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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (PSP)
Game Reviews

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (PSP)

The enhanced PSP version of the acclaimed DS original remains a true milestone for the franchise, and easily one of the year’s best.

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The original Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars launched on the Nintendo DS earlier this year to considerable acclaim and publicity, easily becoming one of the highest-rated games of the year for any platform.  And while the game’s mature-rating and content may have stood out on Nintendo’s portable (to put it mildly), it seems that Rockstar Games wasn’t quite done spreading their little crime spree around.  With the release of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars the series returns once more to the PSP, which means that fans of Sony’s platform can now experience one of the year’s most thrilling, entertaining games – handheld or otherwise.

For those unfamiliar with the grand scheme of the original, Chinatown Wars delivers a sordid tale of corruption equal to the best in the franchise’s long history.  Huang Lee, a spoiled rich kid travels to Liberty City upon learning of the death of his father, hoping to deliver a ceremonial sword to crazy uncle Kenny, leader of one of the city’s numerous Triad gangs.  Of course, things never go quite as planned in this city of broken dreams, and it isn’t long before Lee is left fending for his life and future of his family’s honor.  This is very much a living, breathing Grand Theft Auto game through-and-through, and don’t think for one second that returning to the world of top-down, 2.5D visuals means you’ll be getting off easy.

It may surprise some to read that I actually preferred the original Chinatown Wars to the franchise’s last home console version, and after playing through the PSP version my opinion hasn’t changed.  Despite its otherwise serious and nuanced plot, Chinatown Wars returns many of the lighter, more nonsensical aspects I loved about previous chapters back to front and center.  The various missions are wildly inventive, fun, and despite the occasional mission chore I was always looking forward to what came next and was never bored.  There’s less questionable tasks to engage and complete here, meaning the focus is always on driving the story forward with smart, engaging twists and turns.  That’s a very good thing, because just about everything in this game is superlatively great, and works just as well – if not better – on the PSP.

Besides the always familiar gameplay of robbing, stealing, and the occasional mob hits the majority of noteworthy additions take advantage of the PSP platform, retaining the of the original with enhanced cel-shaded visuals and lighting effects to help bring the vivid and considerably well-written saga of Huang Lee to life through a series of stylized panels and interstitials.  The game also benefits greatly from the PSP’s widescreen display, meaning we see more of what’s going on, which helps navigating and evading much easier on the eyes.  The local, ad-hoc multiplayer modes of the original have also been retained (and sadly, not improved upon), as have Rockstar’s Social Club features to upload your statistics for maximum bragging rights.

Chinatown Wars for the DS took full advantage of the console’s touchscreen controls, giving certain activities like hotwiring vehicles, painting tattoos, and the occasional dumpster dive a fun, fresh new perspective.  While the PSP version can’t replicate them exactly, the control scheme here is an excellent mimic, using a combination of analog stick + shoulder buttons to bring a fluid and comfortable alternative.  In fact, some may actually prefer the streamlined and integrated feel of this version to the original’s frequent swapping.  Veterans migrating over from the original navigating the various missions without the benefit of a second-screen may feel somewhat awkward at first, you’ll soon accustom yourself to the PSP’s singular view and, in time, may prefer the more traditional vantage point.

Its worth mentioning the one real flaw that Chinatown Wars brings with it to the PSP, and its frequent and somewhat long loading times.  This is especially true with the UMD version of the game (which I tested), which often require frequent pauses when navigating the game’s multitude of menus, GPS, and email messages.  They’re do-able, but even the few seconds it can take to switch between the various screens can add up and pull you out of the moment.

Ultimately, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the PSP is a great version of a great game, easily bringing everything we loved from the DS original to Sony’s platform and then some.  Improved graphics, additional missions, and (arguably) more intuitive control make this version a no-brainer for anyone who has yet to experience one of the franchise’s best and most accomplished adventures, though returning fans may find the experience a bit too familiar.  Just about everything that made the original game such a joy to play has been retained here, expanded, and now available for patient PSP fans who just can’t resist yet another journey into the rancid, festering metropolis that is Liberty City.  Absolutely recommended.

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10/20/09

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Rockstar Games

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About the Author: Herman Exum