These changes certainly progressed the series further, but it's hard not to miss the classic action found in earlier GTA games. Chinatown Wars, Rockstar's first real foray into DS development, is the perfect opportunity to revisit the arcade trimmings of the classic PS1/2 era of the games. Chinatown Wars is, at its best, a perfect blend of old-school gameplay with modern design philosophies.
The notion of old meets new is immediately apparent from the visuals. Screenshots don't do the game justice. The graphics are quite impressive, with full 3D models, an incredible amount of texture variety, and a very steady framerate. Of course it comes nowhere close to the fidelity of the PSP games, but the team at Rockstar Leeds has created a sharp, clean look that works within the limitations of the DS hardware.
The title is rather misleading, as the game's scope extends far beyond Chinatown. Liberty City is fully re-created, minus Alderney, and anyone who has played GTA IV knows full well how much territory there is to cover. Almost everything you'd expect in a GTA game can be seen on the screen. Pedestrians are active participants in the environment, stopping at hot dog stands, opening umbrellas when it rains, etc. The audio is equally impressive, with some great tunes to be heard on the game's variety of radio stations. One shortcoming of the DS' limited memory capacity: the classic DJ commentary and parodying commercials are missing.
So, it looks like a GTA game and (for the most part) sounds like a GTA game. However, how well does the gameplay translate to the DS? We were worried that the game -- much like Phantom Hourglass -- would rely too heavily on touch-screen elements. Thankfully, the game plays very similarly to the classic top-down GTA games, albeit with a few DS flourishes.
For example, in the opening moments of the game, your character finds himself locked in a car that's drowning in the river. To escape, you have to tap the bottom screen to break the windshield and swim free. When hijacking a vehicle, there may be a small minigame to hot-wire the car. These segments are brief, and are always intuitive. One of the best implementations of the touch screen involved assembling a sniper rifle. Your character opens a dropbox at a hotel balcony, and must piece together various parts of the rifle. It feels a little like a jigsaw puzzle, but the reward is far more satisfying. With the completed scope, we searched for our target and got a very clean headshot.
Other than these moments, players can largely ignore the stylus. Player and vehicle control is all done through the D-Pad and face buttons. Driving is surprisingly satisfying, due to the noticeable differences in the handling of each vehicle. Driving with the D-Pad may sound difficult, but there's an optional feature that slightly locks the vehicle in a lane. It's a subtle feature that makes squeezing in between cars a bit easier. Combat is very simple, with the R button used to auto-aim at the nearest enemy. For the most part, you'll be running around locking on and firing.
You'll want to choose the right weapon for the job, too. Hit the weapon icon on the bottom screen, and the game will pause, allowing you to switch items. Want to use a grenade or molotov cocktail? You'll have to use the bottom screen to determine the arc of your throw.
Chinatown Wars is very easy to get in to, but in typical GTA fashion, there's a lot to do. The mission variety is terrific. In the hour we spent with the game, we were able to partake in simple drive-by shootings and the aforementioned sniping missions. We do know there are other odd jobs for the player to partake in, the most publicized being the game's drug trade system, along with activities like food delivery and firefighting. Rampage, a classic GTA mode, also makes a much-welcomed return.
Thankfully, the GPS system from GTA IV returns in this game. In fact, this time around, there's an option to have arrows appear on the road, pointing you to where you have to go. New to Chinatown Wars is the ability to create and save your own waypoints. Find a cool stunt jump? Know a good weapons stash? You'll be able to mark it on the map and set it as your waypoint at any time.
There are other advances made to make the game a bit easier for portable play. For example, players can now save outside of safehouses. Mission progression remains largely the same: you go to certain locations on the map to receive new missions. However, you'll be able to restart a mission should you fail. In fact, there's a checkpoint system so players will no longer have to repeat the beginning parts of each mission. That's a good thing, as having to drive to a certain locale over again can be quite frustrating (as any player of Vice City Stories on PSP can attest to).
One addition to Chinatown Wars that must return in future GTA titles is the ability to replay old missions at any time, here facilitated by a whiteboard in your safehouse. You can even compete to get the best time in these missions and post them online through the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.
A lot has been done to make it easy to get to the gameplay you want, at any time you want it. Simultaneously accessible and deep, we're looking forward to exploring more of Liberty City when Chinatown Wars ships on DS next month.