Is that a GTA in your pocket?
After trying earlier this year to win over the soccer moms and ballet dads on the DS, Rockstar’s returning to more familiar territory. Seeing Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars come to the PSP after a stint on the DS is like watching a cheerleader dump a comic book geek and get back together with her old football beau. We might have wished that the odd cultural clash would work out, but we also all secretly suspected that it was never meant to be.
[image1]On the PSP, Chinatown Wars looks and feels a lot more like its console brethren. Even though it holds onto most of the mini-game tasks from the DS version, the more traditional controls and screen layout bring the PSP port more in line with the rest of the series. Less a step forward than a horizontal strafe, Chinatown Wars on PSP nimbly fits a large—if predictable—GTA experience into a small package.
The universe of Grand Theft Auto, much like Sesame Street, is a colorful place. Ever since Vice City, we’ve witnessed a parade of ethnically diverse criminal heroes: Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Eastern European immigrants, Jewish bikers, and Latino bodyguards. Chinatown Wars delves into the world of Chinese-American gangsters [I've got my eyes on you. ~Ed. Nick Tan] and tells yet one more version of diversity’s dark side. Affirmative action is still alive and kicking in Liberty City’s underground.
The plot formula has worked well for the GTA series, but this is the first sign that it’s starting to get a little stale. The main character Huang Lee is sarcastic and jaded to the point of being nihilistic. At every turn, he’s making fun of his superiors and tearing down words like “honor” and “tradition”. He claims he’s interested in revenge, but mostly he just seems to do things just for the hell of it. Huang is about as deep and interesting as a disaffected teen, and just as likable—which is to say, not at all.
The still-frame cartoon cut-scenes look great and are done in the style of GTA's box art and load screens. Voice acting is absent, but the dialogue text is snappy and readable. Other characters have more personality and motivation than Huang, and they carry the weight of the story much better than he does. Like talented character actors in the film industry, they make the untalented lead actor look good just by doing their job.
[image2]Regardless of a few design compromises, Chinatown Wars ultimately comes together well because of the tried-and-true GTA mission structure and focus on open-world gameplay. New and varied missions are around every corner, and Liberty City is full of more fun things to do than GTAIV. In particular, the drug-dealing aspect of the game plays like an underworld stock-market where you follow tips that allow you to buy low and sell high in six different drug markets: heroin, coke, ecstasy, weed, acid, and downers. It’s a smooth trade system that means you’ll never be short of cash—assuming you have enough investment capital to get business going.
The mini-games work surprisingly well on the PSP’s controls, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think they were designed expressly for Sony’s system rather than for Nintendo’s touch-based interface. Only a couple of mini-games—like tattooing—suffer under the control nub, but the rest make this feel like a unique portable experience. There are so many bite-sized chunks that you could eke out almost as much time from this game as from a console-based GTA game, and ad-hoc multiplayer gives you even more goodness with races and co-op survival modes.
As in the first two GTA games, all of the action in Chinatown Wars is from an overhead perspective. Even though you drive through the very familiar streets of Liberty City, you won’t recognize anything because of the top-down view. Everything looks pretty much the same regardless of where you are in the city. It’s a functional and minimalist approach to the GTA gameplay formula, but it feels a bit like driving in a monotonous fog. Seeing what’s a block ahead of you on the road is impossible, so you’ll have to rely on your map more often than not. On the DS, this was less of a problem since an entire screen could be devoted to the map. On the PSP, the map is tucked away in the corner. Because it’s so small, doing something as simple as making a right turn becomes an exercise in quick reflexes and map-reading skills.
[image3]Driving and shooting aren’t as fleshed out as they could have been, but they’re automated enough that you hardly notice. Cars will get you from point A to point B—just don’t expect to enjoy the ride all that much. Radio stations provide a great soundtrack to the game but without the biting satire that series fans have grown accustomed to. Shooting fares about as well. The auto-aim feature isn’t always responsive, and switching weapons via a separate selection menu is far from smooth. But as with driving, much of it happens automatically and the game does a decent job of intuiting your intentions.
Once you get past the game’s handful of flaws—a forgettable main character, a myopic top-down perspective, an uncooperative lock-on feature, and a tiny mini-map—you’ll discover many of the same things that make other games in the series so great. You’ll never be at a loss for things to do—shopkeepers to threaten, hookers to kill, and drug habits to feed. Chinatown Wars succeeds as a portable translation of the open-world experience and introduces short-session gameplay to the mix. Even if it loses some of the DS’s functionality, Chinatown Wars feels well-suited to the PSP’s more traditional interface and is one of the best-looking games on the platform. All told, Chinatown Wars is a big package, and Liberty City’s pants are bursting at the seams.