Chinatown Wars is set over two of the three islands of the Liberty City featured in Grand Theft Auto 4 (the third being cut due to time constraints). While some locales are easily recognisable, though, it does not rely on the fourth numbered iteration in the series other than this setting, in terms of neither story nor visuals. Wisely, rather than attempting a GTA with a purely 3D-viewpoint on DS (which would surely have been possible, but not necessarily for the best), Rockstar have gone for a compromise between new and old. The camera is set at an angle overhead to give a similar style of play to the original outings, but the game is actually rendered in 3D, which gives it all a far more impressive look. Pleasingly, there are very few moments that DS cannot keep up with the action and stutters.
It takes on a structure close to the other games in the series; you have a series of missions relating to the main storyline that takes up around 50% of the game, and on top of that, a big ol' bunch of side missions such as taxi and ambulance driving, vigilante missions and dismantling security cameras. The story this time is one of vengeance as Huang, the son of a recently deceased Triad leader, arrives in Liberty City to deliver a legendary sword to his uncle and seek out those that assassinated his father. Typically, it all descends into a web of double-crossings pretty rapidly, but Chinatown Wars sets itself aside from the likes of GTA4 by not taking itself quite so seriously on the story front. Every conversation is merely a shell within which characters find ways to become even more perverse and spew ever-more puerile insults at each other; everybody you meet is just a caricature rather than a fleshed out person. Unnecessary this may sound, but it works to further the appeal of Chinatown Wars; it is certainly one of the funnier, if more obscene, games I've played recently.
This isn't the only way that the DS version differs to console versions. Thankfully, Rockstar have listened to criticism about story missions and added checkpoints into the longer ones that involve driving across half the city before getting to where you need to be. The missions themselves, as a whole, are shorter than they ever were on consoles - around five to ten minutes on average - which makes them far easier to swallow when traveling (though it's not advisable to play the last story mission when you need to be somewhere, as it's a fair bit longer than the rest). You can now save anywhere outside of missions, so you don't have to rush to the nearest safe house while diving off your bus. Things take on more of a quick and easy action feel, too. Firstly due to an optional auto-guide system that helps to keep your vehicles on the road by adjusting your movements slightly (this can be switched off at any time); secondly, because guns are more readily available as you can order weapons at any time through your PDA; but mainly because of how you must deal with the forces of law. As with other GTAs your wanted level will increase as you cause more chaos, but this time you cannot merely slink off and be a good boy for a while to lose the police. No, in Chinatown Wars you have to actively engage them in high-speed chases, either leading them into accidents or crashing into them full on yourself; destroy enough cop cars and your wanted level will go down and eventually flicker before disappearing, which then gives you the opportunity to be quiet and hide until it's all blown over. Until you commit another crime.
A significant addition is the addictive drug trading system - essentially a miniature stock market, you find the lowest prices for a variety of illegal intoxicants and sell them on to others for (hopefully) massive profit. Nothing quite beats pulling off a major deal only for the police to spot you and give chase, shaking them off and selling your product off on to a chump paying over the odds. It's made tenser by the fact that not only will police take your weaponry and some money when you're arrested; they'll also empty your pockets of all your valuable drugs.
Then there are the DS features. Taking it a step further than GTA4's hot-wiring, players now have to do the work themselves in a touch screen mini-game that involves you unscrewing panels in the car, pulling out wires and twisting them together. Other things involving the touch screen include putting together a sniper rifle and flinging grenades by aiming with a tiny radar. Each is a nice idea and cool the first few times, but after a while the appeal begins to wane. The problem is that, otherwise, the game is controlled entirely by buttons, and so it can be irritating to switch over to the touch screen in the middle of police chases or otherwise frantic missions. Being jolted out of the main action and into touch screen moments doesn't aid with player immersion, which is already lower due to the camera angle and the game being on a portable. The screen is best used in quieter moments; plotting out GPS routes or gambling with scratch cards, for example.
Though Chinatown Wars goes a way towards fixing problems with other GTAs, such as adding checkpoints, and mixes things up with great new additions such as the drug economy, it also suffers from a few things that it down. With the camera viewpoint zoomed in as it is, it's easy to miss police lurking just outside of the screen, thus leading to a lot of unfair wanted levels; and the police are really swarming in this one. At least it's easy enough to get rid of them most of the time. There are some interesting missions - one involving wi-fi, in particular, is a nice idea, if a little tricky and oversensitive in where you need to park at each objective - but ultimately many come down to chasing cars, driving people around or mowing down gangs; or a combination of the three. This is a problem with the series as a whole at this point, and things really need changing around on the mission front to keep up the appeal.