Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars iPhone Review

   28/01/2010 at 23:09       NewYork       6 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
There's no denying (if you take Metacritic seriously) that GTA: Chinatown Wars is the greatest modern hand-held game. It has become the top rated game on the DS, and is the second best rated game on the PSP, even out-ranking its fully 3D cousins Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories. Yet when what is arguably one of the greatest hand-held games of all time arrived on Apple's appstore, it did so with little fanfare. Regardless, without the need for reviews like this one, customers leapt on the chance to hold Liberty City in the palm of their hands, sending the game rocketing up the appstore download charts. Did they spend wisely?

GTA: Chinatown Wars casts you as Huang Lee, the son of a recently murdered Triad boss. Huang is in Liberty City delivering a sword to the new leader of the family, his uncle Wu "Kenny" Lee. On his arrival, however, he is brutally attacked and the sword is stolen. Eventually Huang ends up working for his uncle in various criminal activities, and as in any GTA story, works for many other people as the story twists and turns from here. It's standard GTA fare, with an Asian twist. There's some good comedy in there, which no GTA would be complete without, but the game sorely misses the excellent voice acting which adds so much to GTA's sharp wit.

Missions play out on foot and in car. When running Huang is controlled via a virtual joystick on the lower left of the device, and virtual buttons on the lower right allocated to jumping, kicking, and punching/shooting. When Huang is near a vehicle, a button appears, allowing you to steal it. Driving replaces the joystick with a left and right button, and replaces the action buttons with an accelerate button and a brake/reverse button.

As we've come to expect from iPhone ports, the virtual joypad approach leaves much to be desired. Until you become fully attuned with the game, you will forever be double-checking if you are hitting the right button. Flush, touchscreen controls can never match up to the precision and confidence of actual buttons. Driving is particularly fiddly, and again, as you can't reference which button you are pressing by touch alone, you frequently mis-press. The digital pad can be replaced with an analogue stick for driving, though this seems to make turning even more imprecise. With your hands all over the screen, along with all the buttons and interface graphics laid over the action, the view can get quite cluttered.

The difficulty of driving is a major blow to the game, and is worsened by the camera angle (almost top-down like old-school GTA), which limits visibility of oncoming traffic. Just when you've got yourself going where you want to go, an unexpected, unseen vehicle slows down your progress. Even worse is if this vehicle happens to be a police car--and with such small vehicles it's often difficult to know which cars are police cars until you've hit them--which causes you to abandon your original destination altogether and endure yet another police-chase. If you want to know which direction to go in, you'll be taking frequent glances at the GPS display in the top left, which further increases the likelihood that you'll crash. Things get particularly annoying when you're required to drive at full speed. Driving assist, which can be optionally disabled, is helpful at least in making sure your vehicle lines up with the road.

Police chases are annoying not only as they distract you from what you wanted to do, but also because of how they are handled. Now, in order to shake the cops off, there is no zone to escape, but instead you must actively ram the cops to take them out of action, which is particularly difficult with the awkward touchscreen controls. There is also the option of hiding out of the cops' sight and losing wanted stars that way, but the whole thing seems more of a hassle than actual fun.

The camera is also a tricky customer. GTA traditionalists complained when the game went to a 3D, behind-the-character view back on the PlayStation 2, but now the return to a top-down view is sure to annoy a new set of traditionalists. As mentioned, the view makes it hard to see what is up ahead when driving. In addition, the view of the street will often be obscured by items above street-level, such as tall buildings and rail tracks. The bottom-left joystick must be tapped to recentre the camera behind your character, but it is often unresponsive.

It is also a shame that a better targeting system could not be employed. What the player is unfortunately faced with is a targeting system that makes you shoot in the direction you are facing. With the inability to turn on the spot, it makes shooting sections a weird mix of mashing the shoot button and running around the enemy in bizarre ways. Lobbing items such as Molotov cocktails feels more intuitive, as you use the touchscreen to drag a throwing arc between yourself and the target, allowing for precise disposal of fiery explosions, but such intuitive controls were not stretched to gunplay. Eith so many good shooters on the iPhone and iPod Touch making great use of the touchscreen, it is a shame this game couldn't follow suit.

If you don't feel like following the storyline, you can just kick back and cause havoc. Liberty City feels alive in this game, and the detail of the city is one place you can see the polish applied. The streets have real character to them, and are bustling with activity from pedestrians, traffic, and even police cars chasing other criminals. There's a day-night cycle and even changing weather conditions. It is because the world is so well created in this game that it is so satisfying to try and wreck it. Anyone who knows the satisfaction of causing a big mess in the other GTA games will surely appreciate the ability to do so on the go. If this game is good for anything, it's a useful way to let out your frustrations.

There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied aside from the main game, including the return of old favourites such as taxi cabbing, firefighting, and ambulance driving. A significant new entry to the game is drug dealing, reminiscent of old college favourite Dope Wars. Drug dealing is almost a fully fledged game in itself, with dealers and customers all over the city to profit from. Rockstar hasn't been shy about this: the drugs are hard and all are explicitly named (heroin, cocaine, ecstasy are examples). With this, violence, and tough language throughout, the game proudly earns its adult warning on the appstore.

Touchscreen elements that were sadly omitted from the PSP version make a welcome return, here. Breaking into parked cars, for example, requires you to physically hot-wire them to get them going. There's usually multiple steps involved, with various touch gestures allocated to unscrewing, moving wires, and twisting wires together. It seems slow at first, but after a couple of times you'll be a pro, and it feels good to hot-wire a car with little effort. You can also try your hand at searching through dumpsters for goodies, and, my personal favourite, tattooing gangsters (complete with screams of pain whenever you screw up).

Graphically the game is stunning. Turn up the brightness and the city will pop on your screen. If you need a game just for showing off your device, this game is it. The city looks varied, and full of character, displayed at a detailed resolution. The game runs nice and smooth on my second generation iTouch, and pulls off a miracle seen in no other modern GTA game: next to no loading times. You can whip this out during a bus ride and be playing in mere seconds. Though some have been disappointed at the lack of "real" music in this game, the many music stations are still satisfying with some excellent tracks that set the mood right. What definitely is sorely missed, however, are the hilarious commercials which define the GTA driving experience.

All in all, Chinatown Wars is a faithful port, retaining the excellent graphics of the PSP version and the fun little touch elements of the DS version. Unfortunately it can not overcome the drawbacks of virtual controls, which are too clunky to ever feel natural, and often get in the way of a fully immersive experience. You can't play if you're always cursing at the controls. Also missing are the multiplayer modes, which seems a lost opportunity, considering that if people were going to utilise multiplayer on any platform, it would have been the iPhone and iPod Touch. If you are willing to forgive these things, there is a lot of fun to be had here in what is probably the deepest, most polished game to ever hit the iPhone and iPod Touch. After all, you are carrying a living, breathing city in your pocket. And for the price, there's little point in complaining.

It's the best hand-held game ever, but not on the best hand-held. Grab the DS version or PSP version instead, if you can, but by all means check this game out.
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