Thursday, August 13, 2009

REVIEW: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS

Lots of good things have been said about Chinatown Wars, but the sales remain unremarkable. I never feared that the game could be less than stellar, even Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories on the PSP were playable, but I did come to the game with few expectations and the mantra that I wouldn't compare it to it's console brethren.

Having said that, Chinatown Wars does a great job of recreating the living active city that exists in more elaborate terms on other platforms. People litter the streets and cars are there for the picking, but never does anything seem overly congested. Well, maybe sometimes when you're trying to make a speedy getaway from law enforcement, the streets can be a little crowded, but that's part of the game. Chinatown Wars also has the rare occurrence of violent crime by NPCs. This was probably what made the game a true member of the Grand Theft Auto family for me. I always stop to marvel at what happens in game when I'm not the one directly at fault, and Chinatown Wars does a good job of peppering in action that has nothing to do with the player.

Chinatown Wars also has some of the trademarks of those other Grand Theft Auto games, in the form of collectibles and stunt jumps. Instead of gathering packages, players will find security cameras to shoot (also affecting the drug trading mechanic in the game), and instead of the ramp here and there, players will collect stunt jumps only when the jumps hurl their vehicle through billboards in the city.

The combat is mixed, divided well between vehicular and on foot gunplay, but targeting can be frustrating. Why is it that an enemy is encircled by a green line, yet my gun is firing 180 degrees in the other direction? It's forgivable though because any faults of the combat system are made up for in the inclusion of replay options after failure, and a trip skip feature which means you won't have to drive to the other island again after deciding to retry.

Driving is a lot like in GTA III, which is refreshing, but mostly because of the limitations the system is placing on the game. After having to tackle the challenges GTA IV has tacked on to driving with enhanced physics, Chinatown Wars has me throwing all of that learning out the window. Don't worry about braking around any corners, just hold the D-pad in the direction you're looking to go and you'll pull conveniently into the next lane.

But what good is driving if every cop can rip open my car door and throw me down on the pavement? Given the chance, cops will succeed at every turn, busting you for the most minor of traffic incidents. The whole process of getting busted is particularly problematic because of having to repurchase both weapons and drugs, especially when I'm muling a large amount of cocaine or heroin across town to make a big sale.

The touch screen minigames also do a good job of keeping the overall gameplay mixed and varied. No two minigames are the same and really the only ones you see more than two or three times in one playthrough are the hot-wiring games. They were so seamless in fact that I didn't really think of them separately from the rest of the game.

The drug trade economics make it a worthwhile endeavor when weapons are as expensive as they are. Mostly, I just waited for a good tip off on one of the pricier drugs and then proceeded to gather a large stock. This would pay off in a huge profit with the minimal amount of work. The PDA has stats and dealers stored in it, so when someone e-mails the player saying that they'll pay good money for weed, you can look up which gang and which area of the city will have dealers with that particular drug in stock and for a good price.

This brings me to the biggest gripe I have with Chinatown Wars.

I hate everyone in the game: Everyone I'm getting missions from are jerks. They need my help and blame me for the outcome of their demands. There personalities are terrible and their dialogue is groan inducing at best. Maybe it's the voice actors in my head that are doing such a terrible job, but even Chan, the dumb son of one of the triad bosses, obviously intended to be the lovable incompetent idiot, comes across as a tastelessly poorly written rich boy. It's hard to review Chinatown Wars without comparing it to its console bretheren, but the cast of characters is atrocious and annoying, and even more so alongside likeable figures in GTA IV like Packie or Brucie. Each member cast in Chinatown's drama isn't worth the bytes of data it takes to hold them on the cartridge.

Really, the writing as a whole is laughable at best. I know people complained a lot about how toned down Grand Theft Auto IV was, so I think that Chinatown Wars was staged to be this playground people could torch to the ground. Ultimately the subtlety and nuance of story and character in Grand Theft Auto IV has shown how weak the old outlandish crime drama could really be.

Anyways, Chinatown Wars is easily one of the best Nintendo DS games available and has been thoroughly enjoyed on a road trip. It takes several hours, and has great varied combat and gameplay, along with a living city despite the drop in graphical fidelity. Pick it up as an essential addition to any Nintendo DS library, but only if you have the cash to spend.


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