Misconception is the dark cloud hanging over the success of this game. There's an assumption that Chinatown Wars is just a quickly made, cut-down GTA on a technically limited console. But don't jump to those conclusions. We recently popped down to Rockstar's London office and came out genuinely surprised and positively impressed. This is a very serious take on GTA.
The game is being developed at Rockstar's Leeds studio, with a helping hand from Edinburgh-based Rockstar North who did GTA IV. This team, Rockstar highlighted at the start of the presentation, is surprisingly "double the size" of the team that worked on the PSP games, Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories. "We think of this as the biggest DS game that's ever been made," said our Rockstar rep.
The opening is cinematic, with the camera panning down a fully 3D street as the hip-hop begins and the game's credits fade in and out. Our attention was quickly grabbed. During the intro alone we observed busy roads, vehicles with headlights, working indicators, reverse lights and their own physics. Buildings were detailed, as were trees, bins, boxes and lamp posts - all breakable. Pedestrians also littered the pavements going about their business. Attention to detail and overall level of bustle is incredible for a DS game.
Chinatown Wars uses the same Liberty City as seen in GTA IV. Three of the four huge districts - Broker, Dukes and Algonquin - are present and correct. That alone gives you a fairly hefty city to explore on the small screen and it's all open right from the start.
The game retains IV's weather system, with sun, rain and gloomy cloud, all affecting the physics and handling of vehicles accordingly. The day/night system is also in, with buildings casting real shadows that you can see gradually receding as the sun goes down.
Vehicle damage mimics that of GTA IV in that headlights smash, bodywork crumples, tyres can be popped, and the vehicle's handling (not just its speed) suffers as a result. The radio stations are in - there's no speech or licensed tracks for obvious size reasons, but the selection of beats that reflect the musical genre of each station does the job.
Also from IV is the on-screen map with the same path-finding tech. In fact it's better in this version, as you have the option to bookmark locations that you can return to later on. You'll never forget the location of that stunt jump you thought you saw. It's great to see that, not only does the game achieve technical feats we never expected, but it also strives to take advantage of the console's unique features by introducing gameplay elements new to the series.
You start the game a kidnap victim, playing dead in the back seat of a car as your tormentors drive to a river ready to dump the vehicle with you in it. As the car plunges into the water, its rear window appears on the lower screen and you have to tap it rapidly with the stylus to smash it and make your getaway.
The game wastes no time in demonstrating one of its clever context-sensitive uses of the touch screen; a reoccurring element throughout the game. In a few hours of hands-on time, we saw plenty of other uses. Opening and searching through bins for hidden weapons, throwing Molotov cocktails and assembling a sniper rifle were some of the best.
One mini-game sees you go to a petrol station with some empty bottles, pay for a certain amount of fuel and control the fuel nozzle with the stylus to fill the containers, while stuffing a cloth into the top of each one. You can buy pre-made cocktails, but it can work out cheaper this way if your aim with the nozzle is good and you don't spill too much petrol. That's the sort of depth in here.