Version tested: DS
Coming so soon after Grand Theft Auto IV took an imperious bow in the middle of last year, Rockstar's announcement that GTA would be heading to DS, and within a matter of months, was met with justified excitement but also surprise and scepticism. The PSP had done a fine job with Liberty City Stories - still the best-selling game on Sony's handheld - but Nintendo's innovative hardware would surely be hard-pressed to bring Grand Theft Auto to life in the way its fans have come to expect.
Well, if Chinatown Wars does nothing else, it presses the DS harder than virtually anything else you can buy for it. This is GTA on a smaller screen, but by no means a smaller scale. GTAIV's Liberty City may have been cut back to two islands (the best ones), but they're massive, diverse playgrounds, teeming with cars, pedestrians, the series' trademark missions and side-games, wonderfully rendered in surprising detail by an engine that ranks among the best on the platform. And with the addition of touch-screen gimmicks and a significant new drug-dealing component, the loss of things like the comedy voiceovers and talkshows are hardly felt.
Although this is the same Liberty City we all ripped apart last year, Rockstar has thrown out the cast in order to tell a new story. You play as Huang Lee, the spoiled son of a murdered gangster arriving back in town to pick up the pieces, quickly and conveniently thrown in at the deep end of a typical tale of turf wars, bent cops and the dark comedy of Rockstar's cock-eyed criminal underworld.
The set-up's familiar, then, but the delivery's understandably closer to the top-down GTAs of old. You target enemies with the right shoulder and fire with the A button, and whenever you get behind the wheel the camera zooms back to show you more of the road ahead (you can also adjust this, which is a nice touch). Unable to use 3D in-engine cut-scenes, the developers have gone for comic stills with text dialogue.
Despite cutbacks, however, much of what made GTAIV comprehensively playable is retained. Your new PDA, which occupies the touch-screen, includes the mini-map, which clicks through to a GPS that allows you to lay down waypoints, and plot courses to missions, drug dealers, safehouses and points of interest you've saved as favourites. You can also toggle various top-screen features that save you having to glance down all the time: GPS chevrons that point the way down the road, icons at the edges to help point out key locations, and of course your health and armour meters.
But it's the touch-screen that completes Chinatown Wars. You can use it to plot a throwing arc for Molotov cocktails and grenades, and when you get into a parked car you're given a few seconds to hotwire it. Older cars can be fired up with a screwdriver or a couple of twisted wires, while smarter rides have you sweating on rotating numbers to crack the immobiliser. It's the missions that benefit the most. An assassination involves assembling a rifle and then using the d-pad to target through the scope, bombs need to be defused in trucks, rookie bangers need to be tattooed, and there are numerous other smart little ideas, all of which are brief and pleasantly unexpected.
Mission design is more imaginative than before. There are still plenty of fetch-and-carry missions, and quite a few drive-here-to-shoot-these-guys affairs, but they usually play out in interesting ways. Blowing up a rival's gambling den with a tanker involves keeping up speed because a petrol leak at the rear has ignited and threatens to catch up to you, while rescuing a downed contact requires you to stay in cover and toss grenades to avoid a probing mini-gun. When a seemingly typical race mission first arrives, it turns out that you're not taking part; you're helping your contact cheat his way to victory by sabotaging the other cars and, later, interfering with the race itself by knocking people off course.
Driving takes a little while to adapt to thanks to an auto-correct that puts you on a straight course, but in time this more than earns its place in GTA's catalogue of clever features, allowing you to bypass columns of traffic without loss of speed, and swing fast into sharp turns without smashing yourself to pieces. GTA's love of screeching handbrake powerslides is diminished considerably, but the alternative is pacey and intuitive enough to compensate, and individual cars are caricatured with a likeable severity that means a plodding delivery truck is no less engaging than a sports car or one of the game's suicidally exhilarating motorbikes.
The new driving dynamic is also welcome because the cops have bucked their ideas up, patrolling in numbers sufficient to spot previously safe carjacks more often. Once they're on your tail, it's no longer a case of simply ditching your wanted stars or playing hide-and-seek with units in the search radius; police cruisers race alongside and must be barged into crash barriers and junctions to disable them. You can still choose to evade or re-spray, but neutralising pursuers often gives you the edge and allows you to sneak off into an alleyway to let the buzz die down.
And you will certainly want to do that when you're dealing. On a superficial level the ability to buy and sell a variety of drugs from Liberty City's gang fraternity looks like a cynical publicity stunt, but after a few hours it's obvious that it's not only vital to progression but also dangerously addictive. Apart from a stock of reliably positioned dealers (each with particular buying and selling preferences), your PDA's email regularly rattles with offers to buy and sell at special prices within a certain period, which has you barrelling around the streets to turn a profit.
With mission rewards much lower than usual, it's important and sometimes obligatory to delve into this, and while you can turn the PDA alerts off I found myself regularly killing half an hour or so buying up cheap pills or powder, stashing them and then rolling them into a hefty cash bonus when the right email landed. With Ammu-Nation now available on your PDA to deliver guns and armour to a nearby safehouse, and a hell of a lot of bad guys to tackle across the game's dozens of story missions, the drug-dealing side of Chinatown Wars fits in perfectly.
That's hardly everything, either. Series mainstays like vigilante missions (accessed from police computers in stolen cruisers), taxi missions and ambulance duties are back, but you can also hijack drug shipments from marked vans (slicing open the door panels back at your safehouse to see what you've won), raid warehouses, enter races, and dabble in all sorts. There are newsagents selling scratchcards (a great chance to flush your money away), tattoo parlours, and petrol stations where you can fill bottles and stuff them with rags to build your own Molotovs at cut price, and arcadey rampages you can replay for better medals. Speaking of which, a pin-board at your safehouse allows you to replay any mission you've completed - a first for the series.
There are also 100 hidden security cameras to find and take out, which affect local drug prices, and thanks to Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection you can alert friends to interesting locations and swap drugs, while local wireless play allows you to link up with another player for shared carnage. With only one copy of the game to hand, I've not been able to test this, but frankly it could set fire to your cat and burn holes in your arm and it wouldn't have too much impact on the score.
Not that Chinatown Wars is completely without fault. Scenery sometimes hides Huang from view despite the option to centre the camera with the left shoulder button, and combat can be fiddly at times: the lock-on doesn't always cycle to the obvious target, and throwing Molotovs or grenades seems to want more fingers than I have available, although it's usually not a problem. There's also very occasional slowdown, and despite generally excellent graphics the beat-cops aren't always easy to spot when you're stealing cars, which can be frustrating. You may also get stuck very occasionally. The difficulty isn't too severe, but there are a good few occasions you only have one mission available.
On balance though, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a triumph, not just in terms of bringing a difficult game to a new platform intact, but because it actually improves it in the process, and demonstrates a mastery of DS form and function. Those hoping for another gritty, complex narrative spine bound in the flesh of an openworld action-adventure may be disappointed by the rather more frivolous and silly antics of the Chinatown Wars cast, but even cynics should be converted by the huge, densely packed action playground we've been given instead. Overall this is 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.
10 / 10