Chinatown Wars: Where GTA went really right and a little wrong

I’ve been thinking about this game a lot recently, and…um…I’m not really sure why.

The following post first appeared on Geek Force Network, September 20. 2013.

Earlier this week, I dipped my toes into the warm, murky waters (at least I hope it’s water) of Grand Theft Auto V. I didn’t get bit by anything or contract some terrible disease as a result, which is good, because I’m having a grand ol’ time in Los Santos. As I usually do with games that I really want to play, I previously ignored most reviews and avoided eye contact with stills from and images relating to the game – not an easy thing to do in this day and age. But of one of the things I didn’t ignore were numerous retrospectives about the GTA franchise. I knew that the game had come a long way, but having only completed a couple games in the series, I didn’t really know just how far it had traveled to get here. It was fun to read and hear about people’s experiences with various GTA games. Unfortunately, my personal favorite game of the series, Chinatown Wars, was often glossed over. In this nice video from the good people of Revision3, it isn’t mentioned once.

Um…c’mon people! Okay, so Chinatown Wars is a Nintendo DS game, it’s not really canon, and as a current-gen game its presentation was a return to the old-school at a time when GTA IV redefined the series. Even so, it was a notable game that got lots of recognition and praise when it was released. With heavily M-rated content, Chinatown Wars was a marked departure from Nintendo’s normal fare (which I don’t think they ever properly capitalized on.)  But setting aside all the adult and controversial stuff that made headlines, Chinatown Wars was a great game and an even better Nintendo DS game. So what did the game do right?

  • The top-down view
    Hearkening back to the elder statesmen of the GTA franchise, the top-down view in Chinatown Wars was a really great choice. While the game’s wonky camera was not always the best, navigating the streets was still a breeze, and so was managing combat (the mechanics of it, not necessarily the actual battles).  The in-game graphics were among the best of what the DS could handle – cars looked like cars, guns looked like guns, and people kinda, sorta looked like people.
  • The cel shaded graphics 
    Speaking of graphics, the game’s cel shaded “cut scenes” and environments were rendered beautifully; again, as nice as they could get on a small screen. Sure, things looked a little cartooney, but the look only enhanced the overall ridiculousness of the game itself.
  • Balanced main missions and side quests
    Like with most sandbox-style games, in Chinatown Wars you could complete the story quests at your leisure and tackle side quests whenever you wanted. The game didn’t nag you like “OMG YOU MUST DO THIS NOW!” And if you wanted to take a day or two to do nothing but steal cars or make arrests as a fake cop, you could do that. Plus, there were several replayable minigames that added to the game’s overall value.
  • The touchscreen controls
    I know that plenty of people had issues with the DS’s touchscreen controls in general, but in Chinatown Wars I never had a problem switching between the buttons, used for maneuvering, and the stylus, used to switch between weapons or throw things. Having the stylus always in hand made me feel like I was ready for anything the game could throw at me…or I could throw in the game.

While Chinatown Wars was a blast in principle and practice, it didn’t excel in all areas of gameplay. Where did things go a little wrong?

  • The convoluted story
    Chinatown Wars’ main campaign wasn’t overly long, clocking in at somewhere around 20 hours; but packed into that time was so much content that I had a hard time keeping up with the characters. Now the characters themselves, they were fantastic, but the ties that bound them were a little confusing. While most of the actions centered around the Liberty City Triad, secondary characters came and went, and double-dealing and trickery reigned. Who was the rat, the mole, and the fox? Hell if I could remember.
  • Shock value for the sake of shock value
    I said I didn’t want to get into all the controversial stuff about this game, and I won’t in detail. Yet, it’s worth mentioning that some of that which got the game its “M” rating served to its detriment. Much like certain young stars and their “I’m an adult and look at all the adult things I can do!” attitudes, at a certain point, risqué becomes boring, malaise sets in, and it’s hard to care. As I neared the end of Chinatown Wars, things that might have been “lurid and shocking!” read as “yes, you’re an adult, I GET IT.”

If you’re into the GTA series and have some reiteration of the DS (and you aren’t currently immersed in GTA V), Chinatown Wars is definitely worth your time. It provides a hot, heavy, and action-filled romp into a truncated Liberty City that plays out smoothly and very effectively on the small screen. The game is also available for the PSP and Apple devices if you prefer your mayhem without the Nintendo label.

Also tanks. TANKS people! (source)
Also tanks. TANKS people! (source)

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