100 security cameras that can be destroyed using grenades or Molotovs. Chinatown Wars also sees the welcome return of Rampage missions, which are against-the-clock killing sprees that challenge you to kill a certain number of enemies using a specific weapon, sometimes with an AI-controlled henchman or two at your side.
Incidentally, weapons are in plentiful supply, and can be ordered from Ammu-Nation's Web site using your in-game PDA. There are more than 20 different weapons to play with in Chinatown Wars, including everything from fists, flashbangs, and flamethrowers to swords, shotguns, and sniper rifles. Most weapons fall into either the ranged (lock on and hit A), melee (lock on and hit A), or thrown (determine range and direction with touch screen) classes as far as controls go, and all perform their jobs admirably. The sniper rifle is unique in that it comes into play only in specific missions, must be assembled via a touch-screen minigame before use, and turns the entire top screen into a crosshair. Proximity mines that you drop at your feet are also a fun addition to the GTA arsenal, though they remain armed for only a few seconds before they explode without provocation. The most powerful weapons become readily available only toward the end of the game, which is just as well because as soon as you get your hands on a flamethrower or an armful of flashbangs, they make subsequent missions much easier.