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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Review

26 October 2009

The mammoth task of shrinking the multi-award winning, multi-million selling, open-ended Grand Theft Auto series onto the PSP and somehow transforming it into a game that stands up to the quality of previous titles is an unenviable one, but Rockstar Games has done a magnificent job. Without compromising on the quality of the franchise, the developer has crafted Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars specifically to push the audio, visual and technical capabilities of Sony’s handheld to the limit. This latest entry in the GTA series was released with critical acclaim on Nintendo DS earlier this year, but this tweaked PSP port now looks set to score even more highly with Sony’s handheld audience thanks to its slick PDA interface, up-scaled graphics and silky smooth gameplay mechanics.

GTA: China Town Wars takes the sex, drugs and wanton violence theme that we know and love and expertly implements two of the defining features that have long been synonymous with the record breaking franchise: impeccable attention to detail and solid gameplay mechanics. Like every other GTA game before it you start off as a new face in a big city and begin your career at the bottom of the criminal underworld pile with the aim of making it big by throwing yourself into a variety of dangerous gun-totting and driving missions. As Huang Lee, you arrive in Liberty City to find out who’s murdered your father, the former head of a Triad gang.

The top-down bird’s eye view perspective lends itself extremely well to the small screen and the intuitive interface becomes an integral part of the gameplay. The mass of objectives and sheer scale of the city could have become overwhelming if it hadn’t have been designed with such clarity, but traversing the city is one of the many highlights. The interface makes things as simple as possible, but still offers you a wealth of features to get stuck into, including objective information, emails and a finely detailed map that shows up all places of interest. The clarity of the map and the excellent GPS system allows you to immediately get to where you want to with little fuss. You can also switch between objectives effortlessly, or even order weapons from AmmuNation.com with just a few presses of the button.

The main bulk of the action focuses on driving missions. Zipping around the stunningly detailed city, complete with familiar Liberty City landmarks, is a joy thanks to the solid driving mechanics, which are boosted by an auto-correct handling system. Fans of the series will be instantly familiar with many of the features in the game, including the ‘Wanted Levels’ that you attract from the police when you're caught dabbling in illegal activities, the Pay n’ Sprays shops where you can ditch the cops, the taxi missions, the street races, escort missions, drive-bys and much more besides.

Aside from the main mission, there are dozens of side objectives to get stuck into and everything you do in the City has real purpose to it, rewarding you well for your efforts. Bolstered by stylish comic book style cut-scenes, each objective more often than not has a cash reward, which affords you more power in the city to buy more property and weapons. The variety of missions is also a big draw because each has a different story behind it and therefore requires you to do something different in order to be successful. One minute, you'll be firebombing shop fronts and then intercepting the fire-engine before it can put them out and the next you'll be in the middle of a rampage mission, jumping out of your car and gunning down as many people as possible in 90 seconds, while enjoying racking up bonus multipliers by causing complete carnage. Despite the abundance of driving-based missions, it's the sheer variety of objectives that ensures that the gameplay rarely feels repetitive or boring.

Each car in the GTA world handles differently and the solid control mechanics, coupled with the superb overhead cam, ensures that it’s a smooth and enjoyable ride wherever you go in the City. Driving has an arcade feel to it as you zip along the busy streets handbrake turning around corners and weaving in and out of traffic to evade chasing cops. Despite spending a lot of time in the car traveling from ‘A’ to ‘B,’ there are dozens of exciting, action-packed driving objectives. The fact that you're driving around a living, breathing city that looks magnificent on the small screen adds enormously to the appeal of getting involved in a car chase or just exploring the streets behind the wheel.

On foot, the fighting has obviously been scaled down for PSP, but it works well enough. The lock-on function has been well implemented and there are some frantic and explosive battles to look forward to .On the streets there's also the chance to pick up a hotdog, rummage through the bins for weapons, or even pick up a scratch card from your local store. You can also go around taking out all CCTV cameras, which are often posted near to where dealers hang around. Take these out with your pistol and you’ll soon find that the seller’s prices will drop. This is just another excellent example of how Rockstar has extended the game’s replay value with a wealth of side objectives.

One of the new features in GTA China Town Wars are the drug-dealing missions. They begin when you're given the location of a local dealer and you get the opportunity to buy some weed from him. You can then sell that weed at a profit to other dealers. As the game progresses and you get well known in the city, you get contacted by dozens of other dealers (up to 80 overall.) You can then spend your time earning some serious wedge by travelling between them attempting to score the best deals. This often means that you have to turn down deals as well. The more you get involved in the drug scene the riskier it gets and the more exciting it becomes. You may find yourself with 10K worth of heroine on you, or 5K worth of ecstasy, and all of a sudden the police will be on your tail. You don’t want to lose that sort of money, so you’ll do anything to get back to your safe house in time to stash the drugs. It’s an extremely addictive side-game that adds real tension and excitement to the game as you get greedier and try and make bigger deals for fast cash. This resource management mini-game lends itself well to the small screen and is an excellent addition to the franchise.

Aside from a few camera issues, which can crop up occasionally, and the fact that some of the mini-games don't have the same impact as they did with stylus play on the Nintendo DS, GTA: Chinatown Wars is a near-perfect action game. Rockstar has managed to infuse everything we like about its franchise into Chinatown Wars, but has also made the necessary tweaks here and there to refine the experience to cater for the PSP audience. The action is fast-paced, arcade-like at times, and thanks to objectives designed specifically for shorter periods of play, there's plenty of excitement and variety to the gameplay. The impressive scale and design of the city, alongside the brilliant audio and wide variety of intoxicating missions make it an absolute joy to play. Grand Theft Auto: China Town Wars thoroughly deserves all the praise it's undoubtedly going to get. Quite simply: it's one of the greatest PSP action games of all time.

-The Final Word-

The best ever handheld iteration in the GTA series to date. China Town Wars is a quality production from start to finish.
  • The fantastic visuals
  • The typical sandbox-style GTA gameplay
  • The intuitive controls and interface
  • Some of the mini-games, which don't have the same impact as the DS version
9.5
Platforms reviewed : PSP
See PSU's reviews scores on Metacritic and Gamerankings

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