Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars – PSP Review

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Genre: Crime Sandbox
Platform: PSP (Available on UMD and PSN)
Developer: Rockstar North
Price: $39.99 (USD)

I’ve been playing the Grand Theft Auto games since the original debuted on the Playstation 1 (and PC), back in 1997, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Of course, seeing the series return to it’s top down roots did have me concerned a bit as I fired up the PSP version of the former Nintendo DS exclusive title. Afterall, as enjoyable as I found the top down GTA’s in the past, they were mired by brutal difficulty, exacerbated by a horrible control scheme and finicky driving controls.

Fortunately, I shouldn’t have been worried, as Chinatown Wars takes everything that was fun and unique about the top down version of the game, and marries it with smooth controls, fun mini-games, crisp, stylish visuals, and a story packed with humorous characters and an entertaining story.

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Centering around roguish and sarcastic Huang Lee, son of a wealthy (and murdered) Triad boss, the game follows his exploits as he attempts to regain a stolen family heirloom; a sword, from rivals that took it when they tried to kill him upon arriving in Liberty City. Huang turns to his Uncle Wu “Kenny” Lee for help, and ends up becoming his right hand man in Uncle Kenny’s attempts to rise the ranks of the Triads and make Liberty City his. I won’t reveal much else from the plot, just know that it is funny, interesting, and filled with the colorful characters you expect from a “classic” GTA experience.

Being a remake of the Nintendo DS version, the first thing you will notice upon beginning Chinatown Wars is how impressive the visuals are. The game is still played from a top down perspective (instead of the 3rd person perspective known in the other PSP GTA’s: Liberty City Stories, and Vice City Stories), but the visuals have received a bit of an upgrade. They have been properly formatted to fit the PSP’s wide screen, and the textures are sharp, and visual effects like smoke, fire, and character models are sharp. The buildings are impressive and towering, and the vehicles are appropriately shiny. It’s not a technical showpiece for the PSP’s visual prowess, but it’s certainly pleasant on the eyes.

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The biggest change to game play from the DS version is, of course, the lack of a touchscreen, which factors into a lot of the many, many, mini-games scattered throughout the game. I found that the mini-games were no less enjoyable, and the way they are mapped to the PSP’s buttons is rather clever. Take for example rooting through a garbage can to find hidden items/weapons. You press up on the analog nub to raise the lid, then alternate between the L and R buttons to clear away the garbage and obtain your prize (or worthless garbage like a moldy hot dog or condom). I really enjoy the mini-games, which include hot-wiring a car, hacking into security terminals, and making molotovs by buying gas from the gas station, then attempting to fill as many bottles as you can before the gas runs out.

One of the biggest issues with the top down GTA’s of old were the cumbersome control scheme. It simply wasn’t user friendly, and made the game unnecessarily difficult. Thankfully, Chinatown Wars lets you control your character with ease using the analog nub, with the face buttons controlling entering/exiting vehicles, attacking, and jumping/rolling. The R button locks onto to enemies (and only enemies when they are around, so no accidental killing of pedestrians), and the digital pad lets you swap between locked on enemies. Overall, combat in the game is easy and satisfying, and given the simplistic nature of the game’s presentation, I wouldn’t ask for a more complex system.

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Driving feels good, with cars all looking and handling very differently and fairly believable. The only real difficulty I came across was often, when driving really fast cars, it’s hard to react fast enough to things like turning corners if you aren’t really paying attention to your mini-map or GPS arrows that you can overlay on top of the road. Fortunately, Rockstar attempted to alleviate some of this by allowing you to go into the menu and adjust the game’s “car look ahead” depth. By cranking it up to 10, the game will be panned out a little more in front of you, allowing you to see a bit more of the road without leaving the top down view, or making your vehicle look extremely small.

The game is set in contemporary times, and with that comes a few more gameplay additions that really add to the enjoyability of GTA: Chinatown Wars. First up, is the newly implemented drug trading feature. As you’d expect, this feature allows players to buy and sell drugs to other drug dealers, and make a hefty profit (or take considerable losses if they aren’t careful). It’s rather self explanatory, but players can find and approach a dealer, buy and sell product, then move onto the new dealer and do the same. Players are aided by helpful emails they receive in their PDA (which I’ll touch upon next), that informs them of “hot tips” on who is looking to buy what for high prices, or who is looking to sell for low prices, which in turn, can be sold to an eager buyer for a high price.

For example, I received a tip that one of the dealers was selling Downers for really low price. Upon investigation, I learned that if I bought the Downers at that price, I could earn a profit of $400 when I sold them to another buyer who was in need of Downers. The system is simple, and very enjoyable.

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Aside from the drug trader feature, players are able to use a PDA which is the single most important item in the game. It includes a GPS, email, trader information (so you can keep track of all the drug trading tips you receive), and online shopping, allowing you to order all your weapons from Ammu-Nation and have them delivered to your safe house.

The GPS lets you plot courses to any destination you desire, and has a helpful sub-menu accessed by pressing the Square button, which lists important Points of Interest, characters, and more. Email is self explanatory, as is Trader info. You simply select what you are looking for (ie, a drug dealer), press the X Button, and once you leave the GPS, the route is mapped out for you on your mini-map. The only real issue with the PDA is that it takes a good second or two to load the new menu when you press the button. Overall, it’s not a deal-breaker, but I would have liked to have seen a quicker turn around for accessing stuff once in the menu system.

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Another welcome addition is the ability to save anywhere as long as you aren’t in a mission, although you will still load into the nearest safe house when you reload the game. The mission structure is still standard GTA, but the missions are in much more manageable bites, which serves the portable nature of the game.

Local Multi-player and co-op is also included in the game, which lets you, naturally, play the game with friends and trade items and unlock missions. There are a host of game modes, such as Race, Season, Stash n Dash, Defend the Base, LC Survivor, and Gang Bang. I didn’t get to spend any time with the MP (nobody with a PSP or Chinatown Wars in the house at the moment), but I’ll add my MP impressions as soon as I’ve spent enough time with it. Even so, I’m not afraid to issue my verdict.

VERDICT: BUY – This take on GTA is both familiar and fresh, combining the old school classic GTA style and presentation with some new and welcome additions to game play and controls. The story is funny, the mini-games are highly enjoyable and unique, and the overall package is polished and enjoyable. You can spend hours at a time lost in this pocket Liberty City, playing mini-games, buying and trading drugs, and purchasing new safe houses. It’s a testament to the fact that good game play doesn’t always need a shiny, HD coat of paint to be good game play. I highly recommend this one.

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