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There's big trouble in little China as TVG loads up for a gangland brawl in GTA's first appearance on Nintendo's DS...
Rockstar Leeds is a studio to be celebrated. Its interpretations of GTAs III and Vice City from the PS2 in the critically acclaimed PSP 'Stories' games can be regarded as master classes on developing for the handheld platforms. You'll be relieved to hear, then, that the handheld spin-off for GTA IV has been placed in the thoroughly capable hands of Rockstar's developers in Leeds, comprising of a team that's double the size of those that worked on each of the PSP GTA titles. What's more, the game's development has moved forward in conjunction with the jewel in Rockstar's crown, Rockstar North.
With this in mind, and considering the quality of gameplay and amount of features that Chinatown Wars boasts, Rockstar might consider relocating all of its studios to the colder climes of our Queen's kingdom. There must be something in the air, water, or (perhaps more relevantly) beer and rugby league up there that inspires games development, because Rockstar Leeds has nailed it once again with GTA: CTW. There's drug dealing galore, a handful of Triad gangs vying for control of a symbolically powerful sword, and a generous smattering of the sort of mini-games that the DS excels at, but first let's deal with the game world itself.
Squeeze The World, Make It A Better Place
While both the Liberty and Vice Cities of the 'Stories' games were fairly accurate recreations of their PS2 counterparts, CTW takes on a much more representative approach to GTA IV's Liberty City (which is understandable, given the DS' limitations). Nevertheless, this doesn't come at the expense of your immersion in the game. For a start, Rockstar Leeds hasn't cut much of the map from GTA IV for CTW. The only island to be left behind is Alderney. Algonquin, Broker, Dukes, and Bohan all make the cut and are open from the very start of the game with no blockades, complete with landmarks such as Happiness Island, Francis International Airport, and Middle Park. However, while you'll still see subway tracks above the city streets in places, the freeways from the console version have been removed from CTW and there's a very good reason for this, which is the default camera angle.
Two camera views are on offer in CTW: a cinematic cam reminiscent of the sort employed in every GTA game since GTA III (which flits through an array of different angles such as panning shots etc.), and the default isometric camera. This isometric angle is almost like viewing one of the original GTA games on PS1 and PC, although slanting the camera into an angled top-down perspective has obviously opened up 3D visuals with a much finer degree of detail (something that freeways would get in the way of). As is the intention of the developers, CTW does look and feel very much like its forefathers from the 90s, but without losing the traits of the series that have been built up over two further generations of consoles and four more GTA games.
The story picks up, as always, with an introduction to the game's protagonist, Huang Lee. He's travelling to Liberty City to pass on a sword (the Yu Jian) to his uncle after the death of his father, the previous holder of the sabre. Originally won during a gambling match, the sword is revered within Triad circles and has been passed down from one gang leader to the next as a symbolic gesture of value and power. Huang's job is to bring the sword to his uncle "Wu" Kenny Lee, who will in turn give the sword to its rightful heirs. However, on his arrival at Francis International Airport, Huang is ambushed by a rival Triad gang and gets kidnapped after being knocked unconscious by a bullet that grazes his head.
This opening section to the game is cut up between the in-game engine on the top screen of the DS, while the touch screen displays graphic novel style illustrations that drive the story along. It's a process that replaces the cut-scenes we've become used to, telling the story at the beginning and end of the game's missions. Although the images are stagnant for the most part, like windows of a comic book, you'll often notice active animation such as rotating helicopter blades in the background, even though characters remain frozen in a pose. The resulting narrative is both artsy and tasteful, moving the game along with gritty dialogue, some occasional humour, and offering moodier depictions of the game world that's simultaneously playing out on the top screen.
Huang's kidnappers dump him in the back of a car and, after stealing the sword, they drive him to a river where the car is dumped with Huang inside. Having awoken just before the car was ditched, Huang must break the rear window in order to escape to the surface, and this is where the first DS oriented mini-game comes into play. Using the stylus, players have to knock-out the car window by smashing it in a number of places. This mini-game ensues whenever you plunge a car into the wet stuff and it's one of a number of mini-games that we experienced on our journeys through CTW. Others include a Molotov cocktail mini-game that you can play at gas stations where you have to fill up glass bottles from a pump with a haphazard flow (it's a bit like peeing while drunk), as well as a hotwiring mini-game whenever you break into cars (the difficulty and type of hot wiring differs depending on how advanced the car is).
After meeting up with uncle Wu, Huang is introduced to the usual safe house routine, although the innards of Huang's apartment are markedly different from previous GTA safe houses. The living quarters are shown in a 2D image that provides a selection of options such as a computer, keep-safe box, and whiteboard. All of these throw new gameplay dynamics into the mix. The computer's most notable usage is for Ammu-nation, who've gone all 21st century on us by opening up an online store that will ship weaponry directly to your door (if only it was that easy in real life). The keep-safe box can be used to store drugs for future deals (more on that later), while the whiteboard logs all the characters you've met from previous missions in Polaroid snaps. This allows you to replay any previous missions you've completed at any point just for the fun of it - a feature that has been painfully lacking in previous GTAs.
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