Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Partially true to the franchise’s modern grandeur and partially loyal to its wild top-down origins, Chinatown Wars is not just a technological achievement; it is also the perfectly balanced Grand Theft Auto effort given it has a foot on outlandish antics and another on serious ambition

In 2009, it was hard to think of a franchise that was larger than Grand Theft Auto. And while that term could very well apply to its commercial success, its critical accolades, and the attention it received from mainstream media, that adjective was also intimately tied to the scope of the series’ installments themselves. By that point in time, many were the developers and products that were starting to break into the open-world format, with titles like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Shenmue, and World of Warcraft taking the first steps within a framework that would go on to become the norm in a few years. Yet, it is arguable none of these handled the thousands of moving pieces involved in an experience of the sort as well as Grand Theft Auto, meaning the worlds it produced were on the cutting edge of the genre and served as the standard that had to be followed.

Understanding that context is key to comprehending the achievement behind Chinatown Wars, which was published for the Nintendo DS in 2009. By default, it is expected that any sort of experience, when translated from the powerful home consoles to the more limited handhelds, will suffer a few losses during the transition, therefore coming off as an inferior version of the material that inspired them. However, for a franchise as large as Grand Theft Auto, the task of bringing it to a portable system looked like far more than a fool’s errand: it felt like a nigh impossible task, one that would result either in a lackluster package that could not live up to the property’s standards or in a broken mess whose fate was sealed by absurd ambition.

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With so many successes under their belt, it may sound crazy to question Rockstar Games’ ability to pull off that trick with Grand Theft Auto, but the hill that needed to be climbed was so steep that doubts naturally arose. Chinatown Wars, however, erases all of those questions quite quickly. And not only does it avoid disaster altogether, but it also collects an abundant pile of achievements on the way, since in addition to ranking as one of the Nintendo DS’ finest hours, it just so happens to put up enough of a fight against its franchise peers that a player would not get weird looks from naming it as their favorite episode of the gaming world’s most famous criminal saga.

Chinatown Wars starts with the arrival of Huang Lee in Liberty City. His father, a Chinese crime boss, has just been murdered by an unknown criminal, and in order to preserve a recently established tradition, he needs to give a special sword to his uncle, Wu Lee, who has now become the family’s patriarch and, consequently, leader. While he is being escorted out of the airport and towards his uncle’s hiding place, though, Huang gets a welcome with a beautiful Liberty City signature: his bodyguards are killed in an attack, the sword is taken from him, a bullet hits his head, and – thinking he is dead – two men, who had orders not to execute him, place him in a car and dump it into the river. Thankfully, Huang is a good swimmer and manages to break the windshield, escape out of the sinking vehicle, and make it to shore.

As he heads to his uncle after that near fatal event, Huang’s wishes are pretty straightforward: he wants to discover who killed his father, who planned the attack that almost killed him, and where the sword is. Like it frequently happens in Grand Theft Auto, though, these simple wishes end up pulling him into the power struggles between the various crime bosses of the city. And while he tries to solve internal disputes within the Chinese mafia and local clashes with other gangs, he tries to keep his sights in the answers that are truly important to him, giving birth to a pretty great storyline that combines personal motives with a complicated web of criminal activities.

The Liberty City that is seen in Chinatown Wars is, in terms of general structure, a perfect reproduction of the place that had, one year earlier, served as the scenario for the massive Grand Theft Auto IV, which came out for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. However, given the astronomical difference in hardware power between those and the Nintendo DS, Rockstar was forced to do some editing, which means that out of the four major islands that had made up that map, one was totally cut. Yet, the world of Chinatown Wars is still enormous; and, to boot, it comes alive with pedestrians, traffic, sound effects, as well as random accidents and crimes.

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Another major adaptation executed by Chinatown Wars is related to the angle from which the action takes place. As an interesting compromise between the franchise’s modern ground-level third-person perspective and the top-down view seen in its first entries, the Nintendo DS game opts for an isometric camera that rotates around the protagonist, with players pressing the L button to position it behind Huang. Meanwhile, on what is one more wise decision by developers to circumvent hardware restrictions, the visuals themselves gain a cell-shaded coat of paint that makes it seem Liberty City and the occurrences of Chinatown Wars are inside a dark and violent comic book; one with delightfully surprising humorous turns that are a courtesy of Huang’s fearless personality as well as his brutally honest and dirty exchanges with those he works for.

This balance between old-school gameplay and extravagant visuals is, in fact, one of the defining points of Chinatown Wars. The Grand Theft Auto saga, with its absurd violence and flashy crimes, has always had plenty of outlandish undertones, but here they seem to be more apparent, be it in the crazy stunts that can be pulled off or in the nature of the missions themselves. In essence, though, Chinatown Wars is absolutely true to the franchise’s traditions as a criminal sandbox experience. Sure, players can dive straight into the core plot and only walk out of its chain of tasks until they are done, but they can also choose to steal vehicles, drive like maniacs, run over pedestrians, shoot people randomly, go for a jet-ski ride on the dirty waters around the islands, hijack vans loaded with weapons, tackle the many extra tasks that can be found around Liberty City, or even choose to behave like good citizens and stop at all traffic lights as well as pay the tolls.

