Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Hands-On
The most detailed hands-on playtest of the hottest DS game this year, complete with HUD diagrams and new screens.
About the only exciting thing to be announced at Nintendo's E3 briefing last year was the DS exclusive Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. In the ever-expanding ocean of software made for non-gamers, the mention of one of gaming's most revered brands stood out as one of the highlight announcements of the whole show, in fact.
Now, the game is basically finished and gearing up for its release in March. We recently went back to Rockstar for an in-depth hands-on playtest with the game, including levels and features that none of the previous magazine articles have been able to check out yet. As you might expect, we've piled on the detail, ensuring there's really no stone unturned and providing HUD diagrams and stuff that the other regular game sites really wouldn't dream of doing the overtime for.
With no sign of the long-rumoured San Andreas Stories in sight, all eyes return to the East Coast; although Chinatown Wars takes place in the same modern-era Liberty City we've journeyed through in Grand Theft Auto IV (in terms of islands, the map is the same as in GTA IV, with the omission of Alderney - and it's all open from the beginning), the first thing to note is that Chinatown Wars is a completely distinct adventure, written by Dan Houser and Rockstar Leeds creative director David Bland, with no crossover to the storyline of the Bellic contingent (we definitely won't "run into Niko", we're told in no uncertain terms).
After all, in Liberty City, there are many people struggling with their own issues and storylines. Chinatown Wars presents a more over-the-top, intentionally funny city with a more colourful palette, telling a story that doesn't intend to be as serious or as deep as Niko's, but set in a world that's still positively GTA.
Rockstar Leeds is pretty much the handheld specialist of the Rockstar group - it handled the PSP GTA games, and now it's pulled out all the stops for this DS debut. Twice as many people have worked on Chinatown Wars as on the previous PSP titles, and there's been plenty of input from Rockstar North and New York. Rockstar says it's one of the biggest DS games ever made, with more "lines of code" - some 800,000, apparently - than even San Andreas on the PS2. So even though the number of visual and (more noticeably) audio assets squeezed onto the DS game card can't compete with more grown-up storage media, the scale and complexity of the title is pretty much in the same league - and it shows.
And that's not to say that it's visually a poorer cousin. In fact, there's little you can point out with Chinatown Wars in the way of technical sacrifice, and quite honestly we think about it as a console game rather than some handheld side project.
So who's causing trouble in Liberty City this time around? Huang Lee, a member of the Triads, is flying in with a ceremonial sword - the Yu Jian - from his recently assassinated father; his intention is to deliver it to his Uncle 'Wu' Kenny Lee, who has Triad leadership in his sights - and perhaps find out who was behind his father's assassination.
So far, so cliché. But this is GTA we're talking about: Huang may be silently portrayed, but as a character he may well rival Niko and Roman. Respect and tolerance aren't high on Huang's agenda. He's sassy and impatient; this 'sacred sword' is more a "stupid thing to deliver," he comments in the game's intro sequence. While his father would have liked to be remembered by him as honourable, the truth is that he was a drug dealing, drug taking, womanising gambler - and the sword was not passed down through the generations, but won in some random poker tournament.
Nonetheless, the sword is still highly regarded among the Triads. So much so that, with hopes to inherit the leadership position of ageing Triad boss Hsin Jaoming, Uncle Wu has already promised it to him, before Huang even arrives. Perfect set up for Huang to get ambushed upon his arrival at the airport? You bet. Uncle Wu isn't the only guy wanting to lead the Triad groups, and the sword is stolen.
Story and presentation is one of the staples of any GTA experience, and in Chinatown Wars they've made good use of the DS's two screens. Whether it's the opening sequence leading up to the 'Rockstar Games Presents' opener, or cut scenes within the game, what Chinatown Wars lacks in audio dialogue (a capacity consideration, sadly, and really the only production sacrifice) it certainly makes up for in style and finesse. They've gone for a comic book type presentation, so in the opening sequence for example, the top screen shows a panned out view of Huang's flight and later his car journey, while the bottom screen shows a more intimate close up of the characters' thoughts and dialogue in text format. The arrangement works particularly well in action sequences as well, with explosions providing some real oomph for example as you can see it from different perspectives at the same time.
