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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Score: 95%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Leeds
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Mission-Based Driving/ Free-Roaming/ Action

Graphics & Sound:
Ironic that just when I'm wondering why I still own a PlayStation Portable, along comes a game that will likely be on rotation in my system well into next year. The greater irony is that Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars sports graphics more appropriate to the Nintendo DS than the PSP. This game heralds the return to a visual style more in keeping with the series' roots, back more than a decade now. We'd revolt if anyone tried to foist a return to some Platformer or Fighter of yesteryear (although companies do it constantly with licensed games), so how does Rockstar get to bring back the funk with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars? The answer is rooted in solid gameplay that remains compelling, the "secret sauce" behind the overwhelming success of this franchise on every platform. What you will see here are gruesome and horrific acts, every bit as bloodcurdling as any we've seen in recent years on larger platforms, but the top-down perspective mutes some of the violence. Seeing pedestrians splattered on the pavement from 100 feet above street level is somehow less shocking than the same act viewed from a first-person, or close third-person perspective.

Don't think that just because the graphics are simplified means they are simplistic. Rockstar threw a few kitchen sinks into the mix, providing a huge city map filled with secret items, special destinations, and a cadre of shady characters. Some people exist to provide you with work, some exist to do your bidding, and others are just fodder for car-jacking or target practice. Even the cut-scene animations are done in a retro, hand-drawn style. The music is anything but retro, featuring new talent like DJ Khalil and DFA Records alongside veterans Anvil and Tortoise, that are exclusive to the PSP. The other artists are a mix of straight-to-game productions and slightly better known acts like Oh No and Deadmau5. As with all the previous games, music launches as you enter your vehicle and can be changed as you wish by tuning the stations. When you aren't paying attention to the cool tunes, you'll be listening for sounds of gunfire, hilarious running commentary from people passing you in the street (Our favorite: "What happened to changin' the world, brutha ?!"), and the ever present threat of sirens accompanied by flashing lights. Years of designing around story progression and open-world exploration has given Rockstar the ability to do wonderful things without leaning on visual sophistication, making Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars every bit as fun as its flashier big brothers.

As we've seen with previous entries in this series, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars has a good backstory. You play through the eyes of Huang Lee, recently imported with the intention of avenging his father's death. Things never seem to go as planned, but Lee takes it all in stride and manages to play every faction in the city against its adversaries, while racking up big money on drug deals and special missions. The storyline is dictated somewhat by choices you make during the game, but eventually you'll have the chance to sample all the main missions available from each boss in the city. Side missions are available at times from characters you meet, and Rampage icons scattered throughout the city allow you to go on a killing spree for points and any other booty. The wealth of smaller challenges you uncover during the game are what make Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars a game that will keep you going for hours, trying to find that next security camera to destroy with a Molotov or grenade, or hunting down the always challenging Ammu-Nation vans. Rockstar introduces some fun mini-games along the way, without going over-the-top and polluting the formula we've come to know so well over the years.

Lots of new, small touches in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars make that old formula feel new at times, like the option to order weapons online rather than track down a nearby Ammu-Nation storefront. About time those guys dropped the brick-and-mortar... Features like lottery locations are just plain fun, and Rockstar's Social Club integration provides bragging rights plus some additional functionality. All this doesn't even scratch the drug-dealing dynamic present in the game, that provides a major challenge and profit opportunity. Certain missions are tied to dealing, but not to the extent that you feel forced to do anything tedious. Once you unlock the interactive map showing trends in buying and selling, you are well on your way to earning big bucks and translating that hot cash to fine real estate. Buying properties throughout the city makes for easier getaways when your wanted rating is high, as it will be often if you're doin' it right! Seriously though, the enduring brilliance of this series is that it rewards players of all kinds. If you want to wreak havoc on the city and destroy every living soul in your path, there's a style of play just for you. If you prefer to lay low and not arouse suspicion outside of missions, you can cruise around in law-abiding fashion all the livelong day. We gave up on that law-abiding stuff years ago, but we enjoy a quiet drive in the 'burbs as much as anybody from time to time.

Maybe it's just our imagination, but Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars feels as hard or harder than most previous games in the series. The controls are sometimes an obstacle; while the handling of any vehicle in a past GTA game has ranged from awful to just plain bad, we found the analog control more fudgy than in the previous PSP "Stories" entries. Chalk it up to especially windy streets and limited field of vision, but there are lots of occasions where you'll want to toss your PSP out the friggin' window over a missed turn, traffic obstacle, or flaming vehicle. The margin for error as you progress through the game becomes thinner and thinner, on a reasonable assumption made by the developers that you must have spent some time marking the location of hospitals, bulletproof vests, and other advantageous weaponry. Taking advantage of the city's lucrative drug trade is only worthwhile if you manage to hang onto your stash - the cops will deprive you of your goods if they catch you, which they eventually will do. An opportune moment to save tends to be at the conclusion of a particularly big deal or successful skirmish with the Ammu-Nation van, but unless you plan to micromanage your stash throughout the game, you're better off just migrating your cash into real estate. Drugs can be stashed, but money and guns come easy once you know the right people. Getting through a Rampage successfully will often net you some cash and weapons, and there's always a police car driving within easy reach if you need a shotgun and don't mind risking a few stars. The process of losing stars is interesting, because it combines skillful driving with knowledge of the city's many hiding spots. If you can manage to wreck a certain number of police cars, you can increase your odds of evading the heat, but your best bet is to find a dark alley and hole-up for a while. This all becomes intuitive after a while, but new players will definitely face a learning curve.

Game Mechanics:
We were fans of the two previous GTA games for PSP, Vice City Stories and Liberty City Stories. These were easy to appreciate as smaller versions of the goodness that Rockstar brought to the large consoles. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars takes the action into a more stylized place where combat isn't much more complicated than hitting or jumping and hitting, aside from using weapons. Basic controls are all you get, and all you need. The driving-while-shooting mechanic isn't as comfortable here as with a controller, mostly due to issues with balance on the PSP when using shoulder buttons in combination with more than one face-button or control. Drive-bys require at least two face-buttons and the shoulder buttons, if you need to change sides. Out of the vehicle, you'll spend most of your time sprinting to your next vehicle or destination. There are several controls keyed to Select and Start, both awkward in a tight pinch. Switching weapons by hitting Select and navigating to a submenu is a downer that tends to kill the action in the heat of battle. Weapons keyed to one or more of the directional buttons would have worked out much better.

Even with these minor gripes, we kept pounding the pavement in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, trying to help Lee find the vengeance he so badly wants. The dialogue between characters is well written and shows Lee as the matter-of-fact tough guy that does whatever is required to get the job done. His apathetic style is a perfect foil for the completely over-the-top characters that surround him, letting you know that everything is going to work out just fine. Lee requires your steady hand to help him accomplish his goals, and you'll be happy to take the ride through this extremely volatile chapter in the Grand Theft Auto saga. Don't let anybody tell you Chinatown Wars is anything other than the next great game in the series on PSP; it is every bit as awesome as the two that preceded it and is a major addition to the PSP library at a time when the system needs a hit like nobody's business.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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