Review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for iPhone / iPod touch

CTW_512x512_LOGO_ICON_FLAT.jpg This will be our third look at Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, starting with our discussion review of the DS version, followed by Matt’s look at the PSP release. Now I am looking at the recently released version for the Apple iPhone (and iPod Touch). As we both agree, regardless of platform, this is an absolutely excellent game, and something everyone should have. As for whether you should head to the iTunes App Store and drop $10 for this new version, read on and find out!

If you have major questions about the game, I suggest starting with our discussion, then checking out Matt’s take on the enhancements that the PSP version brings. The PSP version added some bonus missions and is graphically superior, but personally I have been split over which release I preferred. For the new version, let me step through some quick comments, taking the same ‘5 Things’ approach Matt used in his look at the PSP version:

1. Installation & Compatibility:
In general, unless a game is released that will specifically utilize a specific hardware feature such as the GPS or Compass, new games released on the iTunes App Store will work on any iPhone or iPod Touch that is updated to the latest OS revision (3.1). I have had almost no issues with any game working properly, so I didn’t even read the iTunes App listing in detail (I know, my own fault), so I didn’t see the requirement for an iPhone or 2nd Gen iPod Touch. Since I have a first-generation Touch, the game refused to install on my system and I figured I was out of luck.

Fortunately I came across a method that allowed me to unpack the game from the ‘wrapper’ and drop it back into iTunes and then install it to my iPod Touch. This method got around the hardware warning but still honors the ownership rights, which means I could feel good that I wasn’t doing anything that would break the DRM of the game itself. So once I got past that I was able to play without issue.

2. Graphics:
Matt mentioned how much better the PSP graphics looked than the DS, which I certainly agree with despite some criticisms about the transparency that I noted in the comments. The iPhone version definitely takes its cues from the PSP release: everything Matt mentioned about a total graphical overhaul was brought to the iPhone version.

But what I find interesting is that for all of the commentary we have heard about the iPod Touch as a better and more powerful gaming system than the PSP, I found that the graphics were definitely not as crisp as those on my PSP Go. Not that they were substantially worse, they just didn’t pop with as much contrast and clarity as the PSP version and sometimes even looked blurry. At night I had some issues seeing things clearly, and too many things felt indistinct.

3. Soundtrack vs. Game Size:
Rockstar giveth, Rockstar taketh away. The PSP version featured an expanded soundtrack with better quality, and while this version maintains the quality, it features a greatly reduced track list. Of course, as some have pointed out, since Rockstar gives you the ability to use your iPod music you actually have an infinite playlist, but once you have gotten used to the PSP version you will definitely feel something missing. Not a huge deal by any stretch, just something to be aware of.

A bigger omission is environmental noise. When you play the DS or PSP versions, as you roam the streets there is always something going on, someone yelling at you or others. On the iPhone there is nothing but silence. If you have never played a different version you might not notice, but coming from 9 months of enjoying both previous versions of this game, it immediately felt sterile to me.

A major reason this was done was to slim down the install size of the game. The game supposedly requires more than 620MB of space to install and occupies nearly 200MB on your iPhone once installed. That is still pretty large for an iTunes App Store game, but is much smaller than the 755MB Myst took when released. I would gladly have traded a few MBs of storage for more environment.

4. (Out of) Controls:
I really felt that the mini-games were designed for the DS touch screen, as I mentioned in the comments to the PSP review. And I still feel the same way – these were designed for a stylus, not an analog stick and not for finger control.

There is one control change that has frankly boggled my mind: the DS game used the microphone for you to hail a cab by whistling. The PSP version removed that feature since there is no microphone. When I first saw that the first-generation iPod Touch wasn’t supported I assumed it had reinstated the microphone usage, but that isn’t the case. Another silly omission – even if they just made it optional.

But the mini-games are only a small portion of the game, and Rockstar makes use of two sets of virtual controls for running and driving. Running uses an on-screen analog stick with controls to attack and slide on the right side of the screen. When you approach a vehicle a car icon appears, allowing you to enter the car (or steal it as the case might be).

Driving changes the left-side control to a left-right steering control with the accelerator, brake and attack controls on the right. In general I found that the controls worked well enough but were fairly imprecise and it was too easy to end up running into stationary objects when either running or driving. As I played more I got more precise, but I never found the controls as comfortable or usable as either the DS or PSP.

5. Overall Impressions:
In terms of my personal preference of how I would rate the three versions of GTA: Chinatown Wars, I would do it as follows:

– The DS version has the best overall gameplay
– The PSP version has the best graphics
– The iPhone version is the best value

Of course, let me reiterate that I think all three versions of the game are excellent, and think that you should get the game for whatever platform you are using the most. The iPhone version is at the upper end of the current iTunes App Store pricing spectrum with its $9.99 price tag, but is still considerably cheaper than the other versions. The DS version sells for $20 (but is generally available on sale for ~$15), while the PSP version sells for $30.


+ Nice graphics
+ Decent controls
+ Full port of an excellent game
+ Cheaper than DS and PSP versions

– Doesn’t support 1st gen iPod Touch
– Graphics not as crisp as PSP
– Cuts down on included music and eliminates environmental voices
– Doesn’t use microphone
– Expensive for an iPhone game

Game Info:
Platform: iPhone
Publisher: Rockstar
Developer: Rockstar
Release Date: 1/18/2010
Genre: Sandbox Action/Adventure
Age Rating: 17+
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!