Things only get better once we're in the game proper, and there's no denying the developers have put some real thought into how best to use the dual screen format. The top screen is where all the action happens in 3D, with the bottom screen reserved for the lion's share of HUD elements as well as certain touch-related actions like selecting weapons, and precisely lobbing projectiles such as Molotovs and grenades in the direction you want using the stylus. This frees up a lot of space on the top screen for the 3D action, with only your wanted level displayed in the top right and street names in the bottom right. All of these appear to be the default settings, but it's important to note that you can tweak where and how HUD elements are displayed on either screen in quite some detail, so if you prefer your map in the bottom left of the action screen (in the vein of GTA IV), no problem. You can also toggle LOADS other things like having your GPS marked out on the actual road, or just on the map.
As for the 3D perspective in general, we're sold. It's difficult to get a sense of how well the game works and moves without seeing it in motion, and you can forget any worries about a return to the more low-fidelity world of pure-top down era GTA; there are no tricks here - this is full 3D - and the perspective of the action, while generally from above, is actually very flexible, and supports lots of really nice detail. The perspectives you'll get used to are simply a fitting gameplay consideration.
For the driving and racing segments it works just fine, with enough line of sight afforded to be playable (if you ever played any classic arcade racing games like Virtua Racing, think about the third or fourth views you could select, where the perspective was nice and broad), and if you want to dapper things up you can also select a GTA IV-style cinematic cam. Whether on foot or in vehicle, the camera seems intelligent and gameplay feels natural, and in fact the 3D view often zooms in closer to the action, for example when scouring 'red trash cans' for goodies (an important part of the gameplay, we'll later find).
There are other examples of thoughtful design, for example when the action disappears under a bridge the game produces an arrow to show you what's going on, or the way that you can manage weapons out of game in order to swap to a better gun without risking being killed in the process, or another neat touch is that you can deliberately 'burn out' when driving to produce fire from the back wheels - which can even be used as a weapon of sorts, as you set people on fire with it. Ace! Our favourite polishing touch though is whenever you open up the DS from standby, an amusing quip is yelled, such as "you wanna piece of my pie?!" Don't mind if I do.
As is the case with particular DS software that's had genuine time and effort go into it, the screenshots don't do justice to Chinatown Wars. Seeing the game moving and taking the time to play it, it quickly becomes obvious how much painstaking detail has gone into the production of the game, and how the world in motion lives up to the expectations you'd have from the company that brought you GTA IV.
The engine overall is really quite impressive and solid for the DS hardware. The frame rate is decent, there's no jerkiness or pre-rendered malarkey, and there's a definite feeling of real-world goings-on with pedestrians getting into audible dialogue with each other, getting into trouble with the law, scrambling for cover when it starts raining, being helped by paramedics when they're injured - it's like the AI simulated realism that we felt in GTA IV, and which is really quite unexpected for this edition of the game. It's obvious that Rockstar really wanted to transfer over as much of Liberty City's personality and depth as possible from IV to Chinatown Wars, and we're certain that fans will like the results.
You won't get a sense of the Liberty City detail from the screenshots. In Chinatown Wars, there isn't the sense of verticality on an interactive level as there was in IV, but due to the high perspective, there's still plenty of visual detail - rooftops, detailed skyscrapers and bridges, trains rattling past right in front of your eyes, trees that are really detailed and not fake 2D sprites, telephone cables, street lights, busy and happening streets, all the recognisable joints and brands from IV, and best of all, gorgeous real time lighting and shadows in a full 24 hour day and night system. Even the pedestrians have shadows, and at night the hazy city is phased into cooler blue tones. On top of that there's a full weather system including light rain, heavy rain and thunder storms, and throughout the game you'll notice a variety of 'particle effects' like sewage steam, explosion fire and fog, all with a cute sort of cell shaded look. It looks impressive, for sure.
In terms of controls, things have been kept very similar to the console layout, so if you want to jack a car, it's the Y button. Handbrake is the R trigger. Anyone who's played IV will have no problem getting to grips with the controls in Chinatown Wars, although the 'new thing' is that holding down B is basically 'go forwards' - whether on foot or driving. The best addition to the controls is the left trigger, which resets your view to behind, or better yet, if you keep it held down the camera locks into position to follow the character, which might feel more fluid. Basically there's some choice on offer, but you'll soon find your preference. Control and manoeuvrability of Huang in general is impressive, and in no time you'll be vaulting over walls and using smart positioning to take out the enemies. In terms of shooting it's auto lock-on, but if you want to specifically target anyone you just hit the left trigger.
