What happens when two guys who generally find the Grand Theft Auto series a bit overrated get together and review Rockstar’s first crack at a DS GTA? Well, you’re about to find out as Mike and I go in-depth discussing Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. Do we love it? Do we hate it? Do we rip each others’ throats out in disagreement? Read along and you’ll see. The answer may surprise you.
Matt: I think we are both in agreement that as a whole Grand Theft Auto is a fairly overrated series. Last year’s GTA IV most of all with it piling up Game of the Year awards over many much more deserving titles and even garnering some ludicrous “Best Game Ever” praise from some outlets. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some anti-GTA advocate or anything. The GTA games are consistently entertaining and deserve credit for revolutionizing the whole open world sandbox genre, but from purely a design perspective I’ve always found the series’ core third-person play mechanics to be rather clumsy and the main mission structures a bit too tedious and predictable. And I’ve been shocked by how little the series has been called out for these flaws.
But look, I don’t want to get into some big GTA bashing discussion here. I just wanted to provide some context to show how big of a deal it is that I am absolutely in love with Rockstar’s new DS GTA title, Chinatown Wars. You heard it here first. I actually love a GTA game, this is a HUGE deal!
There are so many great things about Chinatown Wars that we’ll get into throughout this discussion, but what I love about the game most is how well it fuses all of the innovations from the most recent GTA titles — the GPS guide, PDA interface, email-based mission format, radio stations, expansive sandbox city environment, etc. — with the retro top-down isometric perspective and addictive simplicity of the first two GTAs, and even adds in some surprisingly fun stylus-based interactions for hot wiring cars, assembling sniper rifles, planting bombs and various other activities. It really seems like Rockstar went back and looked at each previous installment before assembling Chinatown Wars, carrying over everything that worked and ditching everything that didn’t. GTA IV‘s silly and tedious relationship management system, for example, was scrapped…Hallelujah!
I’m also amazed at how authentically Rockstar was able to recreate Liberty City on the DS without compromising its scale or immersive depth. A game world of this magnitude would be expected of the more powerful PSP, but not so much on the DS. In fact, I think Chinatown Wars‘ Liberty City is actually larger and more immersive than any of the PSP GTA titles. Except for a few instances — mainly when you max out your wanted level and have the entire police force hunting you down — the game engine runs smooth as silk too, with virtually no frame drops or load times to speak of. The game looks splendid to boot, sporting fully 3D graphics coated in a subtle cel-shading.
Mike: I know we want to avoid a general calling out of the GTA series, but I have to get out a few thoughts before diving into the review. First, since I have already unleashed my thoughts on the litany of flaws in Fallout 3, let me say that I have similar thoughts on GTA IV and got into a bit of trouble on another site by saying “If GTA IV and Fallout 3 are the best 2008 have to offer, then 2008 must have been one of the worst years ever for gaming.” Of course, I didn’t really mean that 2008 was a bad year for gamers, nor that GTA IV and Fallout 3 were bad games, just that they were very much overrated. Next, while I enjoyed the PSP GTA games, they were clearly cut-down versions of the ‘real’ GTA III games – in fact, until 2009 every GTA game for a handheld was a cut-down version with way too much removed.
And finally, specific to GTA IV once again, aside from the massive amount of bugs and crashes and incompatibility with popular video cards on the PC version, I found the game suffered from a disjointed feel between the out-of-game narrative and the in-game experience. By this I mean that the cinematics really try to be a TV show like the Sopranos in terms of building characters and emotional depth, but the gameplay is the same old junk with lousy controls we’ve seen for ages, and this game was even worse at ‘railroading’ you into doing things one specific way, often by making things indestructible or impassible or so on. There are so many times where you think you see an alternate way to accomplish a task but the designers have their particular ‘made for TV’ shot all staged in advance so you have to fail and retry until you discover how THEY want it done. As the series has progressed, this sort of lazy and arrogant design has become more and more out of place and antiquated. I am honestly surprised at the extent to which major review sites gave them a complete pass on this.
