When we first heard about Chinatown Wars at E3 last year, we were more than a little skeptical.
It seemed unlikely, to put it mildly, that Rockstar could possibly do justice to the Grand Theft Auto series on the Nintendo DS. It's not like Rockstar or Nintendo are lacking in experience in this area, having previously released a few cut-down Grand Theft Auto games for the Game Boy nearly a decade ago, but times have changed and now that we've seen Grand Theft Auto IV the bar has been raised somewhat.
It could also be said that Liberty and Vice City Stories showed what possibilities were available for the portable market, but the DS is an altogether different device to the PSP, with a different set of challenges and platform-specific requirements.
Of most concern was continuity. When you start playing a Grand Theft Auto title, you have certain expectations as to the gameplay and story, so the first few minutes are critical in establishing the mood. We're pleased to report that Rockstar have absolutely nailed this with Chinatown Wars, as not only does our protagonist Huang Lee immediately get ambushed and shot in the head, he's then dumped in the harbour and left for dead!
Chinatown Wars is set in an isometric Liberty City - another first for the series. The top screen of the DS shows the game world and the lower screen controls your interaction with it. The "D" pad allows you to guide your character around the screen, with the action buttons performing tasks such as entering/exiting vehicles, accelerating, firing weapons etc. Most other features are controlled through the touch-screen, such as selecting weapons, aiming Molotov cocktails, and participating in the many mini-games located throughout the city.
Speaking of which, the city is entirely modelled on the Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto IV. Everything, down to the streets, suburbs, railway tracks, parks and even lamp posts, are identical in location, and it's truly amazing to see such a detailed world in miniature. You have the same radial mini-map as well, allowing you to set GPS waypoints to your destination, and virtually all the vehicles you'll come across are making an appearance from GTA IV too.
The focus for Chinatown Wars is slightly different to GTA IV. Where Niko's world was grim, realistic and packed with brutality on a personal level, Chinatown Wars is incredibly fast-paced, bursting with humour and much more arcade-orientated. You can, for example, hold down the brakes and accelerate to do a burnout - when you take off down the street, sparks fly from your tyres which then set pedestrians on fire. Taxis exist too, and perform the same functions as in GTA IV, but on the DS you can actually whistle for a cab using the built-in microphone. Will Smith would be proud.
It's not just the arcade silliness that has imbued this instalment with plenty of entertainment, as stylus-controlled mini-games are now included to make the most of the DS's features. Hotwiring a car will have you moving a screwdriver to an ignition barrel and spinning the stylus around to get the car to start. You can pop to the local petrol station and pump your own gas directly into bottles to make your own Molotov cocktails, all through clever use of the touch-screen. You can explore dumpsters to find weapons, manage your emails, pick locks on safes, trigger bombs - there's a stack of these small challenges to keep you occupied as you progress through the game.
We played through a few missions, each with a different twist. In one, we were required to drive to a store and defend it from attack by a rival mob faction. This was achieved by blocking each end of the street with nearby vehicles, and using these vehicles as cover to take out each wave of criminals. The shop damage was recorded in a graph at the top of the screen - we just had to make sure the building was intact and the mobsters defeated for an easy cash reward.
In another, we had to pick up some explosives from a location and drive them to the side of a building. Using a mini-game we set the explosives and backed off, allowing them to blow a hole and provide us with easy access to the safe. Of course, at this point a large number of combatants arrived which we then had to dispatch using whatever weapons we could find.
If simply knocking out missions becomes tiresome, you can sell drugs on the side to make some extra cash. Controlling the lucrative Liberty City drug trade is more than just a mini-game, it's an integral part of the title. Each area has a set price for the purchase and sale of various drugs, and each faction of mobsters control a different area. You might want to buy acid from the Russian Mafia and sell it to the Italians, or pick up cannabis from the Jamaicans and sell it for a profit to the Chinese - it's all a matter of supply and demand.
You can alter the purchase price by destroying CCTV cameras that may be watching the deals going down too, and the entire drugs market is represented in almost stockmarket-inspired accuracy within the menu structure of the game.
There's plenty to do with your money too, as weapons cost a small fortune and there are many safehouses that you can purchase throughout the city. These safehouses aren't just for saving your progress any more, as you can do that at any time during the game. Instead you can activate your DS's wi-fi connection to upload your stats to leaderboards, or use the whiteboard to check which missions you've completed, and perhaps try them again to get a higher score.
Of course, it wouldn't be a GTA title without the long arm of the law, however again things are slightly different to GTA IV. You still have the same wanted "star" system, but instead of outrunning the police and resting up somewhere, you'll need to actually destroy the cops who are chasing you. If you've managed to earn three wanted stars, you'll need to destroy three police vehicles to drop down to a two-star status, and so on. This is achieved by intentionally ramming the police cars, pinning them against walls, or finding some kind of weapon or destructive environmental object to waste them with. Occasionally they'll destroy themselves by accident too, which is hilarious to watch.
All this insanity takes place in a Liberty City with an accurate day/night cycle, clever physics, collapsible/destructible objects, cars that actually take damage, pedestrians that chatter - you'll even experience fog and electrical storms! It's like someone has come along and taken all the arcade fun and humour from Grand Theft Auto II, scooped out the detail and accuracy of Grand Theft Auto IV and mashed them together to create what will undeniably be an absolutely compulsory purchase for every DS owner.
We've been told there's over 800,000 lines of code in this game, which is roughly what you would expect from a PS2 title. We're absolutely blown away by the level of complexity and attention to detail, but knowing Rockstar, we probably should have expected it.
Chinatown Wars is scheduled for release on March 20th. Unfortunately we were unable to experience the multiplayer component this time around, but we'll bring you a full review shortly.