Once upon a time, a little Scottish developer called DMA Design took a break from cranking out Lemmings sequels and racing games about unmanned unicycles to code up an open-world cops-and-robbers game called Race-n-Chase for the PC. Its sprawling maps, mission-based gameplay, and irreverent adult themes were practically unheard of in the gaming environment of 1997, and a bellwether in the trend toward mature themes (and the immature implementation thereof) in gaming.
One pre-release name change later, Grand Theft Auto was born. The rest, as they say, is history.
The GTA series has seen a lot of evolution in the last decade. DMA Design turned into Rockstar Games. Sprites gave way to polygons, top-down viewpoints gave way to ground-level third-person views, and renting a hooker and then killing her and taking your money back gave way to—well, renting a hooker and then killing her and taking your money back in glorious 1080p resolution.
Imagine that you could go back in time and use the lessons of today to better the events of yesterday. What would you do? Would you cure disease and end hunger? Or would you just take a sports almanac with you and bet the house on some unlikely wins?
The GTA designers knows exactly what they would do, and their proof is Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS. Instead of simply throwing together an updated remake, Rockstar has created new original material packaged in a nostalgic interface that’s been updated to reflect the last decade of the GTA development experience.
Think of it as the new Star Trek movie, but with more vehicular homicide.
Of course, all that new material is inevitably steeped in the series’ plot axioms, which must never be deviated from lest the series relinquish its license to print money. A protagonist—in this case, Huang Lee—is summoned by a down-on-his-luck family member—Triad underboss Wu “Kenny” Lee—to avenge a wrong incurred by his family (Huang’s father’s assassination and the theft of a family heirloom).
Along the way, said protagonist is quickly browbeaten into forgetting his original mission and starts running various morally questionable errands for a collection of mission-specific NPCs. In keeping with GTA tradition, these include no fewer than three rival organized crime syndicates, two ethnic stereotypes, and one crooked cop. This goes on for about three weeks of uninterrupted gameplay until the patented “Let God sort ’em out” ending kicks in and wraps up all the loose ends.
It’s not as bad as that makes it sound. It’s certainly a more inspired change of pace than the Liberty and Vice City Stories offshoots. Those were little more than pseudosequels—of which we already had two, thank you very much—made smaller for the PSP and then re-enlarged for the Playstation 2. If anything, going back to something besides the gameplay style popularized by GTA3 is refreshing enough.
Chinatown Wars feels like an adorable little sequel to the old GTAs, which grew up in an alternate universe where over-the-shoulder third-person shooting was outlawed by God. It’s certainly more muscular than its ancestors. Apparently, all those years in the trenches rendering viewpoints from ground level gave the developers the know-how to make a game look more convincing from above. Driving through Liberty City’s urban corridors feels more substantial. There’s more “there” there.
Of course, the upgrades aren’t all just flash; the game contains significant enhancements under the hood. Despite this being Rockstar’s first outing on the DS, they manage to be one of the few third-party developers to see the DS’ touchscreen as more than a squiggle to the Wii’s waggle. The touchscreen handles everything from administrative duties—PDA functions, e-mail, GPS navigation—to Chinatown Wars’ various mini-games—selling drugs, hot-wiring cars, and practically any other illicit activity you can imagine—in ways that are simple, intuitive, and don’t get in the way of the core gameplay. The top screen handles the main body of the game, leaving players free to change the radio without a stylus getting in the way of their nefarious pursuits.
It’s a great way to introduce kids who think the series started at GTA3 to what we old-timers were doing with our antiquated Playstations. Once they’re done with that, they can go find the real thing—Rockstar has released free PC versions of the first two Grand Theft Autos on their website. I’m sure it will be a learning experience.