Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars - iPad Review

   16/09/2010 at 22:25       Richard Horne       1 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, GTA, iPad, Rockstar Games

Reviewing a game like Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on the iPad is a tricky proposition. Do you review it comparing its relative qualities and charms to other games on the iPad? In which case, Chinatown wars is head and shoulders above almost everything on Apple’s luxury touch-screen device. Or do you take into account the fact that it’s a port of a port of a genuine bona-fide hardcore gamer’s game, and thus critique it accordingly? In which case, the occasionally stuttering frame-rate and the functional but lacking controls are the only blips on the radar of what is otherwise a brilliantly compact, but still jam-packed with more with thrills and spills than most, portable experience.

Originally released in March 2009 on the Nintendo DS, Chinatown wars is a return to its spiritual roots for the Grand Theft Auto franchise. This is mainly because while the game’s huge and detailed world is modelled in all three dimensions, the overhead perspective, ala GTA1 and 2, combined with the solidly coloured inhabitants of this astonishingly detailed game world, deliberately make the game appear as though it’s 2D. The retro-fitted retro-ness of it all, is more than just a visual trick too as it forms an integral part of the controls and revolutionises the vehicular handling and on-foot action by removing the need to aim and drive in 3 dimensions. Shooting requires that you move your laser-like aiming reticule from side to side, while the driving model is simplified to the point where a deft tap of the left or right d-pad buttons is enough to steer your probably now out of control vehical, a car’s width in either direction, with sufficient smoothing applied to gently ease you from lane to lane.

For a portable experience there’s actually a whole host of different things to do. There’s the huge sprawling, living, breathing city to explore. There’s the comprehensive main single-player campaign to complete, all of which is beautifully brought to life by the gloriously presented cartoon stills that intersperse each mission. And then there’s the usual array of GTA extras which in Chinatown Wars come in the form of drug deals, side-quests, races and stunts - the stuff you'll probably spend more tinkering with than the core single-player experience.

My biggest frustrations with the game come from its controls. Firstly, it’s very apparent that the game was originally designed specifically with the DS in mind. At various points throughout proceedings you’re asked to perform tasks on the touch-screen that require you to replicate real-world actions, whether it be smashing a glass window or turning a screw-driver to jump-start a car. Performing these actions using the DS’s stylus felt intuitive, realistic and a genuine facsimile of said real-world action. But somehow, daubing at the touch-screen with your finger, trying to turn an imaginary screwdriver does not feel quite so intrinsic and the physical mime feels forced and contrived.

Also, various context-sensitive actions are mapped to virtual buttons on the touch-screen. Now I’m not generally a fan of this method of shoe-horning traditional controls onto a touch-screen in the first place, and Chinatown Wars proves itself to be no exception. But if you’re going to attempt to duplicate the layout of a D-Pad or joypad buttons on a touch-screen, at least position them close enough together such that you can easily roll your thumb from one button to the other. Chinatown Wars’ button layout is such that the on-screen prompts are often a good few centimetres away from each other and you have to actually lift and move your thumbs a considerable distance as you go from button to button. The lack of physical feedback also means you constantly have to look down to make sure you’re touching the right button and in a game as fast-paced as Chinatown Wars is, that often spells disaster. The same applies to the left-hand controls. While on-foot sections are controlled using a virtual analogue stick – which in the main works really well due to its full 360 degree nature - driving controls are replaced by two single buttons: left and right for steering. Only, again they’re spaced way too far apart making fast driving extremely tricky at first.

So while the iPad is a more powerful device and thus features much improved higher resolution visuals, ultimately the DS – the console for which the game was specifically designed - in terms of precise controls at least, remains the definitive version. But then the price-point of the iPad version means that actually, those of you that never caught the game the first, or even second time around on the PSP, should catch up on this flawed diamond of a game. Whatever my concerns about the controls, it’s far and away the best game on the iPad and looks simply stunning.


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