It's hard to believe that the game series that was stunning Playstation One owners with its open-ended game play less than 15 years ago is now available on the iPhone, but for the princely sum of £5.99, you can now get a handheld version of Chinatown wars for a fraction of the price you'll pay on other consoles. The question is: will the game steal your heart or is it a criminal waste of money?
As Huang Li, you must carry out various missions for the Chinese Triads, car-jacking different vehicles to get your way around Liberty City and avoiding being arrested by the police.
Having not played a GTA game since the original, I was pleased to see that the core game play has essentially remained intact and is as fun and addictive as ever. One of the great things about the GTA games has always been the freedom to roam around the city, generally getting up to mischief, or to undertake specific missions for financial reward and personal advancement, depending on your mood. Chinatown Wars perfectly preserves that balance between structured game play and freeplay.
Whilst all the missions essentially boil down to the same thing (drive around town to a specific location, don't get caught by the cops), there is a pleasing variety to them. Some involve you picking up goods and delivering them elsewhere; others hits on rival gangs. Some of the missions are more interesting and exciting than others, but the variety really immerses you in the story, helping you feel you are in the middle of a turf war.
Graphically, GTA Chinatown Wars initially looks good, although it turns out to be a bit of a mixed bag. Adopting the same top-down viewpoint that characterised the original GTA game, it makes the most of the iPhone's limited screen size. The city is brilliantly brought to life with looming buildings, metal bridges and fully working traffic lights and road junctions. The roads systems are clearly laid out and a helpful Satnav system shows the best route to take to your destination. Graphics are mostly clean and crisp with a slightly retro look and feel which is appealing (although the pedestrians don't look quite right, somehow.)
A number of well drawn manga-style cut-scenes are used to tell the story and these really add to the atmosphere and make you feel involved in the developing narrative. Be warned, though: many of these contain very strong language (including repeated use of the F word), so you need to be aware of its content before you let kids play it. Then again, with a game structure revolving around car-jacking, drug trafficking and kidnapping, you've probably already got the message that this is not aimed at children.
I was slightly disappointed in some of the vehicles available. Although there are lots of different vehicles available for you to steal, there wasn't a great deal of graphical variety in some of them. Apart from their colour, many of the cars looked pretty much the same to my ignorant eye and it was sometimes difficult to tell whether you were stealing a high performance sports car or an old banger.
This lack of detail is particularly serious when it comes to police cars. Although these are painted with the standard black and white, livery with flashing lights on top, they are not terribly easy to distinguish from all the other cars. I've lost count of the number of times I've accidentally driven into a police car because I thought it was a civilian car (which can be rammed with relative impunity) and suddenly found myself being actively hunted by the cops. This can be a big problem in time-based missions, as having to avoid the police thanks to an unfortunate collision can lead to you failing the mission.
There are occasional issues with the camera system too. Taking the odd short cut down some of the back alleys can lead to your view of the car being totally blocked by a roof or a building. On the plus side, edging your car backwards or forwards usually results in the camera angle shifting sufficiently for you to regain full visibility, so this is not too serious an issue.
What is a problem is the control system, which seriously reduces the game's playability. If you are on foot, things are not too bad. A small circle in the bottom left hand corner of the screen is used to control direction and your character proves pretty responsive and easy to control. The only real issue comes with regard to fighting, since it's difficult to direct your attack - you character basically punches, kicks or shoots in the direction he is facing. On the whole, though, these controls are not too bad.
The real problems start as soon as you get into a car. At this point, the controls change to left/right arrows used to steer the car, together with accelerator and brake buttons (on the right of the screen) to control the speed. Unless you are crawling along at snail's pace, the steering is incredibly difficult to get the hang of. The car feels very skittery, the buttons unresponsive and the whole system not terribly intuitive or easy to use. Too often I found myself hurtling into a wall or other cars, unable to make a turn in time thanks to the sticky controls. To work properly, GTA games need to give you a really fine degree of control over your car and Chinatown Wars never delivers this. Although I've got better with practice, I never really feel that I am fully in control of my car and that sense that at any moment it's all likely to go horribly wrong. There are alternative controls available, but I fared even worse with these.
Some people have also complained about the small buttons for the accelerator, brake etc. I actually found these comfortable to use and quite responsive. The only issue I experienced was when trying to car-jack a moving car. Too often, by the time I had found the right button, the car I was after had gone whizzing past!
At £5.99, this is a heck of a lot cheaper than the GTA games available for bigger machines, but it's also a heck of a lot more expensive than most iPhone games. True, you are getting a highly professional, full game from one of computing's most (in)famous publishers and if you can master the controls, there is a very addictive, fun game to be had. On the other hand, if you can't get to grips with the controls, the frustration of constantly crashing is likely to make you feel you've wasted your money and should have saved up for the game on one of the other formats instead.
There is a demo version available which allows you to play the first three levels for free and my advice would be to give this a go first. If you feel like you can live with the controls and master them with practice, there's no doubt the full game is worth the asking price. Otherwise, steer (ahem!) well clear.
I've given this one three stars, because the open-ended game play and strong mission structure do mean I enjoy playing it, despite the fiddly controls. If you don't find the controls a problem, you could easily add another star. As things stand, RockStar have made a decent stab at converting their hottest property to the iPhone and if they can sort out better controls, I'll definitely look out for their next release.
© Copyright SWSt 2010