Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (Nintendo DS) Review

By Mike Mason 26.05.2009 15

Review for Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on Nintendo DS

The Grand Theft Auto series is far more associated with home consoles and, indeed, Sony, than with portables by Nintendo. That never stopped GTA games from turning up on Game Boy Colour and Advance, but even so these versions were either censored or developed by a studio other than Rockstar themselves respectively. That being the case, we could consider Chinatown Wars to be the first 'true' GTA title to appear on a Nintendo system. Is it censored? Hell no. Did Rockstar develop it? Yep, just up the road in rainy old Leeds. Is it any good? Let's find out.

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.

Cubed3 Rating

Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10

It's strange to see an 18 rated title on DS (and it certainly earns it), but Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars fits into the library well and should be seen as something approaching an essential purchase for owners of the system. However, be aware that it does still contain flaws of previous GTA titles, such as a lack of variation in mission types, despite absorbing new features in the substance trading and general ease of use compared to other entries in the franchise. With the sales appearing quite lacklustre thus far, let's hope that it follows the same sales model as many other DS games have and sells over a long period of time so that there's a chance of a refined sequel.


Rockstar Leeds







C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  9/10 (17 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   


From what I've played (which is only a short time due to my general dislike of GTA games) it definitely is a technical marvel - easily one of the best looking DS games around.

Looking at its US sales over the first two months on the market, sales have indeed been steady, so I reckon it'll accrue strong enough sales to warrant another entry being made. After all, it'd be a shame to waste the engine they've created.

I wonder when Capcom will strike a deal to bring this to Japan? It's brought the other recent GTAs over, so I don't see why the DS game would be any different.

Adam Riley [ Director :: Cubed3 ]

I played it and thought it was good. Hate to pick on one aspect of the review, but it's worth mentioning. 'Weasel words' such as the following..

Cubed3 said:

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.

.. don't really have any place in a proper analytical review. How can you know that it 'surely would have been possible' to do the game in the GTAIV-esque full 3D view? One would point out that the top-down view on the DS could in fact be to eliminate any problems with draw distance, since the DS only has to render a tiny little square rather than way off into the horizon.

If even when just rendering the little square there's evidence of slowdown now and again, the frame-rate would absolutely nose-dive if it had to render a lot more, would it not? Anyway, decent review, just be careful about making those sorts of off-the-cuff claims that can in no way be based on any facts to hand.

Perhaps Rockstar started out with the traditional view, and switched to the overhead one at some point during development?

THe risk paid of as far as quality is concerned. They are one of the best game developer out there (for what games they put out) Not sure in the long run it will pay off for them as devs. At this rate the guys will be old or dead before it reaches a million sold. UK charts , seems to have slid to far to be a worthy slow burner

Is it not selling that well? Maybe it'll be the first and last game of this type on DS from Rockstar. It's a shame, since it will probably influence their decision on any possible games for Wii.

I'd say it's doing pretty well so far. In the UK it's been slowly dropping down each week, but has remained in the charts since launch and only this week has it been bumped down to No.15 on the DS Top 40.

As for US sales, it's already had two stable months of sales so far...

Adam Riley [ Director :: Cubed3 ]

That is such a nintendo rep thing to say LOL. Its not in the UK top 40 multi platform so does it really matter where it is in the DS top 40. So im guessing less then a few 1000 a week

On another note those horrific sonic and mario sports crap are still in the top 40. tragic.

Nice review Mason! GTA just isn't the type of game I play, but its still nice to hear it turned out well.

Martin_ said:
Is it not selling that well? Maybe it'll be the first and last game of this type on DS from Rockstar. It's a shame, since it will probably influence their decision on any possible games for Wii.

As Adam has alluded to, its not necessarily selling badly, its just selling like DS games sell. Slow but steady. We're just hoping the steady part stays, because of it doesn't it hurts the likelihood of further M rated DS games.

Martin_ said:
I played it and thought it was good. Hate to pick on one aspect of the review, but it\'s worth mentioning. \'Weasel words\' such as the following...

I see your point; it was a presumption, so yes, incorrect choice of words. I take that on board and apologise for the misdirection, however I maintain that it could have been possible had they not taken the route they did. I wouldn\'t be surprised in the least if it did start out in that way and was altered at a later date, or experimented on at some point. The rare slowdown is usually when you\'ve got loads of police cars on your tail in addition to the high volume of regular traffic, so if it had taken a GTA3 route and had less cars on the road, as well as a smaller map, I reckon it may have been doable. As it is, I think they took the better option in positioning the viewpoint as they did to limit the amount on screen to allow themselves more room to maneuver with traffic amounts and city size.

( Edited 26.05.2009 18:38 by Mason )

Yeah I didn't mean to sound overly-harsh with my criticism. Sorry if it came across that way. You've kept it simple, and you've covered most of the important aspects - which makes it a good review. You might have gone into a little more depth over the visual-style of the game, which is not akin to any other GTA I've ever played. It almost looks cel-shaded, but not quite.

No problem; I'd rather be criticised than be ignored, afterall, and it was constructive. Smilie It's a nice style, isn't it? Getting closer towards the cartoonish drawings that've been used on GTA boxes for years, and in the cut scenes for this. It didn't get brought up because I felt the review was already erring on the side of being too long.

Good review Mike, this a solid game - decent story and good style Smilie

Cubed3 Admin/Founder & Designer

There were people saying: "WTF? A GTA game on a DS? It'll turn bad!" Smilie
I think it turned out well, a good M rated game for the DS... but I have to ask, is it fun to go rampaging, killing people through the city, like in the previous GTAs? Smilie

No really hoped less. Good going Rockstar, and good review too Mason [does this mean a GTA introduction to Nintendo consoles? I can only imagine Niko Bellic in the next Smash Smilie].

Udkedae Everywhere! | PSN: Udkedae

Rampages do make a comeback, actually - it's still fun to attack, but driving over people is better and produces a delightful squelch. Smilie

I want this. Probably one of the few games aimed at a more mature audience.


My Life & blog: Random Thoughts, Photos, stuff, videos and links

Good to see you zcollvee - hanging around for E3 at all? Smilie

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