The second "GTA" release of a young 2009, "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars" is a game that feels like it has arrived from an alternate history of game development.
Rockstar Games doesn't make game consoles, but they do send messages about them.
The game developers at the global studio made the PS2 a foundation for mature masterworks like "Grand Theft Auto III."
It proved the power of the PSP with the console-style "GTA: Liberty City Stories."
And now, with the Nintendo DS in its fifth year, the studio presents an altogether different expression of what Nintendo's 100-million-selling system could be to developers and gamers: a platform for grand and grimy innovation rather than just small, quirky or retro experiences.
"Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars" [is] essentially an alternate-universe "Grand Theft Auto III."
Imagine a world where the planet's best game developers put their hearts, their hours and their publisher's money into Nintendo's two-screened portable. This would be a world not just of Nintendo, Vicarious Visions, Square-Enix and a few other top-flight developments studios making the best DS games, but one in which Blizzard and Bungie and Lionhead produced works consistent with their vision, values and talent.
It's from this other world that "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars" arrives, a game that's essentially an alternate-universe "Grand Theft Auto III" boasting all the design smarts and daring of an official "GTA" as well as the creative risks not seen in the PSP "GTA"s.
What if, after the top-down original "Grand Theft Auto"s on the PC and PSOne, Rockstar Games improved their tech but retained their elevated camera angle?
What if they pulled a Nintendo? What if the PS2 didn't emerge to provoke the urges of Rockstar's top men to make their games more cinematic and instead there came one of those funky new Nintendo platforms with weird control inputs, the better to provoke that other urge of Rockstar's top men: to find 10 uses for every possible control input?
What would become of all that is "Chinatown Wars."
The game is played from the top-down, though the graphics scroll by in 3D, the bridge trusses, cranes, billboards and other elevated parts of Liberty City nearly poking out of the screen as you drive through them on the upper DS screen. The lower screen is all GPS and PDA. The radio is all instrumentals.
The star of the game is Huang Lee, yet another wisecracking "GTA" protagonist willing to commit mass violence. He's younger and less patient with adults, reminiscent of CJ of "Grand Theft Auto San Andreas." The game's structure is familiar. There are main missions and side missions, action on cars, trucks, boats and in a computer-controlled helicopter. There are orders to commit hits, to steal cars and a healthy amount of new tasks that feels fresh even when played just a month after the dozens of missions in "Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned." Two examples: 1) a mission that has you hijack a tanker truck that springs a leak, a leak that catches on fire and that you must outrace before bringing the truck to its explosive destination; 2) a series of ambulance side-missions that force the player to drive hurriedly through the city rendered on the DS' top screen while shocking their dying passenger's heart with careful stylus taps on the lower screen.
Sex has been sequestered into the category of comic relief because something else is being used for shock value: the game's simulation of drug dealing.
With so many other "GTA" games out of late, it begs comparison to others. So here goes: it is longer than "Lost and Damned," requiring well over 50 missions and almost 10 hours to be beaten for storyline completion (I had 55% of the game done when the story ended).
It is more absurd than the serious "GTA IV," relishing in the cartoon violence of flamethrower rampages and the goofiness of finding sex toys in dumpsters.
Like "Lost and Damned," the game seems to be made with an awareness of the recession. That Xbox 360-expansion included references to a rough economy. This game has some pedestrian-triggered side missions involving bad mortgages. (The rest of the pedestrian missions seemingly all have to do with sex, which has been sequestered into the category of comic relief because something else is being used for shock value: the game's simulation of drug dealing.)
"Chinatown Wars" appears to stem from a forgotten pair of games from the DS' past released well before "Nintendogs" and "Brain Age" ignited sales and inspired imitators. Instead, Rockstar's game feels like the spawn of the forgettable but graphically impressive DS launch game "Super Mario 64 DS," which set a graphical standard few developers matched, as well as "Wario Ware: Touched," a showcase for the diverse possibilities of stylus-driven mini-games that appeared to spark few good mini-game ideas from other studios.
