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'GTA: Chinatown Wars' - Lots of Power, Nice Lines, Lousy Handling

'GTA: Chinatown Wars' - Lots of Power, Nice Lines, Lousy Handling

"Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars" was designed for portable platforms like the Nintendo DS, so it doesn't lose much in the jump to iPhone and iPod touch. It has the action, grittiness and humor of the "GTA" series, along with a suitably complex story of underworld crime, but play control during the driving sequences -- which make up no small part of the game -- contribute to a high frustration factor.

By Paul Hartsock MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
01/21/10 5:00 AM PT

"Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars," a game from Rockstar, is available for US$9.99 at the App Store.

As gaming devices, the iPhone and the Nintendo Wii both face a similar problem. Game publishers often seem to believe that a game that's popular on the Xbox, PlayStation or PC should also be made to fit on the iPhone or Wii, even though you're really dealing with two very different kinds of platforms.

Game makers can and have created games that fit small touchscreens and motion-controlled devices perfectly. But when they take a game that was designed for use with a stationary controller that has more buttons than the average human has fingers, then try to shoehorn it into something with a totally different control design, the results can be a little off-putting. Sometimes that's due to unrealistic expectations; other times it's because the end result is just plain frustrating to play.

Granted, "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars" isn't exactly an Xbox game retrofitted for a portable device. This edition in the "GTA" series was designed from the get-go for the hand-held screen, though it was originally released on Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable. That's made its transition to iPhone/iPod touch very smooth in some ways, less so in others.

Welcome to Liberty City, Now Get Busy Stealing

Our protagonist in "GTA: CTW" is Huang Lee, a spoiled young man from a family of oddball gangsters, to put it nicely. He arrives in Liberty City acting as a courier, delivering a family heirloom to his uncle. Of course, nobody visiting Liberty City can avoid falling in with organized crime within a few short minutes, and Lee is soon rolled into his uncle's underworld dealings, despite his apparently sheltered upbringing and a total lack of training in the field of professional gangsterism.

Perhaps the first thing that those familiar with the "GTA" series will notice is the player's perspective. It's still a third-person view, but instead of a camera that stays on the character's back at all times, you're given a rotating camera pointing down on you at what I'm guessing is about 45 degrees. It's sort of a cross between the original "GTA's" top-down perspective and the design in "GTA III" and onward. It's not as engaging as standing directly over the shoulder of your character, and I found myself much less inclined to cause random mayhem when not at street level. It's also not always convenient when you're navigating through alleyways between tall buildings, but a double-tap on the control pad will at least put the camera behind you for a clearer view.

I was impressed with how smooth loading and graphics were on my 3G iPhone. Nothing felt jerky; in fact, the only time I noticed lag was when the music would start to get choppy in the middle of some very crazy driving, and I'd rather that happen than sacrifice play control. Cut scenes use still illustrations rather than animated characters, but Rockstar's typical "GTA" sense of humor shines through in the dialog.

You're given a fairly massive amount of Liberty City to explore, and your missions will take you all over the place. The mission and communication systems rely on the old PDA standby, and it's relatively easy to pick up quickly. The GPS that guides you through town is well-integrated into mission assignments, or you can use it to guide you anywhere you'd like to explore.

In short, rather than feeling like a game that developers had to hack away at in order to fit it into a mobile box, "GTA: CTW" feels well-suited for a pocket device. It's not too bloated with unnecessary or weird design afterthoughts, but the parts that make it interesting -- lots of missions, lots of territory, an actual plot -- are present.

However, when it comes time to actually drive, play control issues get in the way of the fun.

Hurts to Drive

Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars iPhone App

Ever since "GTA III," the games in this series have seemed to strive toward a fairly realistic portrayal of automotive physics. You can't stop on a dime, most of the vehicles you steal do not accelerate like turbocharged sports cars, and your turning radius is generally pretty sad. This seems to work fine on a regular console, where you can feel the buttons under your fingers and see what's happening on a big TV screen. It's not exactly like driving a real car, but having real buttons and knobs under your fingertips eases the transition.

Trying to roll around Libery City in "GTA: CTW" on iPhone is like driving without your glasses while your hands are shot full of Novocaine. Since the iPhone has no physical buttons (except for that one that'll just exit the application for you), you rely on a set of virtual left/right buttons and accelerator/brake buttons, none of which you can feel. Worse, they put the brake button above the accelerator, rather than to the left. Maybe it's just me, but I feel like a left=brake, right=gas placement is more intuitive, if only because that's the way it is in real cars.

Instead, the "fire weapon" button is to the left of the accelerator. Many innocent pedestrians on Liberty City's streets paid a tragic price for that awkward control arrangement, and I think someone owes their families an apology.

Add in the fact that you're controlling a tiny car on a small screen, all the while being followed by an angled camera that doesn't always show the angle you want to see, and frustration levels rise even further. I just wonder whether Rockstar could have compromised a little on the physical realism of driving, considering this platform's no-buttons limitation.

"GTA: CTW" for iPhone also falls prey to a common video game sin: the pointless minigame. "Fallout 3" does it when you have to pick a lock or hack a computer; "Call of Duty 3" for Wii does it when you have to set a charge. In "GTA: CTW," the madness starts when you have to hotwire your first car -- you have to spin your little screwdriver this way and that to get the ignition going. That's the easy way. Later, you'll have to turn four screws individually to remove a dashboard panel, separate two ignition wires, splice them together and twist. It's just as tedious to do as that last sentence was to read.

Bottom Line

"GTA: CTW" benefits from not being a retrofit -- it was born for the small screen, and it uses its limited resources well. It's also pure "GTA"; the story, hijinks and mayhem are exactly what fans of the series should expect.

But when it comes to actually driving, the play control seems capable of aggravating even a patient player. No doubt you'll get the hang of it after a while, but the frustration factor may be considerable, especially since driving a car is one of the main things you're doing in this game.


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