Say what you will about the Grand Theft Auto games, they don't half push hardware. We saw it for years on the PS2, more recently on “next-gen” consoles, and now, perhaps most impressively of all, we're seeing it on the Nintendo DS.
Chinatown Wars, the handheld re-imagination of the most famous sandbox of them all, is a technical marvel. Every five minutes or so something will happen that makes a mockery of what you thought the DS was capable of. Whether it's a particularly violent crash that shines a light on the superb car physics, the sheer scale of Liberty City (reproduced in its entirety sans Alderney), or how populated and alive it feels, it changes your expectations of what a great DS game should be. Rival developers will look at Chinatown Wars in horror. Hell, even Nintendo will have to up its game.
Perhaps Rockstar Leeds' greatest achievement is that it has somehow managed to make GTA on DS feel unmistakeably “next-gen” despite the limitations of the platform, to the point where you forget that you're playing a stripped down version altogether. Once you're used to the clever birds-eye perspective, the cel-shaded comic book graphics and the new controls, Chinatown Wars feels like a home console GTA in every way that matters. All the series' great strengths are present: adult humour, satire, great dialogue; indeed it can be considered the largest, most complex DS game ever made.
Chinatown Wars' cast present a much more frivolous story than GTA IV's, one that's heavy on sarcastic funnies and “so silly it can't be shocking” comic book cutscenes, making it more similar in tone to GTA3 and its spin-offs. It begins with spoiled rich kid Huang Lee returning to Liberty City with a sword, called the Yu Jian. The family heirloom is desired by Triad gangster and Huang's uncle, Wu "Kenny" Lee, as an offering to big bad Triad boss Hsin Jaoming. Almost as soon as Huang's plane lands on US soil things go tits up. He's ambushed by rival mobsters and the sword is stolen. Kenny isn't happy, as you'd imagine. It's an emotion that applies to pretty much every character in the game.
This opening half hour acts as a quasi-tutorial for the controls, which will for many take a while to get used to. When on foot movement is governed by the d-pad, holding B makes Huang sprint, Y vaults fences and walls, R target locks, A fires your weapon or punches and X makes Huang perform perhaps GTA's most iconic action: a car jack. It's fiddly at first: the game seems to have trouble locking onto the targets you want and, as a result, combat can get frustrating when you're up against multiple enemies, but you do get used to it.
Driving is much better. In vehicles the d-pad is used for movement, B accelerates, A will make you shoot drive-by style, Y brakes, R handbrakes and X makes Huang bail in true action hero fashion. The cars in Chinatown Wars feel great. Each and every one handles differently, sounds different, accelerates differently and has a unique top speed. Every extreme is represented, from lumbering fire trucks to speeding sports cars. Again, it takes a while to get used to. Weaving in and out of traffic at speed (something the Nazi-like cops will force you to do regularly) and reversing out of tight spots will initially test your patience, but it's a skill worth mastering. The satisfaction you get from driving around Liberty City in Chinatown Wars rivals that of Rockstar's previous GTA million sellers.
Chinatown then opens up, in classic GTA style. You're given missions by your uncle, and later by other members of the triad organisation, missions that pay cold hard cash for your troubles. You might be asked to take out some punks, or defend a building from an assault, or steal some drugs, or dabble in the odd drive by. Everything fans will know and love of missions from GTA3 and beyond makes its way into Chinatown Wars, complete with swearing, copious amounts of blood (one cut scene sees a triad boss carve the heart out of a man with a butcher knife) and more sex references than in perhaps every other DS game put together. Rockstar has pulled no punches here, not dumbed down the infamous GTA experience. The game rightly deserves its 18 certificate, and it's all the better for it.
There's proper freedom here. You can ditch the main missions for a bit and earn some cash, play some mini-games or simply explore. It's in these diversions that Rockstar has made the most of the DS' unique controls. Molotov cocktails, created by pouring petrol into bottles and attaching hankies at a gas station, are thrown by plotting the arc with the stylus on the bottom screen. So are grenades. Hotwiring cars involves dragging and twisting wires with the stylus, or, with newer models, quickly touching numbers as they rotate to crack the immobiliser code. When you're surrounded by cops or rival gangs and they're pelting you with bullets, you sweat doing this. While some mini-games are less successful (whistling into the microphone to call taxis doesn't make blowing into the DS cool), they are on the whole clever and don't pop up enough to frustrate through repetition.
A special mention must go to the drug dealing, which plays a massive part in Chinatown Wars. Dealers will send you an email, which you can view via the PDA interface on the DS' bottom screen, giving you first dibs on a drug they're selling cheap, or that they're in the market for another type. Indeed drug dealing is a meta-game in of itself – buying and selling, reacting quickly to dealer needs, taking out security cameras in order to lower prices, tinkering with the very economics of the city, making the most of the various gang territory needs, from the African Americans to the Irish American Killers via the Mob and the Jamaicans, it's just about the best way to earn cash in the game, and, if you know what you're doing, it won't be long before you've amassed tens of thousands of dollars purely from the buying and selling of drugs.
It feels odd. Very very odd. Using the stylus to drag coke, for example, from a dealer's car trunk into your backpack, working out the potential profit along the way, then driving back to your safehouse to drag it once again into your stash box, it just feels wrong. On the 360 or the PS3 you wouldn't bat an eyelid, but on the DS, the home of Nintendogs and Brain Training and Professor Layton, each drug deal feels, well, like you're actually breaking the law. This isn't a criticism, per se, just an observation. Indeed, it's refreshing to play such an adult-oriented, mature, clever and funny game on the DS. But it almost, almost, doesn't fit.
Of much more concern are the frustrating missions, a “next-gen” GTA failing that's sneaked unwelcome into Chinatown Wars. As with GTA IV, there are certain missions that ramp up the difficulty unexpectedly and prove frustratingly difficult. One in particular, called Raw Deal, which asks you to escape an ambush, took over 40 attempts to complete. And like in GTA IV, the cops will nail you for the slightest offence: clipping a cop car (they're everywhere and not always easily identified among bog-standard traffic) is usually enough to earn you a single wanted star. That you're able to smash cop cars into walls is welcome, but the game's difficulty does veer too close to frustrating than it needs to. Expect to wake up at hospital having been wasted, or dumped outside the police station having been busted, many, many times.
Bar these annoyances it's nigh-on impossible to find fault with the game. Put simply, if you like GTA, you'll like this. It's the core GTA experience condensed, re-purposed, but astonishingly well preserved. And, like big brother GTA, it's the little things, the attention to detail, that lives long in the memory: small exhaust explosions as sports cars change gear; the random noise that will scream from the DS when you flip it open after putting the game on standby; voice over dialogue from Liberty City pedestrians; spam emails mocking the spam email industry; some punks taking cover behind cars as you riddle them with bullets; every player will discover something different, something unique that cel-shaded Liberty City has conjured up for them. If you own a DS and you love video games, Chinatown Wars is a must buy.