Driving through traffic is usually a case of sticking in the middle of the road to avoid the traffic, and once again, the variety of cars and bikes on offer will result in more than one type of driving experience. Rockstar has also compensated for the non-analogue nature of driving with the D-pad with what it calls a subtle 'driving assist' mechanic, to help you 'auto-align' - although if you don't like it, it's also an option that can be turned off. In terms of using the DS's other features, you can whistle into the mic to hail a cab. Or you can, er, press a button instead. Rockstar told us there aren't any features that take advantage of the upcoming DSi features, like the camera functionality.
So the ambushers who shafted Huang at the start have him in the back of a car, and presuming he's already dead, dump the car in the river to get rid of the 'evidence'. The game begins right there and then, with a mini-game that will ensue any time your car ends up in the water - you have to smash the windows accordingly to get out before drowning. We stop off at the Sum Yung Gai restaurant, owned by Uncle Wu, to give the bad news about the stolen sword - something that'll affect his reputation not only with Hsin Jaoming but also the Triad gangs throughout the city.
The game's actually crammed full of side activities, including the return of favourites like the stunt jump, but moreover there's really a load of other DS style mini-games besides that watery car escape. There are brief, time-sensitive mini-games each time you want to steal a car, varying in difficulty depending on the class of vehicle you want to steal - for the more low-end vehicle, a screwdriver based mini-game will hastily do the job, other times for example you'll need to unscrew individual screws to hotwire. Another mini-game is when you're at the gas station - after you've chosen how much gas you want to buy, you actually make as many Molotov cocktails as you can by keeping the petrol flowing smoothly into the bottles without spilling too much. One of our favourite mini-games is when you assemble the parts of a more hefty piece of weaponry, with the parts satisfyingly 'clicking' into place ready for a sniping session.
Huang's PDA, accessed by pressing Select, is another important companion in the game, similar to the cellphone in IV. The PDA provider is Panoramic, whose logo is a parody of Panasonic's, and the device features a range of options: System (which gives access to your basic options and controls - and some not so basic, since there's actually a lot of depth of customising HUD elements and stuff), Email, Mission Briefs, Statistics and Social Club, Contacts (which get added as you progress and meet new people), Multiplayer (via LAN or Wi-Fi, which we'll learn more about soon), Music Player (called Alchemist), and Trade Info (more on that later). The PDA also gives access to Ammu-nation's new online business - these guys were nowhere to be seen on the streets of Liberty City in IV, but Huang can now log onto their site and order his killing tools from the comfort of his underwear and benefit from fast delivery.
Pressing Start bring up your GPS, onto which you can set any waypoint just by tapping on the map, or browse locations of interest as you unlock them and add them to your favourites. The map is not road-for-road the same as in GTA IV; it's been tweaked slightly and the highways have been taken out for gameplay and camera angle considerations, but if you played through GTA IV, you'll notice all the familiar roads and places - the airport, Star Junction, Happiness Island, the works. The reason Alderney's disappeared, Rockstar claims, is that it was mainly an Italian-focused place in GTA IV which doesn't play into Chinatown Wars' story so much. And by not including it, it frees up capacity and detail for the rest of the game. We don't think anyone's going to mind too much that Alderney's not there, to be honest.
As well as a garage where you can keep cars, you've also got your own Apartment, which as well as saving your game using the, er, sofa (which you can also do at any other time using the PDA), you've got a desk with your laptop, and things will appear on the apartment's shelves and desk as you unlock them, including your stash box where you keep supplies of drugs among other things.
The laptop in your apartment is manufactured by 'Fruit', whose logo is a parody of Apple's. It gives the option to sync stats, friend codes and so forth, it's hooked up to the ever-expanding Rockstar Games Social Club, and it also gives email access - although at the start of the game all you've got is one welcoming email from your ISP, the Badger Network. You can also expect to receive spam emails once again. Elsewhere in the apartment you'll find a white board, with a number of Polaroid images on it, each one representing different people and different missions you can undertake - as well as all the missions you've already done, since for the first time, you now have the ability to replay completed missions at your own leisure. That's a feature missing in GTA IV, and a further example of how Leeds has really thought to include stuff that fans want. Perhaps more importantly, you can also shuffle around the magnetic letters on the board as you would on your fridge, to spell out rude words. Incidentally, Rockstar told us that other 'in-door' areas like your apartment will also be portrayed in this illustrative 2D way.
