For too long now, we've had to look on jealously as other formats get all wrapped up in Grand Theft Auto fever. With the arrival of Chinatown Wars, the DS can now boast a GTA title that's every bit as compelling, impressive and fun to play as its home console cousins, if not more so.
Yes, you heard us right, Chinatown Wars is as entertaining as anything that's been released on home consoles that are many times more powerful than the DS. While some may suggest that hosting a Grand Theft Auto game on DS would prove to be a restrictive watered down experience, we'd argue that the opposite is true.
Chinatown Wars demonstrates that a laser guided focus on filtering down what makes a great game series great can reap impressive rewards. This GTA is leaner and a more streamlined experience than any of its recent iterations and it's all the better for it. Make no mistake: the emphasis here is on all-out action.
By leaner and streamlined we don't mean that it's a less complete GTA experience. Developer Rockstar Leeds has simply prioritised the best elements of past titles and polished them up to a shine. It's taken the trademark car chases, mission variety, chaotic gunplay, hidden bonuses and searing satirical view of the criminal underworld and distilled it down into Chinatown Wars. For us, it represents a Grand Theft Auto experience in its purest, most enjoyable form.
Rockstar has pitched the action perfectly to match the new top-down perspective and art style. There's less importance placed on plotlines and character, and a renewed sense
of chaos, marking a welcome return to the old school mayhem of the original games.
While you still get the very real sense of being in a living, breathing Liberty City, Chinatown Wars is very much a game, not a simulation or interactive movie. There's a few obvious examples of this, one being the return of rampages - all guns blazing free-for-alls where you cause as much carnage as possible in a set time. Even during a bread-and-butter escape from the police, the focus on action at the expense of realism is, frankly, a welcome one. The new police evasion system emphasises this further. Rather than running away, it's often quicker (not to mention more fun) to shake them off your tail by just ramming them off the road.
On A Mission
Working on the assumption that everybody reading this has played a GTA game before, you'll know the overall structure by now. Working through missions is the core of the game, but as ever, there's plenty of other distractions to keep the experience from turning into a slog.
Let's tackle the missions first. In a series that has often been accused of running its 'drive here, shoot man, drive back again', formula into the ground, Chinatown Wars does a good job of mixing things up. Perhaps most significantly, the addition of touch screen interludes means that each mission comes with the potential of introducing something completely new, whether it's cracking a safe open or assembling a sniper rifle on the bottom screen.
So, with Rockstar Leeds mining the touch screen for extra nuggets of gameplay, the promise of more mini-games to come means that progression through the missions rarely becomes a chore. And besides, there's plenty of other stuff to do.
The driving mechanic is solid, and quite right too, given the amount of time you'll spend driving. There's a subtle auto-correct handling system which helps you to blaze through traffic with relative ease. You can turn it off if you like, but it's worth sticking with. It's also worth heading into the options screen via your touch-screen PDA to tweak the extent to which the camera zooms out at high speeds. Though the map helps considerably when in hot pursuit, the busy traffic can be tricky to avoid when you've really got your foot down. Each car has a different feel to it and the bikes are agreeably mental - super-fast, super-dangerous and super-satisfying if you find a ramp and get a decent run-up.