Most reviews of Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS have delivered naught but praise and admiration for how closely Rockstar Games managed to stick to the formula established by the franchise's modern console offerings. And they're right-but only to a point.
Chinatown Wars does indeed retain the series' terrific writing. The game's characters are vibrant, full of clever comebacks, and easy to sympathize with despite their villainous tendencies. Plus, Rockstar managed to cram in scores of missions and side quests, resulting in a game that completionists could spend more than 20 hours playing. And, as in all GTA games, we are provided a massive, sandbox-style environment that we can freely roam in cars and on foot, causing as much or as little havoc as we like along the way.
But these aren't really the elements that have made the modern GTA games such immersive and memorable experiences-at least not for me.
In my case, GTA has become more about the wonderfully authentic worlds I explore. I loved how, in Grand Theft Auto IV, I could seamlessly walk from the city's streets into buildings and begin interacting with objects like TVs and computers. I spent time standing around listening to random pedestrian conversations on street corners, watching the beautiful sunsets that transitioned the skyline from day to night, and exploring the architectural and functional intricacies of the city's rail systems, piers, and bridges. I've spent hours just tooling around Liberty City, checking out the action on the streets and admiring the constantly changing scenery.
By contrast, Chinatown Wars' Liberty City-though certainly grand in scope for a platform as limited as the DS-feels static, lifeless, and bland. There are plenty of cars, buildings, and pedestrians, but they aren't inhabited by any sort of meaningful personality.
What's more, driving around exploring the town is more of a chore than a pleasure thanks to the game's top-down perspective, which allows players to see only about a block in front of their cars-a perfect recipe for frequent high-speed smashups.
Even the text dialogue, though expertly written, pales in comparison to the scripts of other Grand Theft Auto Games, mostly because there is no voice cast to lend it legitimacy and conviction.
In fact, all I could think about as I worked my way through the first half of Chinatown Wars' 50-odd story-based missions was how much I wished I was playing Grand Theft Auto IV instead-and that's exactly what I ended up doing.
Of course, I understand I'm in the minority on this one. And, inevitably, there will be those who will accuse me of not giving the game enough of a chance (though I'd argue that if a game can't grab you in its first four or five hours then it's got to be failing somewhere). Others will simply write me off as a graphics hound, which is closer to the truth-though it's worth noting that there are dozens of DS games I've enjoyed without whining about their relatively rudimentary visuals.
Rockstar's developers deserve kudos for doing the best they could given the hardware they had to work with, but it seems to me that some game concepts are simply better suited for more powerful platforms.