New York, Liberty City, wherever. As is the par for Rockstar and their Grand Theft Auto view of the world, Chinatown Wars offers a glimpse into a desperate, flea-ridden pit of crime – a microcosm viewed through the scope of a rocket launcher and as effervescently potent a mix as anything you’ve seen in previous games. This latest in the venerable series might well be GTA on a portable, but make no mistakes: GTA-lite it ain’t, and despite essentially being a port of the Nintendo DS version this is one hell of game.
First things first, the viewpoint. It’s neither behind the character 3D or top down 2D, but somewhere in between. In fact, the freely rotatable camera manages to display a lot more of the action than you might at first think, and certainly more in this newly revamped PSP version than in the dual screen wonder that’s already enjoyed months of shelf life. There’s a whiff of cel-shading in the various human models (and certainly so in the cut scenes) but everything else is convincing and impressively solid polygons that burst with life and character. It takes a couple of missions to get used to the camera, and then that’s you sorted for the rest of the game.
And what a game. As with all Grand Theft Auto games the main story is one filled with twists and turn, the plot shifting focus and pace brilliantly and the script, despite lacking voice work, is as solid as ever in written text. Close up conversations are handled by comic book-esque drawings crafted in a distinct, individual style that helps give Chinatown Wars its own aesthetic and works well with the other various on-screen windows which we’ll come to later. I’m not going to spoil the storyline here but the Triad theme is a fresh angle for the series and lead character Huang Lee is certainly likeable enough. The villians are the centrepieces of course, and the double crossing plot is a delight.
Where the game really comes alive is the sheer variety of gameplay mechanics on offer. Like previous GTAs there’s a wealth of mission types to play through, introduced slowly but soon interweaving and becoming more and more complex, but this version of Chinatown Wars takes the multitude of touch-based minigames and converts them perfectly to the tradition button controls of the PSP: as an example, you no-longer need to pull out the stylus mid-mission and unscrew the metal plating of a bomb before snipping the correct wire, it’s all handled with the analog stick and the X button, and because these sections use the standard controls already in use they’re better integrated.
The movement and shooting controls work nicely too – walking and driving is either the d-pad or the analog stick (you can switch) with the right trigger to lock on, circle to punch and fire, X to run (or accelerate) and square to roll and climb (or brake). If the game wants you to do something else, like the aforementioned bomb disposal, on-screen prompts will always ensure clarity. So, you could be asked to drive somewhere, get out, defuse a ticking bomb, take out some bad guys with your ever expanding arsenal of weaponry and get back in the car, all of which quickly becomes second nature with, most of the time, only your lack of skill to blame if it all goes terribly wrong.
In the spirit of this being a portable game, Rockstar Leeds have worked hard to minimise loading (with great success) and keep the mission lengths to reasonable bursts of time – long drives are few and far between and a mission retry, should you fail, is just a tap of the select button. Green letters on your GPS (handily placed in the bottom left of the screen) signify a mission for that particular character, but alternatives and subplots are normally conveyed via your in-game PDA, accessed with the start button. This cool device not only handles your email and maps, but also keeps you up to date with your finances, your trading statistics, contacts and the multiplayer mode.
The trading sub-games, if it wasn’t for the bloody violence and coarse language, make up the remainder of the game’s ’18’ certificate. Dealing drugs is a story-long side quest and throughout the map (Chinatown Wars offers an almost perfect replica of the PS3 and Xbox 360 version of Liberty City) are various shady characters specialising in one or more of the various types of narcotics. Like a street-based version of Elite, you’re free to buy and sell at your leisure, the law notwithstanding, to buy your way into the hearts of the game’s gangsters or just to make yourself a little cash to fund your property buying empire. The game doesn’t hold back on this, so keep it away from the kids.
Likewise, the bloodshed, despite being a handheld title, is visceral and gory – whether at the hands of your weapons or in the cut scenes, newly rendered and as sharp as a blade for the PSP iteration. The polygons might be fewer but the visual impact is just as real and whilst very much in keeping with the game (and perhaps less of a shock than the first time I played the DS version) there’s no escaping the fact that you’re going to have to kill a lot of people in Chinatown Wars. Guns are plentiful and there’s a massive selection of weaponry that slowly unlocks as you make it through the game. Cars, too, are in good supply with some old favourites lining up against vehicles new to the series.
It’s not perfect, though: I did come across one bug that got Lee trapped under the scenery (and making swimming noises) resulting in me having to load a prior save game and some of the missions demonstrate a little too much trial and error, and when you fail because the AI had shot a van full of explosives accidentally two attempts in a row it’s a little frustrating to say the least, but there’s enough charm in the main story to push any such niggles under the carpet. On the plus side, the way the police chases are handled (you have to take the cop cars down, rather than outrunning them) is genius and absolutely should become the norm for future Grand Theft Autos.
The game also comes complete with selectable radio stations, a full rack of multiplayer modes and full Rockstar Social Club online interactivity. It’s worth repeating again: this is a full Grand Theft Auto game, not a slimmed down mini version or one missing any of the main features from GTA IV – sure, it’s a brand new story but it’s set in the same persistent world: you can hail a taxi, go street racing, be a vigilante, steal an ambulance and cause havoc at the airport. It’s everything that’s made the GTA series such a massive critical and commercial success in the palm of your hand, and this all singing, all dancing PSP version has enough improvements to make it worth buying all over again.
- Great Grand Theft Auto ‘feel’ – this is Liberty City in the palm of your hands.
- Fantastic graphics – probably the PSP’s best looking third-party title.
- Massive lifespan – lengthy mission, lots of sidequests and a great multiplayer selection.
- It’s the same storyline as the DS version – you might have played this before.
- Occasionally troublesome AI – failing a mission isn’t always your fault.
- No voice acting – and the radio stations could have done with a bit of a bump, too.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a brilliant game – the initially odd camera fits perfectly after a half hour and from there on in this is classic GTA gaming. Sure, it’s essentially a port of the DS version but that’s really not a negative – the storyline is great, the visuals are frequently stunning and there’s more life on the streets of this handheld game than most consoles could ever hope to offer. If you have a PSP you owe it to yourself to get this game now, on either UMD or via the PlayStation Store, and if you don’t yet own one, well, perhaps this was the title you were waiting for.
More PSP exclusive content would have sealed the deal, but as it stands this is wonderful stuff: 9/10