Previews// Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

...even though this game is going to carry a big red BBFC 18-rating on the box ...

Posted 13 Feb 2009 16:32 by
SPOnG was recently invited to Rockstar’s London offices to check out the near-as-damn-it completed version of the new Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars game for Nintendo DS. It is, quite simply, the biggest release on the DS since The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. But can it come anywhere near close to (or, whisper it, even top) that title in terms of the joy of the overall gameplay experience?

Before I manage to get my hands on Chinatown Wars I am treated to an in-depth show-and-tell session from a couple of Rockstar reps. The guys are keen to impress upon me the fact that the dev team for the company's first venture onto the DS was twice the size of the teams that created the GTA PSP gems Vice City Stories and Liberty City Stories. They are equally as quick to express a desire to forget the flop that was Grand Theft Auto 3 on GBA - the last outing in the controversial gangster-glorifying series on a Nintendo handheld.

Chinatown Wars is not a port of any previous GTA game (indeed, how could it be?) and the game has been lovingly created, as they say, ‘from the ground up’. It was, for many of us, one of the all-too-rare highlights of E3 2008. And, as always with its gold-topped franchise, Rockstar is faced with a great big bag of hype and hot-air which I hope it will soon fill with mindless ultraviolence and some hard-drug-based cheeky playground fun.

‘Playground’ is the operative word here because, unworkable bag analogies aside - and even though this game is going to carry a big red BBFC 18-rating on the box - it IS going to be a major hit among that angry-teen-boy demographic that is yet to reach legal age of consent. (Let alone be old enough to vote, drink and do all those other things that adults to, like deal blotter acid and shoot people's faces off with awesome semi-automatic guns).

Still, it’s comic, over-the-top violence that engenders laughter and fun. As opposed to the slightly too questionably real violence of Rockstar’s Manhunt series, for example. Which, in my learned opinion, is why we’ve hardly looked at Manhunt 2 since we previewed it around the time that game launched amidst its own teacup storm back in May 2007.

(To be honest, we did look at it. It was dreadful so we stopped. Ed.)

Yet after an hour or so of previewing Chinatown Wars I am already confident that it is going to be one of my most-played DS titles in 2009. Finally, we may even have a worthy successor to the sublime charm of Phantom Hourglass. Now though, details…

To start with, the storyline, characters and dialogue are all written with customary Dan Houser flair. You play as lead character Huang Lee, whose Chinese Triad dad has just been offed. So, the overarching storyline is the old Hollywood staple of feckless son determined to avenge the wrongful death of his father. In the process he finds himself - or not. I don’t know, as – like you - I'll have to wait and see how the story progresses through the umpteen missions in the full game when it releases later in March (March 20th, to be exact).

Suffice to say the writing team has done a top-notch job in setting the scene and creating that all-important GTA vibe that really is hard to describe to those who haven’t played the games. It. Just. Feels. Cool.

In addition to the depth of the story, the well-rounded characters and the mother-expletive'ing, superb dialogue in the comic-book cutscenes, the second thing that grabs you about the game is that the isometric top-down ‘kinda’ 3D (or 2.5D, whatever) which makes up the gameplay really does work well.
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