The meat of the experience consists of a whopping fifty-eight missions handed out by the crime bosses and other major characters Huang will come into contact with. Invariably sandwiched between cutscenes – in true comic book style – that set up the action and advance the plot, these missions execute one neat little trick in unearthing as much variety as they do. For a franchise like Grand Theft Auto, it would be all too easy for its quests to disintegrate into a pattern of going to the crime boss, getting and a car and heading to a specific point in the city, shooting some rivals up, and then starting the process all over again. Chinatown Wars, though, never falls into that trap, even if there is a whole lot of shooting to be done, especially as the storyline escalates towards its conclusion.

Feeding straight into the game’s more extravagant vein, Huang will perform all sorts of tasks. There are the traditional ones, like bombing stores protected by rival gangs, using a sniper rifle to kill a target, breaking into an enemy’s hideout and murdering everyone in sight, stealing weapons or an incoming shipment of drugs, and others. But there are also some pretty insane quests such as sneaking into a truck and launching boxes from it to an assigned car, using a dragon costume to escape following a bank heist, throwing molotov cocktails from an helicopter onto the heads of rivals, pulling stunts on a motorcycle, participating in a street race only to make sure Huang’s boss gets the win, running over paparazzi that have taken incriminating photographs, and the list goes on. Chinatown Wars, then, fearlessly mixes the somewhat realistic with the utterly crazy, and – in the process – it gifts players with a set of fifty-eight missions that rarely repeat themselves.

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Still, as different as they may be from one another, they do have some common ground. Their first similarity is their short length, which is ideal for the portable nature of the game; since most quests do not take more than ten minutes, players can easily tackle Chinatown Wars in short bursts. Their second link is their thrill: whether they are racing against the clock to get to a location, protecting someone from other criminals, or doing something else altogether, Huang always seems to be up against a wall. And at no point is that more blatant than when he is being chased by the police, who will throw more force at him (culminating with a helicopter) the higher his wanted level is, and who will only stop chasing the protagonist if he runs to one of his safe houses or manages to destroy enough police vehicles to reduce his notoriety little by little until he returns to being incognito.

Although the hardware of the Nintendo DS is indeed a source of limitation for Chinatown Wars, it is simultaneously used wisely by the game to obtain a few perks it could not find anywhere else. One of these findings, which happens to benefit the variety of missions to a good degree, is the touch screen. Numerous are the activities throughout the game that require that players use touch commands to perform assignments. If Huang needs to use a rifle, he will have to grab a briefcase and assemble it piece by piece, with the parts being put together like a puzzle. If he has to make molotov cocktails, players will control the gas pump with the stylus so the flow of the liquid fills as many bottles as possible. Whenever stealing a car that is parked, the protagonist will have to go through a little mini-game (whose nature is dependent on how new the car is) before time runs out and the alarm goes off to alert the police. And, at one point, Huang even uses a tattoo needle to draw a dragon on the arm of a gang member he has just recruited.

There are dozens of moments like that during the course of Chinatown Wars, and although they are neither revolutionary nor complicated, they are at least an interesting use of the system’s capabilities. It is likely a few gamers will be slightly bothered by some of these activities, specially the ones that are too straightforward and could have been cut: having to hot-wire a parked car to get it started or use a screwdriver as a key for that same purpose makes sense, but being forced to break all locks by tapping the touch screen might be an exaggeration. Yet, they do bring an extra level of immersion and turn basic tasks that would otherwise be automatic into events that demand input from players.

An advance yielded by the features of the Nintendo DS that should be unanimous, however, is the PDA that Huang is given shortly after he arrives in Liberty City. Save for the moments when a touch-based mini-game occurs, the device will always be visible on the bottom screen, showing elements – like Huang’s arsenal as well as a map – that make the interface of the top screen, on which the action takes place, be completely clean. Thanks to that configuration, players can interact with the GPS, change weapons, read e-mails, and access menus with a quick tap. Out of these four, though, the map feature is by far the most pivotal due to how navigation is a key part of the Grand Theft Auto games. Icons that denote crime bosses that are currently offering missions, moving targets, and any major point of interest are always displayed, and touching them will cause the GPS to automatically trace a route to that location. Consequently, there is rarely any need to stop driving in order to look at the map, since changing route can be done on the fly; and the wonders that simple change brings to the title’s gameplay flow are simply massive.

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With its fifty-eight missions, Chinatown Wars is already decently lengthy for a Nintendo DS game: doing them and getting to the end of Huang’s storyline should at least amount to a ten-hour experience. No Grand Theft Auto game, however, would be complete without a very solid layer of extra activities that breathe life into its violent urban setting. Unsurprisingly, given it is one of the saga’s best entries, Chinatown Wars has a lot of those in store for players who want to sweep Liberty City to the point of reaching very high completion percentages.

