Inequal Measure Review: GTA Chinatown Wars (Nintendo DS)

13 04 2009

I know I’ve been kind of quiet, mostly due to working on finishing up my schooling. In any event I thought I’d do a few game reviews on here, just for what I’ve been playing recently. I’m not going to use a typical score-based rating system, rather I will be comparing the reviewed game to other games in its genre or series. Sort of a “greater-than, less-than” system (i.e. an inequality, hence “Inequal Measure”).

So first up is a game I got a couple weeks back and (sadly) have pretty much finished: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS.

Chinatown Wars is the 4th GTA game made for a Nintendo system, and the second to not be a port of an eariler title (the first two being GTA 1 and GTA 2 ported pretty badly to the Game Boy Color). It’s also the first game done in 3D, but more on that in a bit. The game follows the story of Huang Lee, a 25-year old Chinese man returning to Liberty City for the first time in years. His mission is to deliver Yu-Jian, a sword that belonged to his (recently assassinated) father, to his uncle. Upon arriving the typical GTA thing happens. Huang is ambushed, the sword is stolen, and he winds up in a car sinking into the harbor. This is where you (and the touchscreen) come in.

Yes Rockstar made heavy use of the touchscreen in this game, in fact they made heavy use of the entire DS. Apparently there’s over 800,000 lines of code in the game, making it one of the largest and most complex games ever made for the system. Frankly, it shows. Graphically the game is very good-looking, using a cel-shaded style that isn’t too overt, and a rotatable 3D isometric camera perspective for most of the action. Granted there are a few FOV problems but in driving and combat I never had too much trouble, finding that this game actually played a lot better than GTA IV at times. For example, being able to see what I was shooting at was a big plus. Yes fortunately the DS version of Liberty City doesn’t suffer from coffee-filter smog. It does however seem to suffer from over-attentive police officers. Hijacking moving vehicles without attracting police attention seems to be a rarity, fortunately there’s enough parked cars (with complimentary touchscreen hacking mini-game) that don’t alert officers so this isn’t that big a deal. Evading the police is also made easier through being able to disable their vehicles if they get hit hard enough, which will knock stars off your Wanted Level.

Now as I’ve said repeatedly the game relies on the touchscreen and stylus for over half of the functions of the game (pretty much everything you do in GTA aside from moving about and combat). To some this might be a hindrance, but I found holding the stylus, chopstick-style (planned or just coincidental?) in my right hand made it so I could easily play with the buttons and switch to touchscreen controls without breaking the flow too hard. As to all the stylus-based functions and microgames for things like hijacking and creating molotovs, I feel they were done well enough that they’re not too gimmicky but at the same time there are a few times where I wished they had just not gone that off the deep end with the concept. For example, playing Simon to arm time bombs? Just a bit out there.

The story is done pretty well, no voice acting of course but the cutscenes are presented in a sort of comic-book style and do a fine job of getting the plot across. This game also boasts probably the most graphic depiction of violence in any GTA game when a man’s heart is violenty ripped out, Temple of Doom style. My one big problem is that it only took 9 hours to beat the story part of the game, and that was even with me doing the drug-dealing sidegame frequently. It just feels way too short for a GTA game, especially with the rather abrupt build to a climax and resolution.

Fortuntaely the drug-dealing part of the game is a lot of fun, making itself out to be a sort of mini-stock market of sorts, only you’re dealing with illegal goods and occasionally running from the cops. It’s also the only real way to make money in this game because you aren’t paid much for completing missions.

All in all I liked the game, and hope that eventually I can get myself some Nintendo Wi-Fi setup so I can seek out opponents online. All in all I’d say it’s better than any of the “Stories” GTA games made for the PSP, but not as good as any of the “big” console versions. Buy it if you’re a fan of GTA, or if you just like sandbox games and would like to take one on the go.

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