Like many gamers, I was skeptical when I first heard the announcement at last year's E3 that the Grand Theft Auto series would be coming to the DS. Would it be a top-down title like the first two games in the series? Would it make an ugly attempt at E3? Now that it's out, it's clear that neither of those questions can be answered with a definitive "yes". It's mostly top-down, but with a rotating camera unlike the original entries in the series. All of the graphics are technically 3D as well, although you won't see any views from behind your character's back or anything of that nature. Regardless of the visual style, it manages to do something incredibly impressive - it crams the full GTA experience onto the DS. There weren't many sacrifices made during the move to a portable system. It features a robust single-player mode, a deeper-than-expected drug trading aspect, and all of the fun sidequests and distractions the series is known for.
If you're one of the millions of gamers who played GTA IV, you'll feel instantly familiar with the city the moment you pull up the map. It's the Liberty City you know, just with an entirely new cast of characters and plenty of new activities. You play as Huang Lee, a young Liberty City man on a mission to retrieve his family's sword. As expected with any GTA title, you'll encounter a good deal of shady characters, double-crossing, and colorful language along the way. Rather than the expertly directed cutscenes from the 3D games, the story is told through comic book-style panels and text, and this does just as good a job as any when it comes to moving the plot along.
The actual objectives haven't changed much, as you'll still have plenty of "drive to this location, kill this guy/deliver this thing/steal this/etc" missions. However, Chinatown Wars features a downright absurd amount of segments that make creative use of the DS hardware. If you're grabbing a car out of a parking lot, you might have to unscrew the panel and twist the wires together to start the car. You can use the stylus to give people tattoos, scratch off lotto tickets, break locks, defuse bombs, place explosives, assemble a sniper rifle, cut open the insides of a car to look for drugs, and plenty more. You can even whistle into the microphone to hail a cab. Somehow, they manage to utilize the stylus and microphone in a million ways, yet almost none of them feel gimmicky, cheap, or unnecessary.
For the most part, very little is sacrificed in the move to a portable system. It may not have the fully 3D perspective of the post-III titles, but the rotating camera makes things far easier than the static overhead camera from the first two. The only time it's semi-awkward is during a couple of sniping segments. Instead of being able to fully observe your surroundings and look for your target, it almost feels like you're sniping from a hot-air balloon and looking straight down. These moments occur when you're on top of a building and you have to hit specific targets, and it just feels unnatural to be controlling what feels like a floating overhead camera.
It really is incredible that Rockstar managed to put so much of the GTA experience into Nintendo's insanely popular portable. Chinatown Wars is a true addition to the GTA series, and stands up to the level of quality that the franchise has exhibited in its last several titles. A must have for any (mature) DS owner.
First Play: 9.5
Replay Value: 9.0