Back in 1997 when the first Grand Theft Auto hit the PC, I doubt anyone at Rockstar (known as DMA Design at the time) expected it to spawn a series that would span ten different games and four expansions over the next thirteen years. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars [App Store] for the iPhone is an excellent adaptation of a game previously only available on the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP. These prior versions of the game were met with universal acclaim, and according to Metacritic.com Chinatown Wars for the DS holds the title of the highest rated game available for the platform. On the PSP, Chinatown Wars is a close second, beaten only by God of War: Chains of Olympus by a single point.
The recently released iPhone Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars seems to be a hybrid of both the DS and PSP versions, with graphical quality that lies somewhere in between the two games, tutorial elements that reference PSP buttons, as well as some of the cell shaded graphics and all the stylus mini games from the DS. The main difference is how the controls have been adapted to the on-screen virtual joystick and buttons of the iPhone. Like other games that use a similar control scheme, there is always an inherent lack of precision without physical buttons that take a little getting used to, but this didn’t hamper my enjoyment of Chinatown Wars in the least bit.
While on foot, a virtual joystick controls character movement, with a button for using whatever weapon you have selected (or your fists) as well as buttons to kick and leap over short fences. When you approach a car, a button appears on the bottom of the screen that you can touch to get in. If you’re stealing a parked car, this will often trigger a timed touchscreen mini game where you need to turn a screwdriver in the ignition, twist some wires together, or even insert a PDA and crack the car’s security system in order to get the car running without triggering its alarm.
These sequences are pretty neat the first few times you do them, and do an excellent job at adding suspense to police chases as you hastily hotwire a car before the cops converge on your location. Once you’re in a car, one of five in-game radio stations start playing and the on-screen controls switch to buttons for accelerating, braking, firing your gun, and by default two buttons to steer right or left. Also available is an analog stick for steering, configurable in the game’s options.
The biggest control hurdle new players will come across is learning how to cope with Chinatown Wars’ driving assist system, which will automatically keep your car going straight down a road. This can be disabled, but without it perfectly lane splitting on a motorcycle seems to be nearly impossible. I’ve found myself preferring the default steering buttons over the optional joystick because very little control is required when driving. You really only need to hold a direction to turn, or just tap a direction to make minor adjustments to your position on a road. It feels a little strange at first, but after you make it through the tutorial missions you will be flying through Liberty City without issue.
The plot of the game is classic Grand Theft Auto, with an asian spin, made obvious by the game’s title. You play as Huang Lee, the son of a recently murdered Triad boss who comes to Liberty City and unsurprisingly enough winds up knee deep in gang drama. Initially you complete tasks assigned by your Uncle, but it doesn’t take long for you to meet other contacts who also require your services. The game continues like any GTA game with missions that involve killing people, stealing cars, driving people around, and other often illegal activities.
Of course, like other games in the series, once you complete the short array of tutorial missions you can disregard the main storyline entirely and instead spend your time roaming around the city, completing the various submissions, seeing how long you can survive with a high wanted level, and dealing drugs to increase your net worth.
Chinatown Wars is packed with a surprisingly fun and full featured drug economy that is highly reminiscent of the Texas Instruments calculator game Dope Wars (Originally a DOS game released in the mid-80’s.) that I spent an embarrassing amount of my teenage life playing. As you drive around the city you will meet drug dealers, who are all selling or buying various drugs at different prices. Prices change depending on whose turf you’re in, but you have to exercise caution because if you get busted with a car load of coke, you lose it all.
Drug dealing is just one of the many other activites that exist inside the game. Of course Chinatown Wars also has the standard taxi, ambulance, firefighter, and other driving games along with tons of secret items and locations to find. There are scratch off lottery tickets you can try your luck on, and random encounters with pedestrians who will also have various things to ask of you. The amount of depth in Chinatown Wars is unbelievable.
Since the inception of the App Store, quite a few developers have tried their hand at making an open-world crime game. Without much serious competition, most of these games seemed quite good– But even the best pre-Chinatown Wars iPhone games pale in comparison to a real Rockstar Grand Theft Auto. The level of depth is completely unmatched, but most importantly, Liberty City feels alive.
Games like Gangstar are far too sterile, with spotless city streets, stereotypical characters with no personality, and very little to make the environment the game takes place in feel like anything more than a basic sandbox. The streets of Liberty City are filthy, filles with cars, pedestrians, trains, people fighting, and emergency vehicles racing through the streets responding to randomly spawned traffic accidents. The mood and lighting of the city changes with the clock in-game, and even though the story and characters you come across aren’t really anything revolutionary compared to other Grand Theft Auto games, the people you meet are usually amusing and of course the game is absolutely loaded with expletives and other racy material that the GTA clones haven’t dared come close to.
There are a few issues with Chinatown Wars, the most serious being the lack of a solid targeting system. When you hold down the attack button to shoot or punch, you simply attack whoever you’re facing. There isn’t a way to cycle through targets, and the only way to stay locked on one target is by holding the attack button which often results in quite a few wasted bullets. It seems like there is a lot of lost potential in not having a touch-based targeting mode.
Chinatown Wars also doesn’t have any kind of save state system to save your progress if you get a call or need to answer a SMS when you’re in the middle of a mission. Instead the game just quits, and the next time you launch it you’re back at your apartment. This can be annoying, but thankfully Chinatown Wars was designed to be a portable game, and as such the missions are usually never more than a few minutes long so the amount of progress you lose is fairly minimal.
One of my favorite things about Grand Theft Auto games is the soundtracks, but the radio stations in Chinatown Wars are fairly limited and it seems that all the pedestrian chatter was also cut. However, once you get sucked in to the game these problems fade away as you immerse yourself in Liberty City.
Chinatown Wars is a massive game, so much so that the few things I’ve mentioned in this review barely even scratch the surface of what there is to do and all the different features that help you to do them. An excellent in-game GPS system guides you around the city, periodic email messages tip you off to new missions and other things to do, safehouses scattered around Liberty City can be purchased once you’re wealthy enough, and there’s even multiple save slots so more than one person can play the game on a single device.
Performance on my iPhone 3GS is absolutely outstanding, and according to forum members, Chinatown Wars also runs without issue on the entire iPhone and iPod touch product line. The game is restricted and won’t install on the first generation iPod touch, but apparently with a little tinkering can be played just fine. Something worth mentioning is while the download itself is only 188MB, Chinatown Wars requires a little over 600MB free on your device to install.
There is so much to do in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars that completing the whole thing will likely necessitate a trip to GameFAQs to consult the various guides and maps to find every hidden object and complete every mission– A task that will likely take days of concurrent playtime. For $9.99 App Store gamers can get their hands on a game that sells for two to three times as much on other platforms, representing a substantial value even at a price point reserved for “premium" games on the platform.
Cammie Dunaway, Nintendo of America’s vice president of sales and marketing described Chinatown Wars’ sales on the DS as “frustrating“, and sadly the PSP version didn’t perform any better. In less than 24 hours following its release on the App Store, Chinatown Wars is already the #1 top-grossing app– Something that hopefully other giants of the gaming industry are noticing, as I doubt I’m alone in hoping even more of these “full" console games make their way to the iPhone.
If you’re at all interested in open-world crime games, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is by far the best available on the platform and simply cannot be passed up. The sheer amount of content, the amazing graphics, and gameplay that will keep you coming back for more whether you choose to follow the story or rampage through Liberty City on your own is absolutely fantastic.
Now, if you’d excuse me, I’ve got $50,000 worth of heroin to unload.
App Store Link: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, $9.99