The Grand Theft Auto series has long been known for its massive landscapes, over the top violence and immersive presentation, all of which would be very hard to accomplish on the aging DS. While Nintendo’s touchscreen wonder machine is still able to light up the sales charts, it isn’t necessarily the ideal platform for an open-world experience like GTA. Unfazed by this, Rockstar will be releasing Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars exclusively on the Nintendo DS on March 17th, and I recently scored some hands-on time with the title to see if it is worthy of the series legacy.
Chinatown Wars is a unique take on the franchise that utilizes many of the same gameplay mechanics associated with the console series but condenses them into a much smaller package. The first thing that you will notice about Chinatown Wars is that the in-game camera is at an overhead angle, harkening back to the first two titles in the Grand Theft Auto series. The problem with this perspective in those titles was that it made driving very difficult, as you often couldn’t see far enough ahead of your car to avoid obstacles. Rockstar alleviated that problem here by providing a more isometric viewpoint, allowing you to see a bit more of the area. The difference was instantly noticeable, as I was soaring down the streets of Liberty City with ease and never once crashed because I couldn’t see what was about to slam into me.
Almost all of Liberty City from GTAIV is included in this title, providing an enormous environment for you to explore while on the go. To make up for a low polygon count, the game uses simplistic 3D graphics with a cartoonish cel-shaded tint that makes them similar in style to the illustrations used in past GTA advertisements and box arts. The end result is an aesthetically pleasing visual style that looks quite good in motion. Thankfully, this motion stays smooth during gameplay as the frame rate didn’t seem to falter despite the overwhelming chaos that I was bringing about.
While the visuals are surprisingly good, the same can also be said about the gameplay mechanics, which offer a mesh of elements from the first two GTA titles and some of the complexities of more recent entries. The d-pad moves your character as well as the camera, and face buttons execute similar functions as they do in GTAIV. You character’s default attack is a flurry of punches, which tends to be a bit difficult to hit things with. After several minutes of greeting innocents with my fists, I ran out into the street and jacked my first car from a grumpy cab driver. Just as in the console versions, the drivers will occasionally try and steal the car back from you, so you can’t expect for an easier time just because you are playing on a handheld.
The driving is fast and easy to control, and causing a ruckus to raise your wanted level is just as entertaining as in other GTA titles. Much to my delight, citizens still roll up your window and go flying through the air when they are hit, cars still get flung out of your way as you barrel through them and the police are just as significant a threat as they always have been in this series. In short, Rockstar has managed to transport all of the key elements of a Grand Theft Auto title to the Nintendo DS, and despite the cartoony graphics and different camera angle, you are still getting the complete GTA experience.
I wasn’t all that excited for Chinatown Wars before playing it. I have grown tired of the series over the years, and the thought of another watered-down iteration—like the GBA version from several years back, and even the PSP entries to some extent—left me wary of what could be done on the DS. However, I can honestly say now that I am very excited at the potential of this soon-to-be blockbuster. If the mission design and story are as well done as the core gameplay mechanics, DS owners and fans of the series will find a lot to love in GTA: Chinatown Wars when it ships next month.