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Critical Reception: Rockstar's  Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Critical Reception: Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

March 18, 2009 | By Danny Cowan

March 18, 2009 | By Danny Cowan
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This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Rockstar's Nintendo DS debut Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, which reviews describe as "the experience every hardcore handheld gamer has been waiting for." Chinatown Wars currently earns a score of 95 out of 100 at

Chris Antista at Games Radar gives Chinatown Wars a score of 10 out of 10, explaining that the series loses surprisingly little in the transition from console to portable.

"It's not like anyone harbored any doubt that the developer behind the PSP's Liberty/Vice City Stories could create an excellent GTA experience," he says. "However, the fact that Rockstar Leeds succeeded while moving the series back to a top-down, birds-eye perspective should be commended wholeheartedly."

"Besides," Antista continues, "once you factor in the inherent limitations of the DS, it's practically unfair to call Chinatown Wars 'scaled down', as that's only applicable to the loss of a 3rd person perspective and certainly not the game's scope."

Antista notes that longtime series fans will be happy to see that the Liberty City seen in Chinatown Wars differs little from its previous depictions in Grand Theft Auto III and IV. "We remembered an Infernus parked in a suburban Beach Gate driveway from our recent time with Lost and Damned," Antista recalls, "and lo and behold - there it was in Chinatown Wars, sparkly and adjacent to a more than suitable recreation of the Firefly Island amusement park."

At the same time, Chinatown Wars properly scales the experience to handheld play. "Whereas both PSP Stories titles were acceptable facsimiles of their console counterparts," Antista writes, "Chinatown Wars has been streamlined exclusively with portable gamers in mind. Plentiful auto saves, copious safe houses, and one button mission restarts are all part of the optimization."

"On a system currently overpopulated by cake sims and puppy adoption, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is the experience every hardcore handheld gamer has been waiting for," Antista notes. "Even if you could call it a downgrade, the portable transition holds its own as a stunningly unique entry in the Liberty City canon, all the while harnessing its platform for everything it's worth."

Game Informer's Andrew Reiner scores Chinatown Wars at 9.25 out of 10, claiming that the experience closely resembles recent GTA releases despite its resemblance to the franchise's earliest days. "The isometric view harks back to the series' first attempts, and I once again found myself counting the pixels in my character's body," he begins. "These are the only elements that are of the nostalgic flavor; the majority of Chinatown Wars' content falls in line with Grand Theft Auto III and IV."

"Liberty City is a thriving three-dimensional world," Reiner continues. "Citizens open umbrellas when it rains, run for cover when you let your guns do the talking, and become fruitful money-giving red stains when you 'accidentally' park a fire truck on top of them."

Reiner describes Chinatown Wars's drug-dealing mechanics as particularly compelling. "The biggest change comes from the intentions of protagonist Huang Lee," he explains. "He isn't just packing heat under his coat. He may also be carrying marijuana, cocaine, acid, ecstasy, heroin, or downers.

"Lee is a drug dealer, and completing story missions isn't enough to get him through the game. Lee also has to earn his keep by selling drugs to progress further in the narrative. To be successful as a dealer, you'll have to buy low and sell high. Demand is always changing, creating situations where you'll have to sit on your supplies and wait for the right opportunity. The thrill of turning a profit is an addictive addition to the game's already large pool of activities."

Reiner finds that the touch screen-specific controls also work well in the context of gameplay. "Most of the touch screen functionality is brilliantly interlaced into GTA's seedy world," he notes, "offering big laughs, outstanding controls, and challenges that you wouldn't mind doing 10 to 20 times - like throwing away your money on scratch cards, or giving your gang members awful tattoos. The touch screen is also used effectively for selecting weapons and lobbing grenades."

Some may become frustrated with occasional control issues, however. "As comfortable as I felt behind the wheel, I never got the hang of the gunplay," Reiner warns. "The targeting system has a mind of its own. Manipulating it in the ways you want is difficult, so I mostly let the game dictate who got shot next. The isometric perspective also works against the art of gunplay; most fights unfold on one screen, and they don't take long to devolve into an ant-like commotion with everyone crowding into the same space."

"Chinatown Wars stumbles occasionally," Reiner admits, "but it also pushes the series forward in numerous other ways. Don't let the diminutive size or nostalgic look fool you, this is just as complete of a Grand Theft Auto experience as any of the console iterations."

Ray Barnholt at gives Chinatown Wars a grade of A-. "I assume that most gamers don't expect much from a portable Grand Theft Auto game," he writes. "I don't either, but not necessarily in a negative way. I don't expect occasional bouts of morality (or post-game discussions about it) from the characters. I don't expect HBO-caliber writing."

"But after the mammoth GTA4, I do expect a less mentally-taxing game that's more of a time-killer; a GTA distilled down to its basic game elements," Barnholt describes. "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is that, plus a little bit more. And that's pretty darn good."

Barnholt praises Chinatown Wars' comic book-styled aesthetic and narrative style. "The story is told through simple still-art cut-scenes, though none of them are voiced," he notes. "But that lack of voice, coupled with the cartoon style, does help 'free up' the writing. Chinatown Wars' tone is much goofier than recent GTA games, which is primarily because of the protagonist. Huang is a humongous wiseass, constantly working in insults about his mission-giver every time they talk. It's a wonder he isn't shot on the spot after mouthing off, but for the most part, it's pretty light. Laced with the 'F' word, but light nonetheless."

The touch screen controls can be uneven, however. "The approach is clever and practical, as are the times when you need to hotwire a car, fill a bottle with gas to make a Molotov cocktail, or set a bomb detonation code by matching 'Simon'-like button patterns," Barnholt says. "But the intuitive gameplay mechanic occasionally suffers from overkill. If you're feeling generous and want to pay the bridge toll, you have to tap the screen to toss a handful of coins into the booth. And that's one thing that was better as a canned animation."

Barnholt finds that GTA's traditional mission-based structure works well in Chinatown Wars for the most part, despite some missteps. "In bringing GTA to the DS, Rockstar Leeds makes an installment that's less about exploration and more about the actual, structured game that's underneath," he says. "It helps that missions in GTA games have always been generally bite-size, so it translates well to Chinatown Wars -- pick the game up, clear a few missions, then come back to it later."

However: "The game's pace slows, though, when you can only get a job from someone if you give them a certain amount of drugs or money. If you're short, then you're out of luck, unless you start hitting up the city for odd jobs or jacking gang vans."

Overall, Barnholt is satisfied with the direction Chinatown Wars has taken the series. "Altogether, Chinatown Wars is what I expected -- it takes an understandable few steps back from GTA4, but also takes a couple forward," he notes in conclusion. "It's a well-honed 'core' GTA on the handheld, not merely a one-to-one clone of its console parents."

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