The highlight of Comic Con NY 09, aside from Dragon Age: Origins, has definitely been Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, which does the incredible feat of not only being as large as Grand Theft Auto IV, but being a better game as well, aside from being a remarkable achievement for a Nintendo DS title on its own.
The game was developed by Rockstar’s UK branch Rockstar Leeds, which is best known for the Grand Theft Auto Stories series and Midnight Club games. With help from Rockstar North, the team managed to recreate Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV in its entirety – completely in 3D.
That’s right – they managed to stuff all of Liberty City into the DS, and the presenter debunked many of the preconceptions of the game: it’s not just the Chinatown section of Liberty City, it’s all of it – every store, every building, every mailbox. Everything is there. It’s also not a top down action game in the mold of Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2; it’s Grand Theft Auto III in gameplay – not only do you have missions, but all the fun stuff from the III series is there: cab activities, police activities, ambulance activities, food delivery and so forth. Rampage is also back, allowing you to go on a destructive spree with a specific weapon.
And when we say it’s full 3D, we mean it’s full rotatable 3D with physics and destructibility. The game is double the size of Liberty City Stories with over 900,000 lines of optimized code. Everything you know from its bigger brothers is there – pedestrians walking around with the same AI, going about their daily lives; the same non-scripted events occur like a fist fight breaking out, or a gunfight. You have the same day/night cycling as well as weather effects.
If that weren’t enough, you have other things you’ve come to expect from a Grand Theft Auto game. A PDA, which you use with the touch screen and stylus goes through all the gameplay menus, inventory, radio music, and so forth. Better yet, since the game is meant to be played on-the-go, you no longer need to head to a crib to save – you can now save anywhere.
Aside from the PDA, the game features some of the best use of the touch screen in a DS game. The gameplay is not only integrated and logical in terms of gameplay, it feels very right. For example, during a sniper mission, you have to assemble the gun. Not only do you drag the pieces from your suitcase, but you have to realistically snap each piece on, rotate the barrel in place, and slap the ammunition in. You no longer buy Molotov cocktails – instead, you head to a gas station with a special icon, and try to fill as many bottles with a set amount of gasoline as you can (while stuffing in the rags) – the number of cocktails you make is dependant on how little gas you waste as it splatters around. They’re basically minigames (and in some cases, microgames), but they work so well and add to the experience rather than detract.
The game is intended to be played on the go, as well. If you fail a mission, you no longer need to drive all the way back to the mission point if you don’t want to – you can now teleport yourself to the beginning of the actual action. When you have more than one star in Wanted level, you only need to disable the police cars (not destroy or kill) til you get down to one star (and then you attempt to hide, evade, and so forth.) As mentioned earlier, you can save anywhere. This is the acknowledgment by Leeds that a gamer may just want to rip off 15 minutes while on the bus or something. Even better, you can replay any previous mission that was completed rather than attempt a new one, to try to get a better time in completion.
Why is that important? Well, like any new Grand Theft Auto game, Chinatown Wars will be a part of the Rockstar Social Club, and a gamer’s stats can be uploaded to their profile online via Wi-Fi. Even more intriguing, players can sell weapons and in-game commodities to each other after they’ve exchanged Friend Codes.
The story itself is intriguing. You play Huang Lee, the 25 year-old son of a Hong Kong triad boss, and who is a complete playboy brat. When his father is murdered, he grudgingly comes to Liberty City to sell his family’s sword, the Yu Jian, to his drug lord uncle Kenny so he can continue his playboy lifestyle. Unfortunately, Huang is met at the airport by goons, shot and left for dead in a car which is tossed into the river, his sword stolen. That sets off the events that follow in the game. (One note: the opening credits fully show off the powerful 3D engine of the game, letting you see what the DS can do if allowed.)
The player can make money selling drugs in a devious in-game economy. The first factor is that there are three levels of drugs – top tier drugs like cocaine, and bottom tier drugs like weed, and 4 others in between. Aside from the basic supply-and-demand economy, the player can influence the prices. Strewn throughout the game are a hundred police security cameras. When they are destroyed, the prices of drugs in the area lower. Deciding which cameras to destroy and which to keep active allows a player to dictate some of the economy. There are also police busts in camera areas, so leaving them active may increase the value of the drug, but it also makes it more dangerous to sell. Of course, if selling drugs isn’t your idea of a good time, you can easily make money with the aforementioned activities like cab missions and such.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars in some ways is far superior to its big brother GTA4 – Chinatown Wars has a wicked sense of humor that is a refreshing change-of-pace to its dour counterpart. Since the game is meant to be played on a gaming-on-the-go handheld, it also refreshingly lacks the annoyance of, for instance, people calling you to go bowling, or anything that interrupts the flow of the game. You still must maintain relationships with other characters, but now it puts you in charge of the interaction. Think of it as everything you liked in Grand Theft Auto III set in the Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto IV that you can carry in your pocket.
You’ll be able to cruise Algonquin, Bohan, Dukes and Broker on March 17th in North America (20th in Europe). This will be a mega-seller for the Nintendo DS, and deservedly so. It’ll be one of the best titles ever on the platform, and a welcome addition to the Grand Theft Auto IV canon.