Saturday, October 23, 2010

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

If nothing else, Rockstar Leeds should be commended for bringing the Grand Theft Auto experience to handheld systems while keeping the spirit totally intact. The regular gameplay translates in a playable fashion, and the new elements they introduce with the touch screen are actually some of the best ideas the series has had in a while. Holding down a couple buttons to blast everyone in sight isn't as interesting as a real combat system, but there's actually more variety in the mission design than there was in Grand Theft Auto IV, and the story seemed to last the right amount of time before wrapping up in the right over-the-top kind of way.

I think what makes the game work is that the touch stuff actually sells the whole being a criminal aspect of the series. You don't just jump in a car and watch a quick animation of Huang hotwiring it, you do so yourself with one of a number of methods based on how advanced the vehicle is. Bashing a lock or planting an explosive requires your active input. You can make your own molotov cocktails and manually turn over a stalling engine. It just adds to the verisimilitude of being a thug in Liberty City despite the extreme overhead camera angle. The driving is surprisingly decent, it's a bit easy to collide with stuff that you didn't see coming until too late, but the cars handle well enough to make your way around without too much trouble.

So you're Huang, and you arrive in Liberty in unceremonious fashion, left for dead and robbed of a valuable heirloom you were meant to deliver. What follows is standard GTA mission structure as you do the bidding of various scum around the city trying to track down who betrayed you. Liberty is recreated pretty accurately from its depiction in IV, with no shared characters but a recognizable layout and gang infrastructure. Those gangs are as important as they've ever been in this series, because they're key to the biggest addition to the gameplay - drug dealing. I'm surprised there was never any controversy around a game for this system providing a fleshed out mechanic for buying and selling coke, heroin, and other narcotics for profit. You will occasionally have to bring some drugs to a meet to continue the story or receive some as a reward, but you can spend all day tracking down leads and flipping goods if you want to. It's a surprisingly enjoyable distraction from the story, in addition to old standbys like rampages and checkpoint races.

The story doesn't really do anything the series hasn't before, but the writing is actually pretty good, to the point and often humorous, often breaking the fourth wall which is a new thing for them. One of the issues with Rockstar's open world games is that they often get too far from the main plot thread at a certain point, having you work for seemingly random people who hardly have anything to do with what the protagonist would actually care about. They do a good job of avoiding that here, tending to bounce you back and forth between the same superiors through the whole story, and even the more tangential characters have a reason to be talking to Huang. Obviously the tightness of the story is helped out by it being an acceptable for a GTA game's plot to only last six hours if it's on a portable system, but it still felt like a worthwhile experience. Not everything translates perfectly to the platform, but it really did work better than I expected, and deserved the Grand Theft Auto name.

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