I don’t consider all of this exposition a waste for a couple of reasons: first, GTA: Chinatown Wars is a ‘real’ game, not some watered-down port with critical elements removed to fit on a handheld. Next, the visuals are perfectly suited for the DS, with in-game and cutscene graphics coordinating nicely into a single cohesive presentation style. And finally, the gameplay elements fit wonderfully on the DS. Sure there are some nitpicky issues I have here and there, but on whole this is the most I have ever enjoyed a GTA game.
I completely agree with you on how they have stuck with things that worked – but without being lazy. For example, they didn’t simply return to old style graphics as a compromise to fit the limited DS hardware, instead opting for stylized cel-shading applied to full 3D graphics. There is considerable detail put into the various cars and streets and buildings and people you see running around the massive city. Another change in the presentation is the top-down perspective, which was used for the first two games in the series. But it isn’t just a fixed top-down camera – it is angled down at the action and is fully rotatable, all of which adds to the gameplay value.
The controls work extremely well in the context of the DS and this style of game – running around in a huge open world using a D-pad leads to occasionally running into walls or getting knocked about in traffic, and precision control of cars is beyond the ability of the D-pad. However, after a little practice you will be roaming the neighborhoods and cruising the streets with ease. The game also has simple and direct context-sensitive shooting and jumping controls that generally work pretty well – jumping allows you to clear low walls, which can be a life-saver when being pursued by the police! Shooting is aided with a lock-on button that allows you to finish off one enemy (or car) even while running around to avoid getting shot up yourself. You might occasionally end up annoying the police due to a reckless maneuver, but that will happen less often than ending up ‘wanted’ because you failed to notice a police officer walking the street as you jacked a car!
Matt: Yep, I would agree that the controls are spot on, and I also like how Rockstar balanced the use of the touch screen. Most of the core game mechanics are handled with the d-pad and face buttons, but accessing the PDA functions and switching weapons is within easy reach of a thumb tap on the touch screen. And as mentioned earlier, I enjoyed most of the little touch screen mini-game interactions. They felt cohesive with the rest of the game to me, not tacked on or gimmicky.
There are a few quirks with the lock-on targeting, but nothing that ever becomes game-breaking like sloppy targeting has inflicted on other GTA titles, the three last-gen installments in particular. Driving around the city is incredibly smooth, and I appreciated how much effort Rockstar clearly put into making all the different rides handle with appropriate physics — fast cars zip around like lightning and can turn on a dime, trucks and larger vehicles feel heavy and have stiffer steering, boats have a nice buoyant feeling to them, and so on.
Something else Rockstar deserves praise for is for providing some many helpful control settings. Remember in our previous comment discussion when I mentioned having a bit of trouble keeping track of both screens at the same time? Well, shortly thereafter I searched through the options and low and behold there were aids to help with my problem. You can turn on radar and GPS indicators that overlay the in-game action on the top screen, that way you don’t have to keep looking back and forth between screens to make sure you’re going in the right direction. There are some other nifty options too, such as a steering assist that subtly aligns your car into a straight line and a toggle for weapon auto-switching (I grew annoyed with the game changing my weapon for me every time I picked a new one up, so I switched it off).
As one should expect from a GTA title, mission variety is another strong point in Chinatown Wars. The main line of story quests takes around 6 hours — my time was between 6 and 7 — and the pacing throughout those hours is excellent. Missions often require multiple tries to complete, but unlike past GTAs where dying and retrying often becomes infuriating (to me anyway), the missions in Chinatown Wars are so quick-hitting that if you do fail it’s so quick and effortless to jump back into the mission and give it another go without having to trek back across the city or sit through unskippable cut scenes all over again.
What’s more, the story content takes up less than half of what the game has to offer. My initial 6-7 hours of play only accounted for around 45% completion. There is so much more to experience beyond the storyline, including taxi, fire fighter and ambulance challenges, hijacking gang shipment vans, drug dealing, noodle delivery, rampage missions, time trials and so on. I actually found myself sinking hours of time into the drug dealing element after I finished the story, watching out for tips on good deals and looking for eager buyers willing to pay top dollar for my goods. It immediately brought back fond memories of Drugwars, this drug dealing game my friends and I use to secretly play all the time on Texas Instruments calculators in math class back in my middle and high school days.
