The current formula used by Rockstar in their Grand Theft Auto franchise has been a staple of the industry for nearly a decade. Ever since Grand Theft Auto III exploded onto the PS2 in October of 2001, the sandbox genre has never been the same.
Offering an incredible amount of freedom (and controversial content) for the time, Grand Theft Auto III represented a huge departure from the first two titles in the series. The games that followed built on this foundation, culminating in the critically and commercially acclaimed Grand Theft Auto IV, and its downloadable episodes.
With IV, Rockstar placed a heavier focus on characters and story than ever before, resulting in Niko Bellic, the first character to really elicit emotional reactions and connections from players. The franchise had really evolved from its early top-down days.
Now, imagine what would happen if you combined the best aspects from each different phase that the series has gone through into one game. The resulting hybrid would be very similar to Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.
Sporting the great characters, story, and freedom of IV, the portability of the Liberty City and Vice City Stories PSP games, and the top-down perspective of the originals, Chinatown Wars melds them all into a single entity.
I won’t simply regurgitate the two excellent reviews from my colleagues Christopher Matulich and Martin Bigg. Both of those run-downs cover plenty of ground, and explain all the nuances that make this such a fun game. Instead, I want to tell you how it plays on the iPhone.
Before I really get into the analysis, let me make one thing clear. I’ve never cared about any GTA protagonist, nor have I ever cared about the story. For any of them. However, Chinatown Wars inspired a change in me. I actually found myself much more interested in Huang Lee and his story than I did mindlessly running around slaughtering the masses.
The writing is often times hilarious, the main character relatable, and the groups involved FAR more interesting than ever before (come on, Triads are always better than the mafia). So, long story short, this was the first ever GTA that I found myself actually wanting to complete story missions at all, let alone do it consistently.
Now, on to the technical aspects of the game. I cannot begin to describe just how impressed I am with the tech behind this game. I will try though, if only for the sake of tradition (simply writing “Godly” probably wouldn’t go over well). GTA: CW for the iPhone finds its place comfortably between the DS and PSP versions, looking slightly better than Nintendo’s outing, but not quite as polished as it does on Sony’s portable platform.
Think about that for a second. A game on a mobile phone looks better than when it was published on the Nintendo DS. That’s pretty incredible. The stylized nature of the game remains wonderfully intact, and because of the top-down perspective, you never really notice any graphical deficiencies.
The stylish hub makes the transition intact as well, with some obvious changes made for the new platform. Luckily, the onscreen joystick and action buttons never really obscure anything important, and unless you have some Megan Fox sized toe-thumbs, it stays that way, no matter what you do.
Meanwhile, the menu systems are all a bit hit-or-miss. The buttons used when accessing your email or GPS are so small, you’ll find yourself tapping the screen repeatedly before you actually hit them.
This trouble with sensitivity carries over to some combat scenarios. For instance, when the game wants you to lob a molotov cocktail or grenade, you must drag your finger over your character, then slide it along the screen until you reach the target you want to hit.
This is one of the few times that your finger will blatantly effect your view, and I died many times from being shot while trying to get the throw distance sorted out. It also doesn’t help that most of the time, when trying to change the direction of your throw, the arc moves at a snails pace. I almost never used grenades or molotovs if I could help it.
Sadly, this trend also branches out to include driving as well. While I wasn’t expecting controls akin to the likes of Forza or Gran Turismo, it would be nice if driving were at least bearable. It’s not, in any way, shape or form. There is literally no point in this game where you feel like driving is any more than a nuisance. Often, it’s much worse than that.
You must hold down the accelerate or brake buttons, while maneuvering is dictated to two arrows on the left hand side of the screen. Doesn’t exactly sound like pinpoint control, right? Well, it gets worse. If you want to move faster than a crawl, you’ll be looking for the handful of sports cars found on the streets of Liberty City. However, considering that controlling one is tougher than keeping James away from alcohol, you’re probably better off with the 5 mph tow-truck.
When it comes down to it, there’s a lot more good to be found in Chinatown Wars for the iPhone than there is bad. A pretty expansive game, solid story, great graphical style and tons of humor make up for the touchy controls, questionable mission design and absolutely awful driving.
Combine that with the fact that, as of the most recent update, the game supported playlist integration (meaning you can listen to your own music while driving), and you have an extremely solid experience. However, some might have trouble justifying that $9.99 price tag.
It definitely offers significantly more fun than most other non-PopCap games you’ll find on the iPhone. I would recommend this to anyone who’s ever been a fan of past GTA releases, and is willing to tackle the controls for a bit of classic entertainment.
Gamer Limit gives Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the iPhone a 7.5/10