My 'Chinatown Wars'

The Inlander | March 30, 2009
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Rated Mature; Nintendo DS

Until recently, the only "Mature" rated title in my tower of Nintendo DS games was the zombie splatterfest Touch the Dead. That means that the DS has become the world's bestselling videogame system entirely on the strength of "Everyone" and "Teen" rated games.

But now Grand Theft Auto has invaded the DS. I hesitate to call the franchise's first DS title, Chinatown Wars, a "mature" game. Any game that uses transsexual prostitutes as punchlines several times in its first few hours is obviously adolescent. So let's call Chinatown Wars more "grown-up" than most DS fare.

The "Mature" rating is really only earned by an earnest application of the word "fuck." No prostitutes are slapped. No drugs are snorted, smoked or shot-up either, though plenty get sold. And if there is a strip club, all I can see is its rooftop. By Grand Theft Auto standards, Chinatown Wars is almost puritanical.

Past Grand Theft Autos have made their virtual worlds a large part of the games' charm—if you call seedy, racist crime-holes charming. Billboards satirized the real world. Pedestrians stereotyped America. Even the PSP Grand Theft Auto games enhanced their low-fidelity environments with vivid details, such as Phil Collins' appearance in Vice City Stories.

But the DS's screens are too tiny for any details—even ones as small as Phil Collins. The graphics are cartoonish and simple, and the perspective has been shifted too far overhead. It's still a city with recognizable clutter, but the buildings are indistinct and every person resembles a moving push-pin. Even the radio stations have been replaced with generic music.

So Chinatown Wars relies on activities to carry the game. For the most part these are the same activities that have driven past Grand Theft Auto games. Kill enemies. Sabotage ambitious subordinates. Hijack shipments of drugs. And drive, drive, drive.

Chinatown Wars relegates most of the action to the road. Driving in this top-down style, essentially speed-solving mazes, simplifies the game. It's no longer about living the life of a virtual gangster. Instead, it's about slaloming down highways, sending police cruisers head-on into walls and drive-by blasting rival gangs—you know, mature stuff like that.

THE GOOD: Even though Chinatown Wars is set in the same fictional city as Grand Theft Auto III and IV, it's much smaller, making the game move much faster. Not only is this a welcome feature on a handheld system, where gaming should come in rapid bursts, but it makes Liberty City lively again after the slooooow pacing of Grand Theft Auto IV.

THE BAD: Too many game developers become enchanted by the DS's touch screen without finding a good reason to use it. And so in Chinatown Wars I find myself filling molotov cocktails by hand, unscrewing screws when hotwiring cars, and laboriously tracing tattoos. The only decent touch-screen activity the game sports is a series of scratch-ticket lotteries—but maybe I'm only saying that because I eventually won a house by playing them.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Chinatown Wars is a smaller, simpler, but still charmingly criminal Grand Theft Auto for the DS.

3/5 Stars

The Inlander

Founded in 1993, The Inlander has quickly become the most trusted source of news and entertainment information for the sprawling Inland Northwest. While the majority of our readership lives in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area -- a fast-growing part of the...
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