Mike: OK … you just made me feel old, as in high school we were playing the original Rogue on a PDP-11 mainframe and thought we were pretty cool for having a terminal and not having to use punch cards …
But anyway, I agree with the quirks about lock-on, but as you say it never became too much of an issue. I also found the setting to disable auto-switching weapons, which was critical since you would sometimes pick up a powerful weapon when you really just needed a pistol and discover that most of your ammo was gone when you needed the power in a later mission. For me that happened when I was trying to takeover a weapons van and ran out of shotgun shells just after the driver jumped out and quickly mowed me down! I knew of the setting but hadn’t bothered with it until then.
The other area we could criticize is the main story. Compared to the ‘made for TV’ drama of GTA IV, the main quest line feels fairly small – as you said, it takes less than a dozen hours to make your way from start to finish if you ignore all the side-missions. OK, since you said 6 – 7 I’ll assume I fail far more than you, which is pretty much par for the course for me and GTA games. But you bring up another good point regarding this – I barely ever got frustrated about failing missions, and even when I did it was about failing, not about trudging back to restart and enduring cutscenes. That was something that really bugged me about the PSP games – I hated failing missions because it meant trudging around again and again, not to mention enduring the load times.
However, two things about the main story keep me from criticizing it – first, the story is ‘right-sized’ for the DS. In other words, the flow of scenes and missions works perfectly within the context of a portable experience. You get a decent chunk of story, then a mission associated with that story, then the game is saved – and all of this happens within the course of 10 – 15 minutes. The other thing is that none of this feels like it is watered down in any way – it is simply very efficient storytelling and mission design.
And while I am talking about mission design, let me just pile on with you about the ‘rest of the story’. While I enjoyed the main story quite a bit, I was often reminded of a famous Kurt Vonnegut quote: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different”. There is something wonderfully enjoyable about farting around in GTA: Chinatown Wars‘ Liberty City: whether you are trading drugs or running around doing noodle errands or whatever else, it is just fun to cruise from place to place looking for things to do. Or just cruising around enjoying the different cars and trucks.
I think I have said most of what comes to mind about the game itself – graphics are nicely done, controls work well, overall structure is perfectly suited for a handheld, story and mission design is excellent, and it is just a blast to play even when you’re doing nothing at all productive.
Switching gears a bit, there were two articles recently that struck me. The first was in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/23/arts/ … .html?_r=2) and called the game ‘important based on the fact that it was a top-quality experience in a renowned and infamous franchise released as a full-on Mature game for a platform generally known for being popular for a younger audience.
The other article (http://www.businessinsider.com/take-two … mbs-2009-4) recently looked at sales of GTA: Chinatown Wars during the first ‘month’ of release (actually first couple of weeks). The sales of this ‘important’ game only totaled up to ~89,000 in those first weeks, leading some to call it a ‘bomb’. Others, however, say that the ‘movie theater’ business model that also seems to work for console games – which basically says that you’re going to hit the vast majority of sales in the first few weeks – doesn’t apply to the majority of DS games. Looking at games like Mario Kart (still topping charts years after release) and even Call of Duty: World at War (<60,000 first month, now more than 500,000), that analogy works pretty well. I think that GTA: Chinatown Wars represents a milestone, but isn’t really all that ‘important’ because I think that ground has been covered in the past. I do think we’ll continue to see this game sell more and more copies as the months go by.
Matt: I concur with both your points about the storyline. It really is pretty weak. It’s not like I expected some epic, but I am getting a bit tired of the same recycled criminal underworld storylines of the GTA universe. Although the characters and nationalities change from game to game — this one obviously going with the Asian crime world slant — the stories always consist of the same cliché elements that have been done over and over in crime dramas. Chinatown Wars is no different.
Then again, you are exactly right in saying that the bite-sized story bits are perfect for the DS. As you say, the scenes flow along nicely and give you story bits that are interesting enough to propel you through each mission but never drag on and slow down the pacing.
I do have a couple other nits to pick at real quick, though. First, the camera can be a pain sometimes. The game is top-down but the world is fully 3D, so things like buildings and bridges raise up vertically. And unfortunately there is no transparency effect when you go behind a building, so they’ll frequently obscure your view. Usually only for a second so it’s not a huge drawback, but there were numerous times I’d go under a bridge or something, lose sight of my vehicle and end up crashing because of it.
