When it was first released on Nintendo DS several months ago, Chinatown Wars was an ambitious, unprecedented use of the system's capabilities. Not only did it implement touch screen and microphone controls in clever, unobtrusive ways, it also proved that a "mature" experience could be had on a system best known for Brain Age and Cooking Mama. It went on to become the DS's highest-rated game of all time (currently a 93 average), and stood as a proud example of what was possible on the comparatively weak platform.
On PSP, Chinatown Wars is a different story. At a glance, its simplistic visuals and top-down view pale against the two previous GTA titles (Liberty City and Vice City Stories), which were fully 3D and played more or less like their jumbo-sized PS2 counterparts. The formerly touch screen minigames, such as disarming bombs, assembling guns and hotwiring cars, are out-of-place holdovers from a game that was built to be a DS exclusive. The in-game PDA, used for plotting waypoints on the map, reading emails and charting the progress of your burgeoning drug trade, is now navigated through a series of button presses and menu surfing instead of functioning like a real touch-screen PDA.
In other words, all that DS-specific stuff feels clumsy. The game was designed to have an entire additional screen devoted to all these controls, and now they’ve been crammed onto a button configuration that never quite gels (secondary control scheme included). A great example is the Select button, which pulls double duty as weapon selection (if you tap it) and talking to pedestrians (if you hold it). Really? The usually obsolete Select button has two jobs?
Above: Worked great on DS, not so much with analog nubs
OK. With that minor amount of bitching out of the way, we’re happy to say the rest of game is just as ruthlessly addictive and deceptively deep as the DS original. More importantly, its mission structure and overall playability are much better suited to a portable system than the aforementioned Stories titles. Instead of trying to ape a pre-existing PS2 game, both in presentation and in gameplay, Chinatown Wars wisely chops your goals into easily digestible bits and alters police chases so they’re far easier to ditch (though problematically frequent). The alterations make Chinatown Wars perfect for quick sessions or hours of consistent dicking around.
Above: Got 5 minutes? Fine. Got 5 hours? Even better
Thankfully there’s quality to this quantity. The storyline missions, which take pampered Huang Lee through a twisting tale of gang wars, corrupt cops and blood-soaked revenge, almost always have you doing something outrageously creative. True, many goals are of the “shoot people” variety, but several stand out as the most ingenious of the series. One moment you’re hiding inside a Chinatown parade as a colorful dragon float, forced to act out the performance so you don’t lose your cover. Then you’re firing a truck-mounted chain gun at rival gangs, or torching a warehouse full of weed, or tossing molotavs at the Statue of Happiness. In a GTA first, you’re able to replay any of these missions at your leisure, a welcome addition given how much we loved some of them.
Above: For every few dull missions, there’s a memorable tour of destruction
Rockstar saw fit to add even more content to this already freakishly robust package, as PSP owners now get additional music stations (including licensed tunes from DFA, Anvil and others), greater online support through Rockstar Social Club and new characters and missions. Best of all, they’re bathed in new lighting effects and enhanced visuals, so you definitely feel like you’re playing an improved, not rushed port. Well, aside from the cramped buttons.
If there’s one thing we want to make absolutely clear, it’s the amount of content packed into this seemingly scaled-back sequel. The drug side quests alone account for hours of searching for the best buyers and sellers, and they’re almost entirely optional. If you stick with ‘em, your pockets will be bursting with cash, financing all your weapons, ammo and numerous safehouses scattered across the game’s three islands (sorry, no Alderney this time). It’s remarkably easy to get lost in the drug trade and forget there’s a whole other game to play.
Speaking of the islands (and of the size of the game), it bears repeating how well Liberty City has been reconstructed. If you played GTA IV, you’ll no doubt recognize several landmarks that we pointed out here using the DS version.
We realize this is a hard sell. The screens look rinky dink and piddling compared to not just GTA IV, but also earlier PSP efforts. In all honesty it looks like a game from 1997, which is actually true given that its guts come from the very first GTA titles. But don’t let any of this deter you from jumping in, even if you’ve never given the series a second glance.
There are just enough new ideas to lure those in who’ve never cared, and just enough left alone to keep the fans happy. Pity all of the DS-minded bits drag the finished product down a notch.
Oct 20, 2009