Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars review

Rockstar's small step backwards is still a giant leap forward

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Since the graphic violence and Hooker courtships aren’t presented here, Rockstar’s latest controversy lightning rod may very well be our favorite feature in the entire game. But if you’ll please excuse us, we must make a quick notation to the vocal detractors who will never play the game:

As ever, GTA is only as naughty as the player. And just like in real life, drug dealing is complex, dangerous and completely optional following an introductory mission. However… it is in your best interest. Rockstar has realized what the rest of us already knew: Without enough challenge you’re practically a billionaire ten missions in, and money is pointless. This time around, cash is harder to come by and it’s easy for Huang to remain penniless if you don’t participate in this sublime in-game economy. Let’s hear one editor’s harrowing tale:

My return to Liberty City was a constant struggle. Uncle Kenny only paid me $50 per job… while Pay n’ Spray visits, arrest fees, and hospital bills cost around $200, and weapons considerably more. Then, my first coke deal: $6000+. Each email tip-off appeared like a gateway to a better life, and I hardly noticed myself ignoring my Uncle’s missions as I plunged into the depths of the drug trade.

I sold more drugs.
So I could make more money.
So I could buy more safehouses.
So I could elude more cops.
So I could sell more drugs…

I couldn’t admit to myself I’d become hopelessly addicted to selling drugs. And before I knew it, I owned real estate all over Liberty City, my shelves overflowed with hard earned trophies, and I was wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. It was horrible.

All joking aside, slingin’ narcotics is one of the most addictive features added to GTA in years. The risks are high - get arrested while holding thirty bags of heroin and you’re looking at a loss of upwards of 20K - but the rewards can be stratospheric. Dealers throughout the city buy and sell certain drugs based on a fluctuating supply and demand within their given gang territory. Better still, you’ll also get emails tipping you off about temporary deals and moments of desperation that you can turn to your very profitable advantage.

Remember, the drug trade marches on silently underneath the core gameplay. It may seem like a lot of information, and on any other platform it would probably be unmanageable. Luckily, drugs are a pithy fraction of the billion or so things you can keep track of via the in-game PDA. While we respect the convenience GTAIV’s mobile phone was going for, it’s got nothing on the touchscreen-tapping equivalent.

Stat tracking, mission briefs, communiqués, setting waypoints - it's all a flick of the wrist away on your PDA. Hell, you can even order weapons from AmmuNation, shipped to your door, from anywhere in the city. Apparently once the game hits retail, you’ll even be able to message friends and share in-game items at some point. It’s all seamless, extremely immersive, and the greatest organizational tool GTA’s ever seen… and for now, the DS is the only place you’ll find it.

As for the other stylus elements, they can be somewhat hit or miss. Most are fun and brought to you in small doses, so you needn’t fear our favorite crime series going the Cooking Mama route. Searching through dumpsters is a great way to find free guns, controlling the trajectory of grenades works well, and even assembling a sniper rifle before you hit your mark is strangely fulfilling somehow. There’s actually about ten ways to arm/disarm/plant explosives and that tends to keep things exciting.

The touch games you saw coming miles away tend to be mission specific, short, and don’t repeat too often. However, hotwiring cars can be a chore, especially if the cops are on your ass, so we basically kept to jacking cars in motion to avoid them. Anything that asks you to wield a stylus while driving (reviving an ambulance patient, paying tolls) is difficult to get the hang of. The only task we’d call goofy, even out of place, would be the gas pump Molotov minigame. But since it means explosive projectiles are available inexpensively all over the city, we’re all for it.

Following those innovations on the touchscreen frontier would have to be the Safe house Whiteboard. It’s not necessarily that the DS is the only system that can do this, but the ability to replay missions anytime for the first time ever is something that should be heralded by all! Jump out of the story whenever you want and replay missions for new records and medals. Where the hell has this feature been?! (When you write fifty GTA features a year, this is a godsend).

More info

DescriptionThis is a superb transfer of the console GTA experience, which is shocking to see on this underpowered system.
Franchise nameGrand Theft Auto
UK franchise nameGrand Theft Auto
US censor rating"Mature","Mature"
UK censor rating"18+","18+"
Alternative names"GTA: Chinatown Wars"
Release date1 January 1970 (US), 1 January 1970 (UK)