Review: Rockstar Games Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
To the extent that Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars ($10) is an unusually complete handheld console-gaming experience, ported generally with skill to Apple's iPhone and iPod touch devices, you might stop reading right now and just go straight to the App Store's "Buy App" button -- if you're a GTA fan, particularly of the original top-down titles in the series, Chinatown Wars is a must-see release. Yet for everyone else, it's still worth discussing what Rockstar did right and wrong in this game, which will satisfy some players more than others, and surely isn't right for all audiences, of course due more to its content than its gameplay.
As with the prior GTA releases, Chinatown Wars is a relentlessly thuggish, deliberately offensive video game—properly rated for 17-year-old and more mature players, it makes more references to drugs, prostitutes, murders, and various other illegal activities in its first few minutes than literally any iPhone game we’ve previously seen, and uses expletives as generously as sugar on Frosted Flakes. Not surprisingly, your character is quickly urged to commit felony after felony, acting as an bag man, car thief, and killer for a Chinese triad organization in the fictional Manhattan-like Liberty City.
This coarseness is entirely by design: Chinatown Wars is a side story in a saga that has become this century’s equivalent of The Godfather, with each title casting you in the role of a small-time hood who eventually becomes more accomplished at his chosen criminal profession. This time, you’re the son of a Chinese mafia chieftain who was apparently assassinated, leaving your savvy but seemingly less powerful and capable uncle in charge. Starting the game on the defensive after narrowly escaping a brazen attack on your life, you step up to assist your uncle in retrieving a family heirloom that was stolen during the attack, impeding his rise to power in the Liberty City crime world. Along the way, you’ll punch out, shoot, blow up, and run down a lot of people, following the storyline through numerous, almost entirely flat 2-D cutscenes with on-screen text and no voice narration.
When on foot, you control your character with an on-screen virtual joystick and a series of contextually appearing fist, kick, gun, grenade, and other buttons, hitting another button to carjack vehicles that let you speed from location to location on missions. Notably, these controls are primarily used to move you in 2-D rather than 3-D: though the game uses solid and occasionally surprisingly detailed 3-D buildings, streets, and overpasses to represent the city, people and icons are primarily flat 2-D objects, with vehicles mixing 3-D bodies and flat light sources, the bulk of your motion consists of north, east, west, and south movements. You can occasionally climb stairs, hit a jump button to scale a wall, or use a ramp to launch your car, but the core game engine is far more of an evolution of the original GTA and GTA2 games than a devolution of the more recent and far more successful GTA3 and 4 titles.
What this means is that Chinatown Wars feels more like a supercharged Nintendo DS game than Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories for the PSP, which brought as much of GTA3 as was possible to the more powerful Sony handheld—a more ambitious approach, and one that Gameloft emulated with its earlier iPhone GTA clone Gangstar. Thus, those expecting to engage in detailed behind-the-shoulder shootouts or get real 3-D views inside buildings might be disappointed; this is really a top-down 2-D game, switching to completely flat 2-D views when you enter your apartment and other buildings. Additionally, Rockstar’s attempt to replicate so much of the Liberty City world from overhead, complete with elevated trains that can occasionally be seen running on the tracks, more than occasionally blocks your view of your character and the action. Between your fingers, virtual buttons, and various overlays, the screen sometimes gets pretty cluttered.
Though we can’t speak to the full breadth of differences between the Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, and iPhone OS versions of Chinatown Wars, it’s clear that Rockstar did take certain elements from each of the prior releases when building the iPhone title, leaving others out. The result is a game that looks far better than the Nintendo DS original while preserving some touchscreen features that couldn’t be transferred as easily to the PlayStation Portable. For instance, in addition to all of the buttons mentioned above, the iPhone also includes touchable PDA, GPS, and other on-screen buttons that help in mapping and tracking objectives, plus other touch-based events—lock-picking, dumpster diving, and car immobilizer hacking—that were taken from the DS title. From the PSP game, the iPhone version of Chinatown Wars gets higher-resolution textures and a less cartoony visual style, but it received shorter shrift in the music department. Apart from an intro song, none of the iPhone version’s numerous audio tracks include voices, and new songs that were added to the PSP title were left out here. The funny radio-style commercials everyone used to love in prior GTA titles, cloned in games such as Gangstar, are also absent in this release. Multiplayer functionality, touted as a major feature in both the DS and PSP games, appears to be absent, though a statistical tracker in the game refers to “time (spent) in single player,” hinting that the DS and PSP modes might be unlockable or added later.
Apart from the issue of ambition—is a GTA/GTA2-style title with GTA3/4-style graphics really so impressive in 2010?—the only other major disappointments in Chinatown Wars are control and camera related. Like virtually everyone else who has tried to port a popular game from another platform to the iPhone and iPod touch, Rockstar struggled a bit with the mandatory virtual controls, primarily when you’re in vehicles: left and right arrows appear by default for steering, along with separate accelerator and reverse buttons, and even if you switch the control scheme to get back the analog stick, driving doesn’t ever feel quite right or precise enough. And as noted above, there are times when the height and opacity of the buildings confounds Rockstar’s ability to let you see what you’re doing, which you’re supposed to double-tap the joystick to fix. Little issues like these might have been easy to avoid if the buildings and elevated infrastructure elements went transparent as they faced the camera… and, of course, if Apple released a proper controller for games like this.
Though we honestly feel that Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars sits on the edges of our high and general-level recommendations, there’s one simple fact that pushes it towards the higher rating—the overall level of polish, from the storyline to the missions, is very impressive by iPhone and iPod touch standards, surpassing Gameloft’s work on Gangstar and other earlier GTA wannabes. All that’s truly missed by reference to the prior Nintendo DS and PSP versions is multiplayer functionality, and then, a patch could easily fix this. While it’s obvious from some of the earlier GTA clones that Rockstar could and should push Apple’s hardware further, rather than using the Nintendo DS as a lowest common denominator for development, this is a great start for the company on this platform, and we can’t wait to see what it comes up with next.