We also checked out Chinatown Wars' police system. Rockstar wanted to return to the fast-paced, over the top police chases of GTA1 and GTA2, and we found the police to be a little bit more persistent than in GTA IV. For every level of star you have, you get a corresponding police car symbol underneath it. To get rid of them, you need to shake them off and disable the pursuing cars by ramming them - they're bad drivers, so they'll take corners badly and hurtle off at high speed if you're successful. Pay and spray is also back in the game, and you can try staying out of the police's line of site by hiding down an alley. As long as the police don't see you, your stars will go down. When the stars are flashing red and blue they know where you are, and when it's blue, you're nearly off the hook. It's generally fun, although we're going to be interested to see how well the police system maintains itself throughout long-term play sessions. Certainly, you're more likely to get arrested in Chinatown Wars than in GTA IV, where arrests were actually quite rare compared to deaths.
We checked out six missions during our two-and-a-half hour visit - the first two Rockstar demoed for us, and then four missions we got to play ourselves. The first mission, named Street of Rage, is a basic driving and shooting mission sees Huang hook up with Wade Heston, a cop who's got the internal affairs department on his back, but who Huang develops a mutually co-operative relationship with. Our demoer actually fluffed this mission fairly early on - a handy opportunity to show off not only the mission retry feature (similar to that of IV), but also Trip Skip, a nifty feature that IV could have benefitted from, allowing you to skip an initial long drive at the start of a mission to the end of that journey, and jump straight back into the action. Bravo, Leeds. The mission finishes with a sort of mini-boss, but a few grenades later and he's a goner, leaving behind him a sweet chain gun weapon for the taking.
The second mission we were shown is called Tricks of the Triad, another early mission, which introduces us to the new 'red stash box' in our apartment, in which Uncle Wu has left us heroin, coke, marijuana, ecstasy and other assorted refreshments for any good night out. But Huang's going to be selling them, not partying on them. Huang takes the drugs to a dealer, and although the margins are rubbish at this stage, it does introduce the drug dealing aspect of the gameplay. Security cameras are dotted throughout the game, and are comparable to the pigeons in GTA IV. But they're not just there to be found and shot; areas with more cameras warrant a premium on drugs prices, so there's a nice strategy element built into the drug dealing element if you want to earn more and manage the risk. There are all manner of gangs in the game, all caught up in the trade - Triads, Jamaicans, Spanish Lords, Midtown Gangsters, Mob, Irish American Killers, Angels of Death, Russian Mafia and African American. The drugs thing in Chinatown Wars, represented by a 'Turf Map', is actually surprisingly in-depth, keeping you thinking about potential profit. On completion of this particular drug deal (and we end up as a buyer rather than a seller towards the end of the mission), our dealer says: "Good choice, my man. That shit will fuck you up." Poetry.
In terms of the missions we played through, we've already kind of scattered our actual gameplay impressions throughout this preview, but for the sake of completion the missions were as follows: Store Wars, a mission for Uncle Wu where you have to stop other thugs from trashing the property he's tasked with looking after, Friend or Foe is the next mission where we need to prove we're not a rat by raiding a rival Korean Mob's safe for information on gang informants, to prove our name isn't on the list. One Shot, One Kill is a rather satisfying sniper mission to take out the 'actual' rat, who's incidentally responsible for the arrest of the Triad leader's son (and possible heir to Triad leadership), Chan Jaoming. Finally, Slaying With Fire is a more epic, multi-phase undertaking later in the game for Chan himself, that involves hurling explosives out of helicopters and an awesome chopper gunfight buzzing around the Statue of Happiness. Who's still smiling.
Elsewhere on the audio side of things, the music sounds pretty beefy, and is a nice combination of traditional eastern and modern western. In-game of course, you've got a choice of various radio stations. The radio music is all original, instrumental arrangement that makes good use of the limited game card capacity and does a good job of representing each of the music genres on offer, including electronic, hip-hop, dub, jazz, funk and rock.
There's also no messing about with relationships and romance in Chinatown Wars, so that's one less thing to worry about. And in terms of the size of the game, Rockstar is estimating "between 20 and 30 hours for the single player game" depending on the player's approach and skill level. Rockstar couldn't say at the time of the preview how many individual missions are in the final game. They also say that it's going to be the first [BBFC] 18-rated game for the DS, which means nothing had to be censored.
Who assassinated Huang's father? Who stole the Yu Jian sword? Who ambushed Huang at Francis International? How much more help will Uncle Wu need, and who'll inherit the Triad leadership once Jaoming's out the door? And exactly whose pie are we being offered a piece of?
If one of the main aims here was to combine the best elements of various GTA titles, then based on our first in-depth hands-on, Chinatown Wars may just pull it off.
Sounds good!!!! Do want! NOW!!!
Face the future.. Gamecenter ID: nikkom_nl (oh no he didn't!!)