When it was launched earlier this year, Chinatown Wars was met with biting bewilderment for one reason: it was exclusive to your sister’s brightly coloured (and most likely plastered beyond recognition with hateful Pokemon stickers) Nintendo DS, a console more renowned for cooking sausages than slaughtering pedestrians.
But then something even more remarkable happened. Not even the harshest of critics could defecate over it, touting the game as a supreme adaptation which pushed the DS beyond its crude capabilities. Unfortunately, everyone was too preoccupied with cooking sausages, resulting in a disappointing sales slump. And so, after being rid of its DS exclusivity binds, here we are now with Chinatown Wars on the PSP.
Chinatown Wars marks the franchise’s sixth visit to Liberty City, implementing a map with a scale that almost encompasses the entirety of GTA IV’s locale, with the exception of Alderney. This is certainly an impressive feat for a handheld game, but, on first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the graphics, as Chinatown Wars is presented from a top down, isometric perspective. This was acceptable for the DS, but surely the PSP is substantially more capable, and above belittling itself to such restrictions? Well, in actual fact, the art direction of Chinatown Wars is one of its greatest assets.
The cel-shaded visuals evoke a cartoonish charm that hearkens back to the original 2D, 32-bit days, but with the sophistication of the 3D-era GTAs of recent times. However, that’s not to say that this is a lazy port, as Chinatown Wars has received a significant graphical overhaul in its transition to the PSP, despite utilising the same isometric foundations of the DS. The resolution is drastically higher, and the lighting effects are more defined, resulting in some lavishly detailed visuals that trounce the original DS game. This style feels more at home on a handheld than the 3D accomplishments of Liberty City and Vice City Stories, and the game also benefits from the PSP’s vibrant widescreen, meaning you no longer have to squint to see ahead.
As with the previous DS incarnation, Chinatown Wars stars leading protagonist Huang Lee: a young, budding criminal, and son of a murdered triad boss who tasks you with delivering a prized sword to your uncle, Wu “Kenny” Lee. But, in true GTA style, things turn sour after some hoodlums falter your plans and kidnap you, stealing the sword in the process. From here, it’s business as usual as you undertake jobs from increasingly seedy and larger than life characters that lead to you performing a wealth of criminal activities.
The plot is told through a series of static cut scenes, which take full advantage of the game’s cartoony vibe. The wonderfully crafted artwork can now be fully appreciated thanks to the PSP’s sharper resolution, which shows each lovingly drawn character as they were intended to be viewed. Character models don’t look quite as appealing in-game however, amounting to a blob of puny pixels.
Each cut scene is also devoid of any voice-overs whatsoever, instead relying upon text to drive the narrative; voice acting could have easily been implemented, but then this would have arguably detracted from the game’s intended comic book-esque style. The scripting is consistently hilarious, too, highlighting Rockstar’s penchant for lowbrow humour, whilst portraying Huang as witty and sardonic as the plot pans through its many twists and turns.
The 70 or so missions that make up the main story are tailor made for a handheld console, offering short bursts of riotous fun. A trip skip feature, for example, allows you to instantly teleport to your last failed mission, which is incredibly time saving, and ideal for portable gaming, and you can even replay missions you’ve already completed. Slow loading times unfortunately plague the UMD version of the game, however – autosaving can take an agonising 17 seconds, which breaks the fluidity somewhat, but, thankfully, the downloadable version fares far better.
The mission structures can become linear at times, but there’s no denying the amount of variety here; one minute you’re in the midst of a street race, where the objective is to take out the competition in order to ensure victory for your boss, and the next you’re disguised as a fire-breathing Chinese dragon.
Missions are delivered via the game’s integral PDA system, which updates you with new email messages, and you can even stock up on weapons by ordering them from Ammu-Nation, who will kindly deliver them straight to your safe house. Navigating to missions is also simple, as you can program the GPS to pinpoint the route through visual markers on the road. Even the controls are simple – car handling and player control is fluid, with a responsive lock-on targeting system.
The PSP version also contains some exclusive missions that focus on Melanie Mallard, a media journalist who exploits you to gain inside footage of your activities to boost her career. This results in a series of thoroughly entertaining missions, although you often have to protect her, which can become tiresome; yet the awkward banter that ensues between the pair is humorous.
It’s clear that Chinatown Wars was principally designed for the DS, as it made extensive use of the touch screen, which the PSP sorely lacks. Mundane tasks, such as hotwiring a car, were transformed into interactive minigames that had you using the stylus in order to perform the on screen action. These interactions remain in the PSP rendition, but its lack of a touch screen impairs the intent, as they are limited to simple button combinations – rotating the analogue nub will mimic the action of rotating a screwdriver, for example. These minigames still work well and feel inventive however, even if some now feel a tad cumbersome in practice.
The art of drug dealing has often been the premise of plot points throughout GTA’s history, but it has never been as fully explored as it is in Chinatown Wars; to the point that it gets its own side-game. Dealing drugs is far and away the swiftest way of becoming wealthy in Liberty City, and, brilliantly, you are able to buy and sell them at your leisure after you are introduced to the concept during the game’s early stages. With the subtle complexity of rations, cravings, and tip offs, it’s surprisingly deep and addicting.
Of course, half the fun of GTA has always been the ability to roam freely around the city causing untold mayhem, and Chinatown Wars is brimming with extra content. Along with standard missions, there are a host of additional activities, such as vigilante missions, taxi driving, noodle delivery, rampages, and security cameras to take down, which act as Chinatown’s take on hidden packages. As ever, this can cause a stir with the law, and Chinatown Wars adds a refreshing dimension to the wanted level system. Before, escaping the clutches of police was a matter of outrunning them and hiding for dear life. Now, your wanted level can be shaved by systematically ramming pursuers into submission, which makes more sense.
Porting Chinatown Wars could have been a risky endeavour, but this PSP rendition manages to retain the charm and finesse of the original in spades. A few more PSP perks would have benefited this port, but those who missed out on its DS debut no longer have an excuse – add in a slew of multiplayer modes that make full use of Rockstar’s online Social Club, and you have a full GTA experience which surpasses its portable predecessors.
Liberty City is brought to life, with the PSP's prowess delivering enhanced isometric graphics that are highly stylised although characters appear pixelated up close.
|How does our scoring system work?|
The sandbox gameplay we all know and love is here fully intact for the portable platform and the new drug dealing dynamic creates a promising new twist.
The city ambience is captured perfectly, but the lack of voiceovers are questionable and more apparent on the PSP. It's the radio stations that really disappoint however, as they are all entirely instrumental and therefore lacking in both vocals and Rockstar's trademark radio chatter and commercials.
An extensive range of missions amount to around 10 hours of gameplay, but, as ever, there is plenty to see and do in Liberty City.
Once again, GTA proves that it is not affected by small stature - Chinatown Wars is the definitive handheld GTA experience that is further enhanced by the PSP's vastly superior presentation.