In the ten years since GTA II's Anywhere City, we've gone from looking down on Grand Theft Auto games to staring up at them, so Chinatown Wars should be jarring. Early screenshots of the game have had that effect: squidgy, ruffled characters, crayon-muzzled gunfights; black-edged opacity after a decade straining for transparence.
If this is a step back for Rockstar, however, it's only a short hop - back to last year's Liberty City, which is restored with the exception of Alderney, the island state west of Bohan and Algonquin, and open from the start. And while the DS is no Cell or Xenon, there's immediate depth and ambition here that discredits the comparison to earlier top-down games, beginning with a typically cinematic introduction, lacking in GTA IV's commanding Soviet Connection theme, but no less assured thanks to the little details.
Headlights cast real-time shadows, indicators blink, trains rumble overhead, and the camera arcs and swings smoothly across rooftops that angle into the lens just sharply enough to accentuate their height. The black edges define cars, buildings and people, but the textures stand up to closer scrutiny on the DS' screens than on the pages of a website, and the animations are understated; Rockstar saves its cycles for speed, volume, personality and effect, and while other DS games are simply happy to be in 3D at all, Chinatown Wars is comfortable. The engine cruises through complex scenes above the hinge at a rock-solid 30 frames per second, all the while the lower screen's graphic-novel storytelling follows the conversation of the two hoods carrying you, Huang Lee, to a nearby river for dumping, along with the bullet in your head.
Huang has flown into Liberty City to deliver a sword, Yu Jian, to his uncle "Wu" Kenny Lee, and to discover who killed his playboy father, but he doesn't even make it to Arrivals before he is set upon, and now he's been shot, relieved of the sword, and fed to the fish. Your first task is to break out of the sinking car, slashing at the rear windshield in one of what will grow to be a varied chain of contextual stylus mini-games, none of which proves grating or intrusive. Hotwiring a nearby car is a case of twisting a screwdriver in the ignition, and later you toss change into a toll-booth collection tray, and fill bottles with petrol to make Molotovs. Each diversion is incidental, in-line and over quickly.
Then it's onto the streets of Liberty City and, following a call on your uncle, into a familiar rhythm: collecting missions, fulfilling their objectives, banking some cash. But Chinatown Wars hasn't merely been ported, it's been tailored: d-pad steering benefits from subtle, optional auto-correction, straightening up between columns of traffic; the GPS system plots a course on the mini-map below the fold, but it can also be used to project yellow chevrons on the road above; gun combat is closer to a shmup than a Gears, as you weave between wrecks and bodies dodging bullets while you fire through a lock-on; and unique stunts are signposted almost literally, brought to your attention by the proximity of a billboard to an otherwise difficult-to-spot ramp. The refreshed fundamentals enrich the content, and the attention to detail is sympathetic to the player: weapon-switching pauses the action, the camera snaps to your back quickly, the HUD's customisable, and you can order weapons off the internet.
As for the missions, the ones we're allowed to play during our time with the game have no doubt been selected to draw its best features into one snapshot, and they are a good shop window. There's a sniper mission in a park, where you first assemble a rifle with the stylus, dragging parts from a briefcase to lock the scope to the receiver and so on, before staring through it from an elevated position and guiding its sights over pedestrians, eventually firing on the first target who fits the description you've been given.
Another pits you against a crazed, minigun-wielding fellow Triad, and you throw grenades and Molotovs by touching the bottom-screen with your thumb or the stylus and dragging a line away from the centre, with a corresponding arc on the top-screen showing you the likely trajectory, all the while you're dodging telegraphed gunfire with the d-pad. Another is a siege, where you block the streets with cars and fend off waves of rivals. No two are alike, which is unusual, and only one ends by guiding a van into a lockup.
Rather than import the cast of GTA IV, Rockstar also tells a different story through another band of variously anarchistic, vain and foolish characters (we meet the usual corrupt cop trying to bust his way out of trouble, for instance), and although we've yet to meet a new Brucie, we've driven vengeful loony Zhou Ming around a park while he tears the local drug-dealing fraternity asunder with a 50-cal, and done a spot of terrorising ourselves as Chan Jaoming's passenger for a helicopter Molotov rampage. The story sequences are not voiced - this is a cartridge, remember - but there's enough effing, blinding and one-lining in the text banter to compensate, and there's humour and character throughout the scripting incidentals, including the inevitable dodgy phonetic Chinese, like Uncle Wu's restaurant, "Sum Yung Gai". Easy now.
Whether because the DS would struggle to render a zoomed-out mini-map clearly, or for other reasons, Chinatown Wars also modifies police behaviour. You can still ditch the cops with pay-'n'-spray, but now each star of your wanted rating corresponds to a specific car on your tail, and by running them off the road you can release yourself from their pursuit. Even so, we're told to expect more arrests, although it won't be so much of a penalty; you won't choose death over detention as you always did in GTA IV. A "trip skip" option also allows you to retrace mission steps should you die, fail or be detained, cutting out a lot of the travelling.
Equally, we're not sure whether it's a reaction to feedback - although we doubt it, given the timing of the original announcement - but Chinatown Wars is rich in interactive detail. Certain bins (toss the bags out with the stylus) act as stash spots for guns and contraband; security cameras are the new pigeons, lurking in the background to hunt and destroy; your safehouse allows you to revisit any completed mission for old time's sake, and mess around with fridge magnets; and most promisingly and provocatively you can become a full-on drug-dealer.
Once you acquire a stash box at your apartment, and some drugs from a first contact, you can set up shop and deal. Prices vary from place to place, and fluctuate based on local supply and the presence of unmolested security cameras (two things of note there: you won't always want to shoot them out quickly, as they guarantee top prices; and perhaps this will help you locate them). Your PDA, which acts like a combination of GTA IV's mobile phone and tw@ cafs for email access, slings you requests for quick sales at inflated prices at specific times and places, and a Trade Info page allows you to study the lay of the drug-dealing land. Naturally if you're nicked you lose whatever you have on you, and you can't get high off your own supply, but it's easy to see where the DS-first 18 certificate came in.
GTA IV's problem in the eyes of its critics wasn't so much that there wasn't stuff to do outside the story core, though, as that there wasn't much personality beyond the core: you could visit comedy clubs, snipe and assassinate your way to wealth, and court and car-thieve the hours away, but you couldn't continue to reach out and touch the world in any meaningful way. It will take a bit more time in Chinatown Wars' company to assess that side of it, but what's clear now is that there's no shortage of content to exhaust before you reach that stage: Rockstar estimates at least 20 hours of story and side content, and that excludes the online multiplayer component we've yet to be shown, and integration with the Rockstar Social Club.
And what's equally clear is that any sensation of displacement is quickly lost in the bustle of another living, swearing, squishing openworld city, that quickly measures up to the catalogue of hit sequels to the early top-down Grand Theft Auto games the first Chinatown Wars screenshots initially recall. If anything it goes further, using the stylus, the microphone and those two screens to drag you closer to the nuts and bolts of Huang's quest for vengeance, and the series' trademark skewed perspective, than the camera elevation implies. It's no wonder Rockstar Leeds is at twice the capacity required to turn out PSP titles Liberty City and Vice City Stories, and there seems little chance this will risk the lower review scores their conversion work occasionally prompted.
What's most clear of all, though, is that while we've only been looking down at the new look Liberty City for a couple of hours so far, everyone else is still staring up.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is due out for DS on 20th March.