Chinatown Wars is the full GTA experience squished into a DS cartridge, without compromise. Pedestrians roam the streets, bumping into each other, buying hot dogs, getting into cars and driving around a vast playing area that comprises two out of the three Liberty City islands seen in the acclaimed GTA IV. It’s viewed in full 3D, from an overhead chase camera positioned slightly behind the lead character. The camera rotates to keep the action mostly facing up the screen, and tapping the right shoulder button will re-center it if necessary.
A colourful, cartoony look keeps everything clearly visible on the DS screen, and it’s extremely fast and smooth in motion. Because the camera is so close to the action, the DS doesn’t have to draw distant objects. Consequently, the city is alive with activity – loads of cars, civilians, trains and bits of background animation – but there’s none of the pop-up, juddering frame rate or other technical problems you might expect from having such an ambitious game running on relatively low-power hardware.
The upper screen shows the main playing area and the touch screen is used to display a PDA showing the map of the city and other information. Selecting from the list of active missions or contacts will set a waypoint on the map, highlighting the quickest route with a yellow line. Despite not being able to see very far ahead of your vehicle, navigating the city is surprisingly easy. A subtle automatic lock gently drags cars back onto the road when you make a turn, so there’s no need to keep correcting with the D-pad to avoid bouncing off roadside objects. Consequently you can take your eyes off the main screen for a moment to check the map without worrying too much about crashing into something. It’s still possible to roam freely and drive wherever you like, including onto the pavement and over pedestrians if you desire.
To escape from the police after committing a random crime, you can either try to outrun them and bust through their roadblock, as in previous GTA games, or actively disable their cars by slamming them off the road. It’s difficult to get the hang of, but your wanted level will decrease much faster if pursuing cops are taken out safely rather than killed. Of course, most of the time it’s all about killing things. All of the missions we played involved a great deal of carnage, delivered via an auto-lock aiming system that enables fast cycling between targets via a press of the right shoulder button. The touch screen shows the current weapon’s ammo counter – touch it and the game pauses so you can switch to a new weapon. There are also grenades that you can use whenever you’ve got them in stock – simply touch the grenade icon with your right thumb and drag 360° to position a green line that shows where the ’nade is going to land. This can even be done while driving.