Review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Most people will argue that the original top-down Grand Theft Auto games are nowhere near as good as the third-person versions out recently.  However, for some reason the top-down style works on the Nintendo DS installment of the series Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.

The game is played almost like an offspring of the older, top-down versions of the series, with the camera pointing down at the in-game character and the use of the DS’ face buttons and D-pad to control the character and the vehicles, and the newer versions of the series, the player has extensive use of a mini-map that comes complete with a GPS, email, and weapon-ordering system.  The story plays out like most other Grand Theft Auto games, with the player doing various missions for crime bosses all while weaving an ever increasing web of deception.  This installment of the series, as the title implies, focuses on the Chinese gangs, which no other GTA game has done before, and a power struggle for control of the gangs after the death of the main character’s father.

Just a typical day in Liberty City.  Or Detroit...
Just a typical day in Liberty City. Or Detroit...

One of the most surprising aspects to the game is how emotionally powerful the cut scenes are, even without voice acting.  Previous games in the series are well-known for how good the voice acting is, usually having Hollywood stars voice the main roles in the game, such as Ray Liotta playing the main character in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Chinatown Wars has absolutely no voice acting in it whatsoever, not even lyrics in the music played on the car radios, but the writing is so well done, one hardly notices the lack of speech.  The cut scenes, and the in-game graphics themselves, play out like a comic book, with a cartoony feel to them.  This is a stark contrast to the content in the game.  A good example of this is one mission where a contact cuts out the heart of another character.  While the player is never directly shown the cutting out of the heart, the screams of pain and the sound of flesh being cut open are clearly heard, complete with a hand holding a bleeding, human heart as the next frame of the cut scene.  The typical “mature” GTA content was not held back for this version.

The only negative aspect of the game is the lack of variety in most of the missions, but this can be said of all GTA games.  A majority of the missions have the player go from point A to point B to steal a car, kill somebody, plant some sort of explosive, or a combination of all three.  This is made a bit less annoying by the “reasons” the player is sent to perform the various tasks, all ranging from legitimate excuses to the inane, such as being forced to take out street racers because they are “cheating” by using race cars in the street races.

Overall, the game is very well done, with the cartoony graphics working for the small DS screen.  The controls are tight, and driving is made a bit easier with the inclusion of a “snap-on” feature, which straightens the vehicles to the flow of the road.  The lack of voice acting may throw one off at first, but the quality of the writing more than make up for it.  Although unable to live up to its most previous predecessor, Chinatown Wars is still an amazing game and perfect for anyone looking for a new GTA game, or those older gamers looking for an adult game for the DS.


  1. I think part of the reason it works so well here is that the camera, while top-down, rotates to help the player get the best view possible, unlike the PSOne games, which had static cameras.

    Another thing about this game is how funny it is. The game’s a departure in tone from GTA IV, but more closely resembles the goofy feel of GTA from one to Vice City. It’s a lot easier to laugh at this game than GTA IV, and that’s great.

  2. The departure from the normal goofy humor is probably why I didn’t like IV as much as the previous games. I mean, I still liked the game, but there was something about it that threw me off.

  3. This is the other side of the Madworld coin. This game has received fairly good reviews everywhere, but did poorly in sales because the target audience doesn’t own the device.

    Nintendo really needs to get serious about sinking their ‘kids-only’ image. Whilst games like MadWorld and GTA: Chinatown Wars are steps in the right direction, they are but single steps; Nintendo has a long way yet to go.

  4. Well, Nintendo hasn’t done any steps, really. GTA Chinatown Wars is from Take-Two Interactive/Rockstar Leeds, and Madworld is from Sega/Platinum Games. As I mentioned back on the DS cast, Nintendo is dreadful when it comes to supporting games for the 15+ crowd. I applaud Take Two and Sega for trying, but it shouldn’t be a third party’s job to sell someone’s console to people who actually play more than one game every three years. Compared with Microsoft’s efforts to get into younger gamers’ houses and hearts, Nintendo should either be ashamed, or just embrace the whole kids-only thing and be done with it.

  5. @MasterChief –, perhaps. I still adore games like Super Mario Galaxy which are absolutely cartoony and kid-friendly. Games like that have gameplay anybody can appreciate.
    But I generally agree with you. Nintendo should stop pretending like they still serve the hardcore.

  6. It seems to me that Nintendo doesn’t really need to shake it’s kiddie image. I’m sure all the Nintendo execs have been laughing and patting themselves on the back for the better part of 3-4 years, so why change strategies now? I mean sure they’ll get bashed in the enthusiast press, but I think they’ll somehow manage to get to live with themselves.

  7. @DarthGibblet: I agree 100%. Nintendo doesn’t give a shit about the hardcore, because sadly enough, we’re FAR outnumbered by all the suckers out there who buy their crap.

    And as someone wise once said, “a sucker is born every minute.”

  8. @Oliver: I think the real losers here are the third parties who actually put effort into their games. Unfortunately, the economy Nintendo’s set up seems to reward shovelware. So far, Mad World and GTA:CTW just prove that its’ better to put out 20 minigame collections than one legitimate game. The only company that’s been able to get around this that jumps to mind is Square Enix with all the DS remakes and ports. I hope others start to see a bit of a numbers increase, but until they do, I’ve got more than enough to play on other consoles.

  9. @Ethos – You are right. However, it seems more and more like Nintendo is disinterested in making even games like SMG anymore.

  10. @MC – *sigh*, I fear you’re right. I’m an optimist to a fault so I’m still looking to this E3 for a SMG2…but I know it’s becoming more and more rare especially as Reggie continues to call games like Mario Kart and Animal Crossing “Core” games.