Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a game for all the people who found Grand Theft Auto IV too ponderous, scattershot, or just too damn different from the rest of the series. The fact that the game is on the Nintendo DS may have forced Rockstar’s hand. There’s just no room for hours of talk-radio banality or stand-up routines. So Chinatown Wars sticks to the basics: police chases and kill-crazy rampages. Sure, there’s a story. Huang Lee is another immigrant new to Liberty City. He’s surrounded by smart-ass mob bosses, all scripted with Rockstar’s trademark panache. But he isn’t here to escape or chase the American dream. He just wants to fuck shit up, and maybe avenge his father’s death if he can squeeze that in.
If Chinatown Wars is missing anything, it’s the sense of place that Grand Theft Auto IV transmitted. Character oozed from the city’s pores, thanks to colorful sidewalk banter, satirical billboards, and top-notch voice acting. But dialing back such flourishes feels right in the handheld setting. So does the old-school top-down view and handsome cel-shaded architecture. Where the handheld Grand Theft Auto games for the PSP felt like console games shoehorned into a smaller setting, Chinatown Wars feels like a different Liberty City grown organically out of Nintendo DS soil.
Beyond the game: Visceral touch-screen micro-games pepper the experience. Bail a car into the water, and you’ve got to tap the windshield to break out of the sinking car. Assassins must assemble their sniper rifles before killing their quarry.
Worth playing for: Drug dealing changes the game. Players don’t sell to junkies, they just play the market by shuttling the goods from low sellers to high buyers. The concept of “holding” and the possibility of losing a briefcase full of cheap blow after a bust transforms driving from mere violent diversion to a genuine nerve-racking experience.
Frustration sets in when: All those surprise mini-games mean clutching the stylus in one claw just in case a car needs hotwiring. Cramping will ensue.
Final judgment: You’ll never again question why that criminal led cops on a high-speed chase.