For starters, by stealing special vehicles, they can engage in thrilling mini-games that will put their driving skills to the test. Inside an ambulance, they have to get to patients and take them to the nearest hospital. Inside a police car, they can access the on-board computer and select a crime to which they are going to respond, being then thrown into a mission to kill all criminals involved. Inside a taxi, they have to take passengers to their destination before time runs out and while following specific orders, such as driving carefully. Inside noodle-delivery vans, they will engage in a shockingly fierce competition against rival vehicles to try to serve as many costumers as possible. And managing to get a hold of a fire truck will have Huang putting out fires all around the city.

Besides these mini-games, Chinatown Wars also features a dozen or so street races; missions denoted by skulls, which the game calls rampages, that have Huang going crazy and murdering everyone around him in order to achieve high scores of carnage; and one hundred cameras to be destroyed. This last item is particularly notable because most of the devices are not found in areas easily reached by car. Consequently, anyone looking for them will have to step out of the vehicle and venture into tighter spaces, buildings, parks, and other interesting locations of Liberty City, meaning that through that task Chinatown Wars successfully pushes players towards exploring nooks and crannies that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

The last, and perhaps most significant, side activity that Huang can tackle also happens to be Chinatown Wars’ freshest and most polemic feature: drug dealing. Money earned from clearing missions is simply not that much; in fact, players will barely be able to buy a single unit of the game’s priciest asset – properties that can act as safe houses – with all the cash they get from the main quest. As such, in order to make a decent living, Huang has to be an active buyer and seller of illicit substances. Liberty City has, much like a war zone, its territory broken into subareas dominated by factions, and each one purchases and offers a drug at a special price: the Jamaicans, for instance, have inexpensive weed and will pay a lot for downers; while the Irish sell acid cheap and are willing to buy ecstasy for plenty of money.

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This information is readily available in Huang’s PDA, but to actually get into this market he needs to track down drug dealers, which show up as blue dots on the map when the protagonist is nearby, and – of course – run around making deals and escaping from the police, which will randomly execute busts after some negotiations are done. If Huang is caught while carrying drugs, they will be taken away from him; as such, keeping them inside his safe houses until he goes out to sell them is the best course of action. The main way to get money from drugs, though, is not grinding for cash, but waiting for e-mails from dealers to hit Huang’s inbox; every once in a while, a dealer that has already been tracked down will send him a message claiming either to have a drug at extremely low prices or to be willing to pay a lot for a specific substance. When those notifications come in, and they will do so very often, it is time to drop whatever one is doing and engage in Liberty City’s most active market segment.

Drug dealing is fun and surprisingly addictive. But it happens to reveal one of the few problems Chinatown Wars has: the lack of purpose for money. Cash can be used to buy safe houses, and owning all of them counts towards full completion, but they are not an absolute must, just a helpful support point to have nearby if one wants to get away from the police quickly. It can buy cars at automotive dealerships, but even if these stores do have a few cool exclusive vehicles, most of the machines they sell can be stolen around the city. And it can buy weapons; yet, not only can those be found in dumpsters around town, but also nearly all missions provide enough ammo and guns for one to make it to their end without having to worry.

Truth be told, at one early point in the quest there is a little money requirement that needs to be surpassed so the main missions can continue to be tackled; and this will force all players to sell some drugs. But anyone with a little dedication to that task and patience to wait for the right deals to show up will soon have far more money than they need. In that sense, Chinatown Wars could have given an extra use for all that cash.

The second and final issue that afflicts Chinatown Wars is the aiming system. By pressing the R button, Huang will automatically target a nearby foe, who will then be highlighted by a circle whose color is indicative of how much health they have; and pressing the button repeatedly allows players to switch between targets. The problem is that the system sometimes acts a little goofy: it may not target the nearest enemy and it may prioritize a random passer-by over a car or person one is chasing. Naturally, these situations can cause some frustration, especially in the game’s most heated and contested moments. It goes without saying that it would be completely impossible for the aiming algorithm to know one hundred percent of the time which target players want to focus on; some confusion is bound to happen. But the main problem with the aiming system of Chinatown Wars is that it is a bit inconsistent and unpredictable in its behavior.

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Yet, with so many victories attached to its design, these shortcomings do not harm Chinatown Wars significantly; they merely hold it back from perfection. There was certainly challenge in the task of making a portable version of what was, back then, the cutting edge franchise in terms of building a wide open world that acted like a sandbox in which players could do whatever they wanted. But Rockstar Games did not just succeed in that task, they went beyond it and managed to produce a title that holds its ground against its mightier console peers.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars has got it all. It contains violence, humor, action, crime, suspense, good music, excellent stylized visuals, and enough content to turn Liberty City into a secondary home for players who go into it. Although grim in theme, this is a game that does not lose sight of fun, and it displays that wisdom in a wild assortment of varied missions that go from thrilling to ridiculously absurd and in a myriad of extra activities with enough range to pack the perils of drug dealing, the absurdity of stealing an ambulance to save patients, and the arcade mindless fun of going on a destructive rampage to accumulate a high score. Partially true to the franchise’s modern grandeur and partially loyal to its wild top-down origins, Chinatown Wars is not just a technological achievement; it is also the perfectly balanced Grand Theft Auto effort given it has a foot on outlandish antics and another on serious ambition.

FINAL SCORE: 9 – PHENOMENAL

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