This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.
After the world-shattering television executive-frightening success of GTA IV it seems you can bring out GTA-brand easy bake ovens and still get your investment back, but still, a GTA exclusive to the DS? Fevered frogspawn-chewing madness. That would be like releasing a Dead Space rail shooter on the Wii.
In all seriousness we'll probably going to be seeing a lot of this sort of thing. With the monkey of economic crisis still clinging to everyone's backs cheekily eating all the bananas it's more bankable for studios to make games for more widespread systems. They practically give away DSes with the Sunday paper and I'm pretty sure there are more homes with Wiis than with central heating, so here we are. Perhaps this period in gaming will at last make the Wii actually worth two shits. I doubt it, though - you can shovel diamonds into a turd and it'll still be a turd, just momentously more painful to produce.
The DS, meanwhile, is not a turd, and good thing too with all those sharp corners, it's just that it kind of does its own thing. It does it well, but GTA is from a different world. Chinatown Wars is therefore the bastard offspring of two forbidden lovers from two warring families tragically shot dead while trying to elope by a hired gun, played in this drama by myself. Too late, sadly, to prevent the child being born and coming out a little bit malformed.
Chinatown Wars returns us to the liberty city of GTA IV (albeit missing Alderney, but it took too long to open up Alderney, so no one cares) and today's career sociopath with astonishingly good lawyers is Huang, a spoiled rich Triad kid with a dead dad, arriving in Liberty City to get embroiled in the family business.
With a top-down presentation similar to the original 2D GTAs, Chinatown is a nostalgic callback to when the series was simplier, cartoonier, and not as good. Yes, GTA only became a truly terrifying money spinner once it went 3D, because top-down 2D is full of inherent problems. You can only see about 20 feet in front of you - also known as "Metal Gear Solid henchman syndrome" - and there are a lot of things beyond that twenty feet border you need to worry about. Virtually every time I jacked a car I'd get an instant wanted level, because I couldn't see a cop directly behind me helping an old lady across the road. And then there are the toll gates, back from GTA IV just in case they didn't completely get on your tits the first time around. And they're almost invariably at the end of long high-speed straights, so I lost count of how many times I accidentally sped right through and earned myself another big fat wanted star. The limited visibility is also not helped by a camera that appears to be mounted on the head of a drunk obese man on a Segway, lurching sickeningly about when you're trying to make the godawful targeting system lock onto an enemy and not, say, an unarmed man on the other side of a wall, on the Hebrides.
You my be unsurprised to hear than that the game is frustratingly difficult, in which case prepare to be surprised because it isn't. I breezed through all the missions on a rocket surfboard and rarely had to attempt any more than once. The simple reason for this is that all this professional game-reviewing has finally paid off and I'm just naturally good at everything now, but the less vacuous reason is that the enemy AI is crap. Everyone with a gun seems to be afraid that using it will offend the neighbors. When the police are after you, there's a mechanic wherein you can shake them off by getting them to smash into things, and really all you have to do is drive along a straight road very fast and they do the work for you! It's like they've got brick wall-magnets mounted to the bumpers. Alternatively, just use a respray shop, of course. They won't do the job if there are cops around, so the technique I discovered was to park around the corner, wait for every cop car in the area to huddle around the nearest lamppost then cheekily floor it for the garage doors while they're busy disentangling their necks from their steering columns.
One of the unique selling points is the drug-dealing system. And really, pick any commodity-trading element from any game and replace the names with more censor-provoking ones and away we go - find who sells cheap, buy it all up, and flog it to whoever buys dear. 30 GOTO 10. And you're gonna have to do this whenever you can, because doing the actual missions pays slightly less than vending cardboard boxes to the homeless. And you'll need all the money you can get for when the cops catch you on a dozy morning and take all your favorite weapons away. Fortunately, the drug trade has its own underground stock market that tickers hot investments tips directly to your PDA, so making thousands upon thousands in a single deal is incredibly easy. A more patient player than I could probably spend an hour or two trading around and end up with enough money to buy all the safe houses in the game and invite all the gangs to a great big pool party.
It seems that the weird thing about Chinatown Wars so far is that all its faults are balanced by its other faults: stupid enemies compensate for shitty controls, the easiness of trading compensates for its banality. All the foulness mixes together to create something halfway decent in the middle. It's almost prodigious in its retarded genius. The writing's not as stellar as GTA usually is - characters feel interchangeable and arbitrarily drop self-consciousness and references to sexual perversion into the dialogue for no better reason than trying too hard. But from what I've gathered I'm the only person who gives a shit.
I think my biggest problem is the whole DS thing. It seems when you agree to develop for the DS or Wii, Nintendo makes you sign a contract agreeing to throw in at least one irritating out-of-place touch screen gimmick or Wiimote waggle. So, being a good little whore, Chinatown Wars breaks things up frequently with an occasional bit of touch-screen flappery, like hotwiring cars or throwing Molotovs. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but since the movement controls use the buttons you have to either be constantly fumbling for the stylus or just use your thumb and leave Cheeto dust all over the screen. The DS works when you exclusively use either control system but switching between them at a moment's notice isn't good for my poor arthritic controller-ruined fingers.
Just because you can have something doesn't mean you should: I can use a syringe to remove the filling from a Cadbury's Creme Egg and replace it with Branston Pickle, but it wouldn't be a good idea. At least I don't think so. Hold that thought.
No, it really isn't.
- Menace 2 society: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I like how the only female character exists only for the box art's sake because they kill her off two missions in
- Remake GTA London 1969 in full 3D and I will admit that there is still goodness in this world
- The Zero Punctuation episode of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was never officially released by The Escapist on YouTube in a standalone format. Thanks to the community request, it was finally released on July 24, 2021 after over 12 years.