Review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (DS)

Grand Theft Auto makes the jump from the big screen to Nintendo’s small screen.

Whenever studios branch out and transform series well suited for consoles into the handheld format, there is always an element of risk – none more a prolific example than Rockstar’s GTA Chinatown Wars for the DS. Though we’ve already seen the Grand Theft Auto franchise brought to Sony’s handhelds, it has only gone to Nintendo’s once. The increasing success of the Nintendo DS ensured that this wouldn’t be the case for long, and, sure enough, Rockstar Games announced that they were taking the series on a DS road trip.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars follows in line with its predecessors, but at the same time it completely reinvents everything in order to take advantage of the Nintendo DS' features. And, despite the hardware and processing limitations, Rockstar Games have managed to create a deep and enjoyable title that veterans of the franchises will immediately fall in love with.

The game opens with players stepping into the shoes of Huang Lee as he travels to Liberty City to deliver a rather important sword to his Uncle Kenny. Huang’s father, a Triad boss, was slain in mysterious circumstances and, following tradition, the sword must be passed on to his brother, Kenny. Sadly though, Huang gets ambushed along the way: his father's sword is stolen, and he’s tossed for dead into the harbour. While it may sound rather oddball, the story is absolutely amazing for the most part and does a splendid job of getting players engaged into the game.

The team responsible for bringing the series to the PlayStation Portable also took on the challenge of introducing, and adapting, the franchise to the Nintendo DS. Though a few things may have shifted when it comes to the wider picture, the fun factor and depth remains the same – this feels like a Grand Theft Auto game through and through – although there are notable changes.

With Chinatown Wars, Rockstar Leeds took practically every aspect of the console games and compressed it onto a rather small Nintendo DS cartridge. Due to the graphical limitations of the platform, the developers realised it was unwise to create the game in the same style as the PSP versions, and instead reverted back to the top-down view of yesteryear. While many expected this change to be for the worse, it actually turned out fairly decent. The game runs at a smooth 30 frames per second and practically everything is displayed in 3D: including cars, obstacles, and buildings. Like the more recent games, there is a detailed physics engine present, which means that cars can flip, jump and tumble depending on whether or not you’re an aggressive driver. So even though the perspective may be different, the the same formula that many have come to love is still contained within.

One thing that we had serious reservations about was whether or not Liberty City itself would hold up during the transition, so we were happy to report that its turned out pretty close to its console counterpart: the regional boroughs remain intact, and the entire city is available right from the start of the game. With that in mind, the criminal activities are just as addictive as ever: if you see a vehicle, simply hop into it and take a wild ride to get to wherever you’re heading. In true GTA style, there are plenty of different vehicles sitting around the city that are practically inviting the opportunist car-jacker to come along and take them for a spin – it's like a motoring pick 'n' mix! To cater for every criminal's needs, every vehicle in the game will have its own unique features: vans, for example, are heavy, large and durable, whereas bikes are light, small and nimble.

Driving, of course, isn’t the only way to get around town: for those that are environmentally friendly, there’s always the option of walking to your destination. In some cases, walking may even be only option, especially when gunfights are on the cards. And speaking of guns, Chinatown Wars puts a heavy amount of emphasis on weaponry – players will have a lot of people to waste in this game. To facilitate the carnage Huang will inflict, a “lock-on” system has been created to help target enemies and take them down with rapid-fire attacks. While it takes a little getting used to as the controls aren’t all that intuitive, players should eventually find themselves getting accustomed to Chinatown Wars’ setup.

What was really great to see was the inclusion of a brand new PDA – Personal Data Assistant – which proves to be an overwhelmingly useful device. Through use of this PDA on the touchscreen, players can gain access to everything from GPS and email tracking to weapon ordering. Chinatown Wars also introduces us to the seedy underworld of drug trading – an profitable process that’ll earn Huang Lee some extra cash. The concept of this is very simple: throughout the are various drug dealers who each want to make specific bargains with Huang; only happy to oblige, you must avoid the police in order to buy and sell between dealers whilst skimming a healthy profit off the top – it’s simple business sense that you learn in school!

Just like any other game though, Chinatown Wars certainly has its downsides: the biggest being the soundtrack. Don’t get us wrong, the music is splendid, but for a game of this calibre, we expected something a little bit richer – the drawback to setting high standards in past titles! While there are a few other minor niggles with the game’s functionality, these are more than counterbalanced by the amazing work put into creating such a masterpiece – one that has pushed the DS to its limits.

After completing the game’s 15-20 hour main adventure, players can join in on some multiplayer action. In this, as many as four players can go head-to-head in epic matches: ranging from a “capture the flag” style mode, to standard races. Every one of the game’s multiplayer options is plenty of fun to play and has tons of replayability. Sadly though, none of these modes are online, so you’ve got to get your friends round for this experience, which means it will be an ultimately underused feature.


At the end of the day, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars truly is one the best titles to ever grace the Nintendo DS. Despite the fact that it took on an old-style graphical approach and introduced alien concepts, the transition of the series to Nintendo’s handheld has been a smooth one – the end result being a fantastic adult game that is not worth missing. Trust us, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars will be the biggest third-party title to grace the Nintendo DS this year.

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