Version tested: PSP
If you thought Grand Theft Auto on the DS was unlikely, how about GTA on the DS ported to PSP? Already home to two of its own GTA games, which are also the two most popular games on the system, Sony's handheld could be forgiven for thinking it was above these top-down action-adventures, especially imports from the land of Nintendogs. Where are the fancy 3D graphics? Surely the PSP deserves better?
Well, first thing - no, judging by Sony's current hardware strategy, the PSP does not deserve better. But look on the bright side - the original Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was much better than anyone expected. "GTA as it first was, with the inherited wisdom of GTA as it's been since, finished off with all sorts of things that would happily belong in a GTA of the future," according to whichever idiot reviewed the DS version.
Chinatown Wars was - and remains for PSP - a more frivolous take on the Liberty City laid out in Grand Theft Auto IV. Protagonist Huang Lee, son of a murdered playboy, returns to the States to deliver an ancient sword to his uncle, but the sword is stolen, so Lee ends up doing missions for various wannabe Triad bosses. Forget the grim and grimy soliloquising of Niko Bellic, everyone here needs their heads examined, from the psychopathic Zhou Ming, who cuts out hearts and then boasts about the size of his manhood, to transsexual prostitute-loving Chan Jaoming, son of the current boss. It's very crass but keeps you smirking.
It's also an approach that better fits the mostly top-down gameplay, which sees tiny pixel-men running around firing weapons and racing Micro Machines, and makes more sense in the context of the game's tempting array of missions and distractions, which include arcade-style high-score shoot-'em-up rampages, lining up perfect jumps from ramp to billboard, and a cockeyed take on the world of drug-dealing that's all about wacky one-liners, back-alleys and car chases and not so much with the people lying in gutters with needles hanging out of their veins.
The drug-dealing is a fundamental change to the GTA economy, but fits in well. The idea is to buy low and sell high in various districts throughout Liberty City's two main islands, based on tip-offs received via emails to your PDAs. It's possible to build up a huge stock of funds buying cheap drugs and then sitting on them until the right tip-off arrives, and in some respects the dealing can be a little game-breaking, but it's always satisfying, interferes with the general mission flow in a compelling way, and can be hair-raising when you're trying to fend off the police after you've just spent thousands on the goods in your backseat, which are confiscated should you get busted.
The main missions themselves are generally good, too, and even people who have played every GTA since the first top-down PC game will be surprised the direction some of them take. For the PSP version, Rockstar Leeds has introduced a few more, some of which focus on gung-ho journalist Melanie (a sardonic, blonde narcissist - the journalist trademark), who's trying to film a documentary about the drug trade with a series-typical lack of sense. The missions fit in without feeling obtrusive, make good use of a crane at one point, and even take you indoors, which works well enough despite a few camera issues.
The rest of the DS content also makes the transition intact, with minimal changes to key gameplay elements. The driving model is less slidey and more snappy than in the big-console games, and the cops still need to be batted away car by car rather than evaded wholesale, and both changes feed into the game's sense of identity.
Some things work better than others, however. One of the DS games' cute little quirks was the microgames used to bring things like hotwiring, arming bombs and cracking locks to life, each of which brought the stylus to hand for a few seconds. The same activities are still included on PSP, but now rely on button presses. None is difficult, but that's not the issue. On the DS they bore novelty and amusement value into mundane concepts, but on the PSP they come across as filler.
Huang's PDA also suffers here in comparison to its home. Without the stylus, navigation is fiddly, while the PDA itself - home to Huang's vital GPS, drug trade information and email applications - takes a second or two to load on our UMD version every time you hit the Start button (the digital version wasn't available at the time of writing). It's not the end of the world, but it's an unnecessary pause in it.
There's also the sense that while this is a good port in some ways, it could have gone further. There's more music on the radio stations, but no obvious custom soundtrack option. There's multiplayer via PlayStation Network, but it's only for two players and relies on the Rockstar Social Club friends list (and was unavailable to test for this review). There are new rampages and other side missions, but nothing to really mark the game out on PSP besides its graphics. Without a crib sheet, you could be forgiven for overlooking the differences in evaluating it.
With that said, you can't fail to notice the graphical update. Not only are the textures much higher-resolution throughout the world, but the once-squashed comic cells used for the text-based story sequences look beautiful spread across the PSP screen, and almost everything in the world benefits from the addition of dynamic real-time lighting, and tweaks and additions to the FX roster. Driving around at night in shiny, beautifully shaded cars as your headlights cut the gloom, you'd never mistake it for a game that began life on the wristwatch-powered Nintendo DS.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars isn't quite so stunning second time around, then, but of course for PSP owners it won't be second time around - and while some of the original's slickness has been lost in translation, the quality is still overwhelming. Between the clever mission design, comedy storyline and imaginative drug-dealing angle, it represents many hours of play, all of which live up to its legacy.
9 / 10