Reviews// GTA: Chinatown Wars

... it doesn't bleat annoyingly at you every few minutes...

Posted 18 Mar 2009 19:32 by
Isn't it wonderful when you get your hands on something that you didn't think was going to be fun and it turns out to be fun? Yes it is.

GTA: Chinatown Wars is just such an experience. Put quite simply ? even if I hadn't been playing it on the slightly bigger-screened and (to my ears) better speakered, matt white DSI but on our old red DS Lite ? I would still be giving this latest incarnation of Liberty City a big, smiley review.

The PS3 and Xbox 360 outings of GTA IV left me feeling rather cold, a bit depressed and generally angered at how something so technically advanced could be so cold and depressing. Chinatown Wars has exactly the opposite effect.

Liberty City remains and is superbly re-imagined for the DS's graphical limitations. Its boroughs splay out, their back allies, tenements, tower blocks, basket ball courts and deadends rendered in amazing detail for the handheld.

What's gone is that sense that the script writers were trying slightly less hard than the technical teams to realise a game. The console vision of the city appeared to me to actually want to be a movie. But it was a movie with grindingly annoying plot, studied humour, soulless caricatures, and the gamer merely a glorified spectator.

Chinatown Wars puts the gamer front and centre. Maybe it's those limitations introduced by the format that has made everybody involved concentrate on what makes a game work.

Let's start with the death of the mobile phone. Chinatown Wars dispenses with the cell-phone and instead offers a PDA with which you can access everything you need to access. AND it doesn't bleat annoyingly at you every few minutes demanding that you go here, do that, deal with that moron, and generally yank you out of the actual game-play. The PDA lets you access your email (complete with Spam); your GPS system; your choice of music; your contacts (and a bunch of other things not to do with the in-game fun, such as networking and system setup).

Also because of the limitations (never has that word done so much good) we're back to the top-down viewpoint beloved of older GTAs.

So, does this mean that I only like this version because it reminds me of years gone by? No, no it doesn't. Do I want to return to a time of stone-aged gaming? No, and no again. I felt that Fallout 3 does a better job at plot and gaming narrative than GTA IV. So did Mass Effect for that matter... my position is that I like to play games with my video games. This wee DS version of the grand 'franchise' strikes me as being about playing a game. It is, in short, fun.

The lack of cut-scenes is a boon to the flow of the game. I actually like the cartoon-like stills that convey the plot ? or plots, I'm giving nothing away ? rather than trying to immerse you in 'stories' that actually lift you straight out of the game.

The characters interact with your central character ? the charmingly naff rich kid and naif in the big city, Huang Lee ? in humorous (okay, occasionally laboured by the requirement to use a sort of sub-James Elroy staccato) and dark scripts. And most importantly they do so quickly. You're also unhindered in getting into the game by 'acting'. All-in-all, elegantly done and something I think that could be held up as a template that other DS games could benefit from.

What of the music? The console versions of Liberty City made great stock of the fabtastic, licensed tracks that you could groove or otherwise unharsh your vibe to while tooling around the streets in your hard-to-handle vehicles. CTW, not so much. Here you'll find tunes to listen to that can suit a mood and enhance the atmosphere, it's just that you (or rather, I) don't feel them to be so intrusive.

It's strange but true that CTW is more of a 'game' ? although maybe less of a technical achievement ? than GTA IV.
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