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Platform

Playstation Portable

 

Genre

Action Adventure

 

Publisher

Rockstar

 

Developer

Rockstar North

 

ESRB

M (Mature)

 

Released

October 20, 2009

 

 

- New, streamlined innovations

- Smart, often self-aware writing

- Plentiful missions, expansive city

 

 

- Empty, lifeless streets

- Aerial camera often obscures and confuses

- Lack of voice acting

 

 

Review: Star Ocean: First Departure (PSP)

Review: Gun: Showdown (PSP)

Review: Valhalla Knights 2 (PSP)

Review: Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned (360)

 

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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Score: 6.0 / 10

 

chinatown wars          chinatown wars

 

You can’t blame Rockstar for churning out its bread and butter series to every viable platform out there. Despite reaching worldwide acclaim (and sales) in its console iterations, Grand Theft Auto has seen its share of portable spinoffs, including several overpriced phones. This year, Rockstar North has taken the task of delivering the same car-jacking, hooker-stomping experience to the Nintendo DS, under the spinoff title Chinatown Wars. Despite critical acclaim, the game sold below expectations, adding to the common belief that Nintendo’s audience carries little interest to mature-rated titles. But one quick port later, Rockstar has given the

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game a second chance on the Playstation Portable. Despite the move to a more “hardcore” audience, along with a few nips and tucks, will the pint-sized mafia simulator be met with a warmer welcome on the PSP?

 

Taking place once again in the fictional Liberty City, Chinatown Wars focuses on the Triad gang, with main protagonist Huang Lee

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arriving to the city to deliver a sacred family sword (or at least it was deemed sacred from the moment his father won the sword during a poker event) to his uncle, who has taken over the family business. Before he can even recover from jet lag, Huang and his bodyguards are assaulted by a rival gang, being shot and left for dead while the sword is stolen. More concerned that his honor has been tarnished by the sword’s theft than the bullet hole on his nephew’s skull, Uncle Kenny sends Huang on a series of dealings to help restore his tarnished honor and maintain his sabotaged position. Along the way, Huang will establish new contacts, each with their own aspirations about ruling Liberty City’s criminal underworld while taking out their competitors. In typical GTA tradition, shootouts occur, property damage hits the millions, civilians are run over, and parents remain outraged.

 

What’s different this time out are the visuals; in a style reminiscent of the original, pre-Playstation 2 titles, Chinatown Wars features a top-down, helicopter view of the city and characters, although the camera is now slightly angled and allows for different, rotatable views. For the PSP version, the game has been expanded to take advantage of the system’s widescreen view, along with slightly sharper textures. Characters and vehicles are rendered with a cel-shaded, comic-style look while displaying a basic set of animations, from hopping over fences to delivering a martial arts combo. It’s an aesthetic downgrade to the 3D visuals of previous GTA titles, and in all honesty, the game suffers as a result. One of the major factors of a GTA game is the immersive visuals, which intricately recreate a bustling virtual city that closely resembles the real life landmarks that served as inspiration. In Chinatown Wars, the streets are virtually deserted, and the people you do run across all resemble one another to the point that you couldn’t discern from a random passerby to a gun-toting yakuza.

 

chinatown wars          chinatown wars

 

Another major downgrade is the audio portion; the professional and often hilarious voice acting that the series is known for is nonexistent in this portable spin-off. Dialogue between characters is regulated to text-driven cutscenes. While the writing itself is as sharp as ever, going the extra mile to convey the ineptitude of the Chinese crime lords along with Huang’s sarcastic observations, there’s no denying that the script would have benefited greatly from a strong vocal cast. While the random passersby throughout the city do chime in with the occasional spoken one-liners, the city as a whole is eerily quieter than in past iterations. The radio stations are also reduced to instrumental trance and techno-style music, which is serviceable, but also feels like a glorified mp3 player, especially with the lack of radio DJ’s and snarky talk show hosts.

 

If you can look past the downgraded visuals and audio, you’ll be happy to know that the series’ trademark gameplay has been kept mostly intact, with a few new gameplay innovations. Stealing cars and shooting down gangsters (or bystanders) works like it always has, while recent GTA IV innovations such as a GPS marker help navigate the massive city a breeze. A new tactic to avoid police chases has been included, where police cars that crash while chasing you will gradually lower the wanted rating, offering a better chance at escape rather than deal with endlessly spawning cops until you escape the “wanted cone” of the map. This not only makes police chases less frustrating, but also more fun due to a reward system based on how you succeed in crashing police cars. Another streamlined addition is the ability to check e-mail at any time through your cell phone, as well as being able to place online orders that are delivered to your hideout, such as purchasable guns from Ammunation. The downside to this is that you have to open and close your phone’s browser to receive sequential messages (such as when your order has shipped), which can prove irritating while in the middle of a shootout.

 

But the biggest innovation to Chinatown Wars is the one that must be mastered to rake in the big bucks: drug trading. Ever eager to ramp up the controversy, Rockstar has now included the buying and selling of narcotics as a viable gameplay tactic, despite previous protagonists (including San Andreas lead CJ) condoning the act (albeit ironically). Various street pushers offer certain stacks for sale, which can then be sold off once the market demand for that specific product rises. Using your cellphone, players can be kept up to date on the fluctuating drug market, hanging onto their goods until the demand has risen to a profitable sell-back. It’s an interesting mechanic never before seen in the GTA series, although it’s unlikely that many of its spastic, trigger happy fans will make strategic use of it.

 

Finally, the touchscreen-specific segments from the DS version have, unsurprisingly, been altered to specific analog and button controls to accommodate the change to Sony’s one-screen system. Certain sequences, namely when jacking cars, require a first-person sequence of button mashing and analog nubbery (my word, not theirs) to complete the objective. Such examples include hot-wiring a car, or filling up empty bottles with gas to create Molotovs, or shooting out the rear window of a car to escape an underwater burial. Naturally, these sequences lose a bit of novelty with the omission of touch-screen controls, and in some cases prove more frustrating, especially when having to cycle between different tools and options.

 

Overall, Chinatown Wars is as capable on the PSP as it was on the DS, but even fans of the original top-down games concede that the series truly flourished when it made the move to 3D. With a visual downgrade and a quieter audio track, there is definitely something lost in the translation, and with Liberty City and Vice City Stories performing much more adequately, this PSP port may not have enough weight to keep it from drowning in obscurity.

 

- Jorge Fernandez

(December 8, 2009)

 

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