Is GTA: Chinatown Wars my favourite handheld game of all time? It's a question that I asked myself many times while playing through Rockstar Leeds' gangster epic for the second time this year. I loved every second of the original DS release, and I ranted and raved about it to anyone who would listen, so I jumped at the chance to return to an improved version of the game for PSP. And guess what: it's every bit as good as it was last time around, if not better.
Chinatown Wars is a bit like a crossbreed of GTA IV and the very first Grand Theft Auto game - the rock-hard, top-down 2D title that kicked things off back in 1997. The game itself is entirely 3D, but the action is viewed from an elevated, near-overhead perspective. The series' trademark humour is here in abundance, as are several other familiar features that have come to define the franchise over the years - the perpetual car-jacking, the sideshow mini-games, and the hidden collectibles stashed all over the city. But there are also new elements here too - notably a tendency towards shorter, bitesize missions, and a hugely endearing sense of playfulness.
Naturally the whole package is wrapped up with a twisting, thriller-style plot. Chinatown Wars is the story of Huang Lee - a spoiled brat who arrives in Liberty City shortly after the murder of his father. Lee is supposed to deliver a ceremonial sword, Yu Jian, to his eccentric Uncle Kenny; by giving the weapon to the ageing leader of the Triads, Kenny hopes to guarantee his position as heir to the throne. Unfortunately things go tits up as soon as Huang arrives: he's ambushed by thugs who promptly shoot him in the head, nab the sword and leave him for dead.
This ill-timed theft creates a serious problem, as Kenny is left looking like a complete idiot. His rivals in the Triad leadership immediately overtake him in the race to be the next leader, and to make matters worse it seems that there's a rat in the organisation. Things get messy very quickly, and as the bodies pile up Huang finds himself desperately searching for the traitor - who may or may not be the same person who killed his pops.
In structural terms, Chinatown Wars is very similar to previous GTA titles, with Huang being passed from boss to boss as everyone tries to wash their dirty (Chinese) laundry. Huang himself is a very likeable anti-hero - a sarcastic smart-ass who's clever enough to know he's in serious trouble, but not powerful enough to do anything about it. He's surrounded by a cast of great characters, from arrogant psychos to junkie undercover cops, and while the plot unfolds through static but pretty-looking cutscenes, the written dialogue is sharp enough to make this the funniest GTA in quite some time. You'll frequently laugh out loud while playing this game, but the darker elements of the plot work equally well - particularly in the story's latter half.
In gameplay terms, it's back to the old template of driving around town and picking up missions from hotspots on the map. The city layout here is identical to GTA IV (minus the Western-most island), and despite the change of viewpoint you'll easily be able to recognise the different areas - particularly due to the fact that the excellent graphics are sharper and more detailed on the PSP than they were on the DS. All of the game's menus and settings are accessed via a simulated PDA-style interface, and among the many features is a handy GPS system that helps you find your way to important locations and people. Huang's PDA also allows him to receive emails from his bosses and from his drug-dealing contacts (more on these later), and there's a handy little menu that lets you order weapons over the internet: two minutes after placing your order, you'll get an email saying that your package has been despatched. Head to your nearest safehouse, and your guns will be waiting for you in a box. If only Amazon worked so well.
As many of you will be glad to hear, the driving controls are considerably easier to pick-up here than on the home console GTAs. There's an automatic steering system that helps to keep your vehicle parallel with the road, but this actually proves to be very handy (and you can turn it off if you really hate it). On foot things take a bit more getting used to due to the rather odd camera movement and slightly fiddly lock-on combat system, but once you've adjusted you'll forget all about these things. By default Chinatown Wars uses the analogue nub to govern your movement; personally I found this very uncomfortable, but thankfully there's an alternative setup that lets you use the d-pad instead.