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Mini-Review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown WarsThis article was originally published at on March 31, 2009.

Who would ever have thought that a sword could cause so much trouble? When protagonist Huang Lee's father dies, our hero must take the family's ancient ceremonial sword heirloom, Yu Jian, to Liberty City and present it to his uncle as part of a time-honored family tradition that dates back to when Huang's father won the sword in a poker game. After arriving in the city, however, Huang is nearly murdered by his uncle's rivals and the sword is stolen right out from under him. Now he's going to work for his crime-boss uncle in a bid to retrieve Yu Jian and restore the family's honor through murder, drug dealing, theft, and all kinds of other nasty, illegal acts that make the Grand Theft Auto series so much fun.

What we have here in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is the traditional Grand Theft Auto experience scaled back in terms of visuals and music but expanded in the gameplay department. Still, there's just as much to do in the pocket sized version of Liberty City as in its home console big brothers. As the story unfolds, Huang will be tasked with all of the usual kinds of GTA mayhem, but there are plenty of new additions and tweaks to the usual formula that play up the Nintendo DS's strengths. While Niko Bellic in Grand Theft Auto IV depended on his cell phone, Huang is completely reliant on his PDA, allowing him to check e-mail, order weapons online from Ammunation for home delivery, plot routes on a GPS, manage his address book, and several other important functions. The PDA fills the touchscreen, providing quick access to just about everything Huang needs at just the tap of a finger (or a stylus).

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown WarsThe touchscreen is used for more than just the PDA. Most missions involve some action that requires completing a WarioWare-style micro objective in order to proceed. Want to steal a car? You'll have to hotwire it by opening a panel on the dashboard and physically dragging the wires into place before twisting the contacts together. Sometimes a car's alarm will need to be disarmed by tapping out a specific code obtained by hacking the alarm with your PDA. One specific mission requires Huang to track down a car that has been towed for parking illegally. After "convincing" (read: repeatedly shooting) the driver to stop the truck, the touchscreen will switch from the PDA to an image of the truck's winch. Crank the winch to lower the towed car to the ground. Players with steady hands can earn some extra money working in the tattoo parlor by using the stylus to trace ink onto customers. Feeling lucky? Buy some lottery scratch-off tickets and scrape away at the touchscreen to reveal valuable cash and other prizes. One would think that these micro-games would grow old right away, but the more repetitive ones are optional and the rest are spaced out evenly enough to provide a fair balance.

Aside from the main story goals, there are many other ways to pass the time and explore the city. Steal a police car to access the vigilante missions or hijack a fire truck to play fire fighter. There's a noodle truck that can be used to deliver Chinese food deliveries (just watch out for rival restaurants angry about Huang dropping off dumplings on their turf) and, of course, taxis to run the cabbie missions. One hundred security cameras just begging to be blown up are distributed around the city. Impromptu ramps turn any car into a makeshift General Lee. Even the occasional random person on the street with flag Huang down and ask for his help with some minor task.

The most complex aspect of Chinatown Wars has to be the drug dealing side-game. Exploring the city leads to stumbling upon plenty of people with sacks and car trunks packed with heroin, cocaine, acid, weed, downers, and other illegal substances. Huang can buy, say, a few bags of weed from one dealer and then sell them to another dealer across town, earning a profit. Different dealers charge different prices for drugs, so it's advisable to check around with multiple buyers to find the best reasonable price. Sometimes dealers will e-mail Huang with time-limited offers of cheap heroine or a grand profit in exchange for some acid. All of these messages are automatically tracked on the PDA with handy icons denoting which dealer needs what drug. Trafficking drugs is a great way to earn some easy money, although if Huang is arrested by the police, they will confiscate any drugs (and weapons) he's carrying, so smart drug mules will stash their inventory in a safehouse before starting a mission that may end with police involvement.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown WarsThe police have always been in the way in every Grand Theft Auto game, but I've never seen them out in as full a force as I have in Chinatown Wars. Officers are just about everywhere, both in cars and on foot. They are very quick to respond to incidents and often turn what starts as a minor issue with a rival gang into a major battle with guns blazing on all sides. Accidentally tap a police car on the road? Instant one-star wanted rating. An officer gets up close and personal with your bumper? That's a two-star wanted rating. Heaven help you if you try to flee from a one-star wanted rating and accidentally mow down an officer or two. Moreover, hijacking cars always attracts police attention, as does firing a weapon or punching a bystander. They even have the nerve to perform drug busts when trying to buy heroin in bulk. Learning to work around the police is a necessary skill here, but even still, having to deal with the constant police presence becomes irritating very quickly.

Following on from Grand Theft Auto IV and other recent Rockstar games, Chinatown Wars integrates the Rockstar Social Club into the gameplay experience. Sync your DS to the club using the in-game prompts to upload statistics to the web and, over time, unlock extra missions and (with the proper codes) extra bonus content that is otherwise unavailable. Unfortunately, linking the game to one's social club account requires leaping backwards through several hoops for an end result that isn't quite worth all of the hassle. Those wanting to complete 100% of the game's content will have to deal with it though.

Many have doubted that the Grand Theft Auto experience could be retained after shrinking Liberty City to fit on a DS game card, but Rockstar has created the best small-scale variation of a major console game since Nintendo crammed everything that make the Super NES hit The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past so enjoyable into the Link's Awakening for the original Game Boy. A compelling (if heavily foreshadowed) story drives the action in Chinatown Wars, but there are plenty of side-missions and extra objectives worth investigating in order to get the full impact of what has been achieved here. In a time when the DS library is overpopulated by partying babiez and cash-in kiddie licenses, it's great to have a deep, challenging game for adults to enjoy. Despite the overzealous police presence and mostly pointless Social Club, fans of the series will find plenty to like in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.