Review – Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

As much as I like the Grand Theft Auto series, I’ve always been more of an “owner” than a “fan.” I own the three PS2 installments and played only Vice City to any extensive degree. In GTA 3, I used the cheat code to spawn tanks over and over again outside of my hideout, blew them up, and discovered that they remained there after having saved a game, and the only way I could get rid of them all would have been to painstakingly push them all into the river with another tank, or to start a new game and lose all of my (admittedly meager) progress. In San Andreas, I exercised over and over again, became extremely muscular, then encountered a difficult early mission and lost interest in the game.

I’m not sure why Vice City held my interest so much more than the others, but Tommy Vercetti was a fun bastard of a character, the city had a lot of character itself, and the mission where you gun down the drug lord’s mansion in a helicopter may be one of the most memorable in the series’ history. (I would feel more comfortable saying that if I’d played more of the games.) However, I never even beat Vice City, although I can’t remember why–I seem to remember that some of the later missions were viciously hard, and maybe I could no longer be bothered. Nonetheless, Vice City has become the sort of benchmark for the fun I can have in a GTA game.

So GTA: Chinatown Wars is the fourth game in the series that I own. It is also the first game in the series that I’ve actually beaten. The rundown is pretty simple: it’s just as you’d imagine a top-down GTA game to be, provided that you haven’t played GTA 1 or 2. You play a Triad, Hwang Lee, who is nearly murdered upon arriving in Liberty City, investigates the existence of a rat in the Triad ranks, and goes around killing everyone. The plot plays out in a straightforward way, in the tried-and-true mission-finding style of modern GTA games, with only a few minor subplots cropping up once in a while. The cutscenes play as little clip shows with still images and subtitles, and through them Hwang reveals himself as a cocky back-talker. A fun bastard, like Tommy Vercetti, even if the platform limitations of the DS prevent Hwang from triumphantly yelling out his name as he roasts bystanders with his flamethrower.

I should mention that these platform limitations, where they may show up, make my use of Vice City as a benchmark seem a little unfair. Take Liberty City, for instance: the level of detail is astonishing for a DS game, or even most games on modern platforms. From what I understand, the city is based largely on the GTA IV incarnation of the city, only with a missing chunk, but the city is certainly large enough for the game’s purposes. However, the top-down view, though it’s undoubtedly the best approach for the DS, sacrifices much of the scale and landmark potential that come from having a grander view of your surroundings.

By the same token, making missions as epic as they are in the series’ console installments seems like a struggle–there are, of course, no missions where you pan across a mansion spraying guards with minigun fire. But Chinatown Wars does its best to include exciting missions and explosive shoot-outs, and a few missions, largely towards the end, are complex and challenging enough to compare to missions from the console games.

And it would also be unfair to ignore what Chinatown Wars adds to the series. The two biggest additions are the drug trading system and the touch screen controls. The first is simple enough: you find dealers around the city, buy low, sell high, occasionally flee from drug busts. It’s a pretty simple way to make money, addictive early on, but naturally pointless once you’ve made enough money to buy whatever you like. The touch screen, for its part, helps to make up for any technical limitations in the game’s presentation, and fairly frequently you’ll need to play through minigames a few seconds long to complete a task. This is something you have to do to hotwire cars, break locks, and so forth. These additions are a bit hit-and-miss, whether because some are a bit too easy with practice (hotwiring a car), trivially easy and pointless (breaking a lock just means swiping the stylus across the screen a bunch of times), or take too long to be interesting to do more than once (filling bottles with gasoline to make Molotov cocktails).

I did find some of these things fun, but I can’t remember any of them. Probably the best use of the touch screen is to flick grenades around, although this can be a bit tricky, not least because one has only so many fingers and so much coordination. And good luck trying to destroy the 100 security cameras around the city with explosives.

But Chinatown Wars is a fine game, and a great entry into the GTA series–I sound more negative than I ought to be for a game this fun, but we all already know what the GTA games are like, and to extol the game’s virtues in terms of its scope, its details, its writing, and so on would be redundant if you’ve played a modern GTA game before (and it’d be somewhat remarkable if you haven’t). But there is one more thing I want to mention that I found particularly irksome about Chinatown Wars that doesn’t really come from the DS’s technical limitations.

I remember how in Vice City, as soon as I had made enough progress in the plot to be able to achieve a six star police rating, I would get one, wait for the tanks to come on the scene, then try to hijack one and smuggle it into my garage. There are plenty of ways for this to go wrong, but it’s sure as hell awesome when it goes right, and I’d come to think of it as a rite of passage for any GTA game, even if I’d only ever done it in Vice City. So in Chinatown Wars, I would periodically start killing policemen to see if I’d reached the point where they’d send in the army, and when I finally did, I was astonished to find that the tank was locked.

In fact, almost the only other way to get a tank is to buy one, which you can only do after having completed the story–and even after doing that, you can’t save it in your garage, because it’s “too big.” And driving it around is a pain to begin with, because as soon as you turn a corner, you’ll slow down and a cop is going to come and pull your ass out of the tank, because apparently you can’t lock the doors yourself.

I puzzled over an explanation for why the tank seemed so limited in this game, and the best I can come up with is that this game is much easier to begin with than the other GTA games I’ve played–a tank like I remember from the old days might just have broken the game too much. As it is, I quickly found that doing a vigilante mission and searching for arsonists would net me a ton of flamethrower ammo, and completing the firefighting missions made you fireproof, and any mission that involved killing swaths of gang members was suddenly very simple. I shied away from this method for the last missions, but I still didn’t have much of a problem.

But, hey, look: do you like GTA games where you drive at breakneck speeds through the streets, jump out of the car, and kill a gang leader with a sword? There’s pretty much no way not to like that. Really, my breaks between each session became shorter and shorter, as I became more engrossed with the story and with cruising through the streets. And, who knows, if the game had been as tough as I remember the series having been in the past, maybe I’d never have beaten it. If you get this game, you’ll have fun for a week or two, so by all means, do it.

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TEI of Thessaloniki
14 years ago

I Love Grand Theft Auto Series !!!