April 2, 2008

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GTA Chinatown Wars, DS
Rockstar North/Rockstar Leeds, March 20, M

A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, but mostly drug-running, city-spanning mayhem that fits in your pocket.

Grand Theft Auto IV’s (360/PS3/PC, Rockstar) Liberty City gets pared down a skosh (from three islands to two) for the DS action of Chinatown Wars. While gamers will certainly feel pangs of recognition as they guide Huang Lee through the parks and slums of Broker, Dukes and Bohan, Chinatown owes more to its distant ancestors than its next-gen sibling. Urban gang mayhem fans who were giddy with GTA before it jumped to 3-D will be right at home. The aerial view of the original games returns and fits the DS well.

Like prior GTA games, Chinatown Wars is an increasingly difficult series of step and fetchit quests broken up by bullet-ridden carnage and the too frequently frustrating car chases. Free-roaming sandbox play comes in the form of a Drugwars (DOS, John Dell)-style business, hidden security camera sniping, rampages a la GTA3 and general city-wandering shenanigans. Mercifully subdued are the ham-fisted puns and innuendo as only a bare minimum of voice acting appears. What we lose in junior-high-school penis-humor we gain in the way of the old DS staple non-sequitur mini-games. Wanna jack that parked car? Well get ready to twiddle out some screws and twist the green and yellow wires together on the touch screen. Le sigh. It’s cute, but frankly I’d rather drive off with the alarm blaring and shake my wanted level by bumping cop cars into oncoming traffic (which, while more arcadely satisfying, seems like it wouldn’t make the fuzz less likely to pursue you).

Chinatown’s gangland honor arc, while not exactly stereotyope-breaking in its plot and characterization, deserves a nod for not cement-shoeing the fun as most game stories do. Thankfully, the DS GTA focuses more on the blitz of urban chaos and high speeds that meet hard walls. This is a game of immense polish and vast scope that performs admirably at everything it attempts and pushes the boundaries of what one can expect out of a portable title. The energy of GTA’s roots and the embroidery of its recent forays come together in this suprisingly expansive cart. A+Glenn Given