When the Grand Theft Auto series went fully 3D in 2001, it changed the face of the gaming world.

The crime-based, open-ended gameplay pioneered in 2D finally had a suitable habitat to thrive in. Since the release of Grand Theft Auto III, gamers across the world have been treated to a plethora of rich, detailed and ingeniously designed worlds in which to become a criminal kingpin. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars continues the trend of increased sophistication and brings a truly brilliant gaming experience to the Nintendo DS.

With the franchise finding considerable success in the 3D market this decade, the unique style of the 2D era was all but lost. Recently, Rockstar have released the earlier games for free, but for most the series was well and truly a 3D affair.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS is as close to the origins of GTA as you could want, featuring a beautiful isometric 3D engine with the arcade style gameplay of the past. Not only does the game have some of the best top down style graphics I’ve ever encountered – it’s one of the best games ever released for the DS.

Chinatown Wars starts as any other GTA game – a new man to a big city with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Like the rest, it’s up to the player to progress through the story, becoming bigger and more powerful in the criminal underworld. The city of Chinatown Wars is one many will be familiar with; the Liberty City of GTA IV. Down to the smallest detail, Rockstar have condensed and crammed their enormous and vibrant take on New York City into a single DS cartridge.

While I’ve been impressed with handheld GTA titles before (GTA: Vice City Stories comes to mind), I’ve never expected to see a game like this on the DS. From the minute you see the streets of Liberty City, you will be shocked. The cell-shaded isometric 3D engine put to use in Chinatown Wars gives the game a sublime living comic book feel, suited perfectly to the melodramatic storyline Rockstar have woven through the game. More importantly, the game feels smooth and fast – no signs of slowdown even in the midst of a bloody street fight with dozens of cars and enemies.

By cleverly utilizing the dual screens, Rockstar give the game a clean, unencumbered feel which makes it a joy to play. The top screen is your typical GTA action screen, allowing you to weave in and out of traffic, shoot your enemies and conduct your dirty business deals. The touch-screen acts as a PDA, displaying a map with GPS, allowing you to manage your weapons and giving you access to your underworld contacts via email. The stylus is perfect for interaction with the PDA, and feels like a real addition to the gameplay, not the tacked on feeling you get with some DS games. Touch is used even further in Chinatown Wars, becoming instrumental in hotwiring some vehicles, hurling Molotov cocktails and even signing your name to property deeds.

Keeping track of your contacts has an increased role in Chinatown Wars, as much of your revenue will come from dealing drugs. Dealing drugs means dealing with dealers, who are scattered all over the city. As you build a rapport with particular suppliers, you gain access to better and more profitable deals. Within a few short hours of dealing you can be earning hundreds of thousands of dollars – along with some heavy Police interaction. Further value can be gleamed from dealing by destroying some of 100 CCTV cameras positioned around the city (a nod to previous GTA games). With fewer cameras on the streets, you stand to make a lot more money.

In your day-to-day life as a Triad member, you will no doubt have a run-in with Johnny Law. The Police in Liberty City are relentless as they are numerous, springing from every street corner to interfere with your racket. Lucky for you, there are several neat ways you can deal with the boys in blue. New to the GTA franchise is the ability to crash Police cars, keeping them off your tail for good. Being followed by a squad car? A little deft driving should see the pesky cop slammed into a power pole, leaving you to a clean getaway. In a nod to GTA IV, each crime exists within a zone. Leave the zone for long enough and your wanted level drops. The balance of Police power in Chinatown Wars is perfectly suited to a portable title – tough enough to provide a challenge but forgiving enough to ease frustration with difficult missions.

The missions you are set on range from familiar feeling street races to massive drug heists, employing your self-tattooed (yes, with the stylus) gang members to provide covering fire. Aside from the Triads, other gangs will send work your way (including the LCPD). Just when you think the single player campaign is full enough, jobs from random Joe’s on the street can be taken, seeing you become a limo driver or private assassin. Coupled with the aforementioned drug dealing and GTA’s signature additional tasks (unique jumps, CCTV elimination, street races, taxi jobs, e.t.c…), Chinatown Wars is one huge game on a tiny platform.

Music has long been an integral part in the GTA experience. The radio stations available in Vice City were some of the funniest and best produced shows you could hope to hear, which made them a favourite part of the game for many. For whatever reason, music in cartridge based games has never been up to scratch, which had my doubts cast over Chinatown Wars audio. While the music for the game isn’t as ear-grabbing as its predecessors, the songs are solid and feel well placed. Tracks by artists like Ghostface Killah and MF Doom help create a gangsta feeling and the action is matched by the pace and tone of most of the music. The sound effects in the game are pulled off very well, smashing glass and cracking wood echo throughout the Liberty City streets, supplementing the incredible immersion this title offers.

As you can probably tell by now, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a phenomenal game. In its history, the Nintendo DS has yet to see such a rich, beautiful and thoroughly engrossing title. By marrying the clandestine world of organised crime with the unique features/limitations of the DS, Rockstar have crafted a true gem. Dedicated players may finish the core story within a week, but there’s much more to it than that. To fault this title on anything other than the technical limitations of the console would be petty.

Chinatown Wars sets the standard for handheld action games and shows great potential for the future of the Nintendo DS.