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.