Secondly, the multiplayer is a bit disappointing. Seeing the Nintendo Wi-Fi logo on the box I was all jazzed up for some online action, but unfortunately the gameplay is limited to a mere two players in local wireless play. There are some fun multiplayer modes, but it’s hard to get any long term value out of them when they are limited to two-player local. The online functionality only lets share friend codes and connect up to chat and share items. Nothing special. But hey, I guess it was too much to expect Rockstar to recreate Liberty City on the DS in such great detail and then get it to run smooth with multiple players online.
As for failing missions, I failed quite a bit actually. I checked my stats and my failure rate was pretty high. In the ballpark of 50-50 success to failure. It definitely felt like I had to replay each mission at least once or twice towards the end. Even still, once I finished the story missions I checked my time and it was a bit over 6 hours. But I mainly plowed through without doing much side stuff until I had finished the main missions.
I’m really glad you brought up the recent news regarding Chinatown Wars‘ “flopping” sales because it really brings up an important discussion about how well mature games like this resonate on a more casual-friendly system like the DS. A similar trend is appearing on the Wii with M-rated “hardcore” games like MadWorld, House of the Dead: Overkill and No More Heroes getting a lot of hype but generally falling flat at retail. Then again, Chinatown Wars‘ slow success thus far is more surprising since it has the Grand Theft Auto brand name behind it and has been universally praised by the gaming press and all the consumers who have made the purchase. Even on the DS I would have expected a GTA game to fly off the shelves much quicker.
But I would agree that Chinatown Wars will be one of those games that continues to sell well over a long period of time. Unlike smaller games that come along and get bumped off store shelves quickly, Chinatown Wars is sure to be a mainstay in the DS section of game retailers for years to come. And hey, it deserves to sell well. Rockstar should be rewarded for not only taking a risk bringing GTA to the DS, but for making a complete GTA experience that isn’t watered down and doesn’t pander to a younger audience. Even if you aren’t a big GTA fan, Chinatown Wars is a must for your DS collection. It’s that damn good.
Mike: Just a few final thoughts. You are absolutely right on multiplayer, and it is one thing that drives me nuts about the current generation of handhelds! I mean, both the DS and PSP have decent Wi-Fi integration and should allow pretty much every game to have some form of wireless interaction between players, whether that means sharing a limited ‘demo’ locally or competing in full-on 32-player matches over the internet. Not every game requires a full complement of functionality, particularly budget games. But there is no reason why games such as the Monster Hunter series shouldn’t have wireless gameplay over the internet. The same is true with GTA. Sure I know that until recently the GTA series didn’t have any type of multiplayer, but at this point who cares about that historical trivia?!? What I know is that this little game delivers in a big way and I wish that Matt and I could have done some co-op missions!
I’m also going to ‘quote for truth’ the last thing you said: “Even if you aren’t a big GTA fan, Chinatown Wars is a must for your DS collection. It’s that damn good.” It is pretty clear we agree on that point, and also think that for both of us this is our favorite GTA game. I’ve been fiddling around a bit with GTA IV on the PC while playing this (I know, I should be playing the OTHER games I need to review!), and found that while that game appears to have more ‘high drama’, since it has as you call it “recycled criminal underworld storylines”, I found that the smaller presentation of the DS game made the clichés much more tolerable and even enjoyable. It is yet another way in which everything seems to have come together to produce a very enjoyable game that, as you say, should be considered a ‘must buy’ for all DS gamers over 17.
+ Liberty City faithfully recreated on the DS without compromise
+ Combines all the good elements of past GTAs into one experience
+ Splendid cel-shaded graphics and art style
+ Tightly-paced mission structure
+ Excellent controls and interface; makes fun use of the touch screen
+ Just ‘farting around’ Liberty City is loads of fun
– Limited multiplayer with no online play
– Camera is easily obscured by buildings and bridges
– Passable story — same old GTA crime drama
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Leeds
Release Date: 3/17/09
Genre: Sandbox Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Source: Review copy provided by publisher