Rockstar's game pulls from that earlier tandem: going for graphical greatness and control craziness. Graphically, it's rich with color and architecture, with cars that flip, rivers that cover sunken wrecks, night and day cycles, headlights that illuminate, thunder that darkens the screen, trash that scatters when rammed with a car, paparazzi snapping photos and -- well, like most good-looking games visual details you weren't expecting. Descended from "WarioWare," it is stuffed with mad touchscreen split-second events: tossing change into a toll both basket with a flick of the stylus, monkeying with the engine under the hood of a car, tapping a code to disable an expensive car's alarm, pouring gasoline into bottles to make Molotov cocktails. Not where Nintendo intended "WarioWare" to lead? So be it. This is the only DS game that wakes from being put in sleep mode with the random snippet of speech shouted from a "GTA" pedestrian, the most inappropriate being a lady asking "Do you want a piece of my pie?"
Not where Nintendo intended "WarioWare" to lead? So be it.
This is the alternate-path "GTA" not just in its exploration of What Could Have Been for a "GTA III" or for a Nintendo DS but what "GTA" could be if it didn't shock with sex and violence but with controlled substances. Trading heroin, cocaine, and other illicit drugs in this M-rated game isn't just recommended to make the money needed to buy safehouse and weapons. It is, dare I write it, entertaining. It is a drug trade removed from real headlines about murderous drug cartels ravaging modern Mexico. It is a drug trade with no addicts, no ruined lives. It's a pure economics simulator that adds what feels like a newly essential layer of "GTA" strategy. The old core "GTA" strategy involved stealing cars to get where you needed to go, risking the attention of the police and then risking even more attention if, in the course of evading cop #1, more mayhem occurred. The new strategy involves being alerted to a good price to buy drugs cheaply, purchasing them and then heading cross-town with your wallet depleted and your satchel full of contraband, making the aforementioned possible encounters with the police all the more risky. The law keeps any illegal substances they find on you. Best to stash what you have at the safehouse if you can avoid alerting the cops along the way.
The "Chinatown Wars" drug system is a glamorization of the economics of drug-dealing, not all that different from what rap music has provided its listeners for two decades, but without even the claim to being quasi-autobiographical or cautionary. Like plenty of other dastardly things made do-able in games, it is presented to the player on the merits that it might be, in gaming form, fun -- the outside world be damned.
"Chinatown Wars" feels like a loner. It's not just stranded from its alternate universe. It's surrounded by DS games with which it has little in common. Take its fellow new DS releases this week: another safe "Pokemon" release from Nintendo and the innovative but scrappily-mustered "Tetris"-"Mario Bros." hybrid "Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure" from EA. What Rockstar has achieved is a unique creation from a studio that does what it wants, when it wants and for whom it wants.
Thankfully, the Nintendo DS can be used for so many things, even an ambitious effort like "Chinatown Wars." Rockstar's game tests a few what-if scenarios involving some of the biggest phenomena in 21st-century gaming and succeeds in discovering good gaming in them all.
Note #1: The game includes several local wireless multiplayer modes, none of which I was able to try before this review. It also syncs to the Rockstar Social Club for stat-tracking and the activation of some extra missions. I wasn't able to try that either for this review.
Note #2: Prospective purchasers of this game should be mindful of the ergonomics involved with playing it. Players will need both hands on the DS but also a stylus nearby, ideally cradled in their hand, available for sudden touchscreen mini-games. This configuration, mixed with the several-hour binges I spent playing the game this weekend, had my hands falling asleep and occasionally cramping. Such playing duration is probably not recommended. It also matters what hand you use the stylus with. For a lefty like me, I had to cradle the stylus in my d-pad steering hand. That allowed easy access with my right hand to the face buttons for gas and shooting, and the right shoulder button for essential handbrake-turning. Had I been a righty, I don't think I could have held the stylus in my right while also having my right thumb and right pointer finger on the proper buttons. For some, this could be a dealbreaker. What I do recommend for all players is activating the game's top-screen GPS, map icon and health bar indicators, all of which are off by default when the game starts and all of which you'll want turned on to lessen the need to cross your eyes watching two screens at once.