Review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Grand Theft Auto is, at this point, one of the most storied franchises in video game history. It was already huge back during the days of DMA Design, when it was a top-down open world crime game with an attitude, but with the coming of Grand Theft Auto 3 on the console generation, the series turned into a full-fledged classic, with the sales, media attention, and depth to match the fun found in those first games. Nowadays, the series has already been through a number of other reboots, and Chinatown Wars on the Nintendo DS was just another one of those: a return to the game's top-down graphics along with the addition of new elements from the 3D versions and a few touchscreen tricks. Now, the release of the game on the iPhone [iTunes link] shows that GTA is ready for another segment of its life, and that the iPhone itself is ready for the big market titles to start making a splash.
I'll say this: there has not yet been a game on the App Store that is so worth the $9.99 Rockstar is selling this one for. If you're a fan of Grand Theft Auto, and, like me, haven't played this latest handheld iteration, you're in for a treat (it's the highest rated game on the DS' Metacritic page, and while I don't agree that it's the best title on that platform, it is an excellent game). And even if you're not a huge GTA fan (this game does have all the swearing and questionable morality that the bigger versions of the series are known for), just know that this game is a great example of what big-time developers on the iPhone should aim for. Indie games are great, but this one's a blockbuster.
If you have played GTA before, the format is familiar to you by now: show up in a new city (in this case, it's a slightly smaller version of GTA4's Liberty City, with an emphasis on the Triad and Chinatown), meet up with a relative who's got a problem, and proceed to solve their problem and take over the town, with lots of car-stealing, ally switching, and gunfire along the way. And this one follows that pattern: you show up in town as Huang Lee, and your first contact is your uncle, who's having a bit of a reputation problem that only you can fix by running errands and doing less-than-legal jobs. The cutscenes in this one are done with animated 2D pictures rather than full 3D and subtitles rather than full voiceover, but the story is smart and witty and strong, as it usually is in Grand Theft Auto games.
Once you've gotten a mission, you head out into the open world city to make your way up through the ranks, picking up stolen cars and taking out whatever targets you're given. Driving in the game is not quite as solid as on the consoles, and that has to do with the iPhone's core issue of no buttons -- while the touchscreen controls do work great and are very responsive, you're still covering up parts of the screen, and you have to do a lot of overcorrecting while driving. The game helps with an "assist" option that will automatically line you up with whatever street you're on (and the cops are easier to escape here than they've ever been, courtesy of a takedown mechanic as you race around), but the top-down view makes it hard to see down the street in front of you, and so the driving here isn't as enjoyable as it is on the full 3D versions of the game. I do wonder why they didn't go with an accelerometer option, but the driving is serviceable as is, and with a little practice, you get better at it.
Running around on foot is another story. While the main control on foot is solid (you use a virtual joystick to move around, and the camera is pretty adept at keeping your character on screen even in tight quarters), actually attacking with your fists or a gun is a little more touch-and-go. There's no targeting, although the game does helpfully fudge things for you if you're close, so in the midst of a crowd, it's tough to make sure you're hitting the right target. I've heard this was a problem with the DS version as well, though, so I'm not sure it's really an iPhone issue. And the game does realize that it has this problem, so I found gunplay a little more forgiving in Chinatown Wars than other GTA games.
It's outside of the usual gameplay, though, where this version really gets its fun. The touchscreen controls are used in all sorts of interesting ways, from a surprisingly deep set of game menus with email and GPS, to an in-house bulletin board (with a working set of letter magnets) where you can revisit and play old missions, to little touchscreen minigames that have you hotwiring a car quickly or scratching off lottery tickets for winnings. You can tell these games were meant for the DS' stylus rather than your fingers on the iPhone, but that doesn't make them any less fun, and it's always interesting to, in the middle of a mission, be asked to use the touchscreen in a new way.
Later in the game, there's a chance to sell drugs of your own in an actual economy, and there are the usual GTA minigames, from taxi-ing folks around town to delivering noodles and scoring points for crazy driving. Like all great GTA games, this one keeps opening up new alleyways and backlots to you as you explore, and keeps bringing in new mechanics and things to do by the stolen truckload. This is a big, open experience that's worth the cover price for those interested.
One technical note: I played the game on my first-gen iPhone, and it ran with occasional stutters (the game does have in-game radio stations, and sometimes playing multiple sounds would make one or two drop out for a moment) and even one crash. It was not unplayable at all, and in fact, I thought it ran pretty well for the age of the hardware I was using. But if you want the game to run perfectly, you'll want to use a later version of the iPhone. I imagine that on the 3GS, it would run beautifully, and reviews in iTunes seem to back that up.
Chinatown Wars is a terrific game on any platform, and while it's not an iPhone original, it definitely shows that big-time developers can bring big-time titles to the App Store and turn them into solid experiences. If you like GTA, it's a must-buy. If you haven't played GTA, but are in the mood for a good NSFW open-world crime game with a surprising amount of depth and innovation, it's worth a buy. And even if you aren't interested in playing it, you should know that this is definitely a sign of things to come. So far, all the buzz on the iPhone has been around cheap apps and shorter experiences, but GTA: Chinatown Wars proves that there is a space for developers with big games to sell a lot of app downloads at a bigger price.
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