Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a very different kind of GTA game than the ones you're used to playing. That's a very good thing. Rather than trying to capture the essence of GTA's console experience on a handheld--like Rockstar attempted on the PSP--Grand Theft Auto for the DS is its own thing, custom-built from the ground up so that it makes sense on Nintendo's handheld. That means that you're going to get a different ratio of story and satire to gameplay than you might expect, but despite the different formula, Chinatown Wars comes out a winner.
The game's story isn't especially deep. You play as a guy named Huang, and you're delivering your deceased father's ceremonial sword to your uncle, as per family tradition. As soon as you step off the plane, you're grazed with a bullet to the head and the sword is stolen. You'll spend the rest of the game looking for the sword and attempting to sniff out a snitch in your ranks. Rather than the character-heavy stuff Rockstar did in GTA IV, the script in Chinatown Wars is a bit more lighthearted. As Huang, you encounter the typical batch of screw-ups, junkies, porn fiends, cross-dressers, and dirty cops you might expect to see in Grand Theft Auto, but as the mission dealers give out their deliberately atrocious dialogue, Huang is there to eat them up and deliver zingers about how, well, awful their dialogue is. It's a slightly different brand of humor than you get from most other GTA games, but Huang's smart-ass act is decent enough to keep things moving, even if there's no actual speech in the cutscenes.
It's the technical side of Chinatown Wars that makes it so impressive. Liberty City is large, and you see the whole thing from a slightly cocked top view that lets you see what's on the road ahead while you drive. It gives the whole thing a classic feel, provided you're old enough to define "classic GTA" as the games that came before GTA III. Objects in the world are defined by thick, black edges, and these lines give the whole world a comic book kind of feel. In motion, the game is almost always very, very smooth. The high frame rate on the action really brings the world to life, and you feel like you're high above, watching a cute little clockwork city with a dramatic organized crime problem.
The gameplay and mission structure is the most GTA-like part of the entire pacakge. You'll run cars off the road, follow people around without being spotted, snipe enemies from a rooftop, chop down foes with a sword, get in car races, and so on. The standard side missions are also in place, so you can hop in a taxi and take fares, hop in a cop car and catch criminals, deliver food, and more. There's also a large drug dealing side to Chinatown, and the basic rules of buying low and selling high apply. You don't do any street slanging as part of this; you merely ferry packages of drugs from one dealer to another. You'll occasionally receive tips that tell you if a specific dealer is in need of some coke (making him willing to pay above the normal market rates), or maybe another dealer is having a blow-out on heroin (meaning you can score for next to nothing). Keeping an eye on these tips will get you a ton of money, fast. The catch is that you don't really need a lot of money to succeed, so aside from a few mission-specific objectives, like one where a guy needs you to bring him some ecstasy before he'll let you do a mission, you don't really need to do any of this stuff.
Changing the perspective to more of a top-down view makes the controls in Chinatown Wars easy to grasp. For the most part, you're using the D-pad to move around and steer, the face buttons for fighting when on foot or driving when behind the wheel, and the triggers are used for camera control and targeting. The touch screen comes up fairly often, though, as it's used to select GPS routes, check your e-mail, and all sorts of other little things that require your in-game PDA. You'll also partake in a collection of minigame-like activities at various points. Stealing cars with alarms will pop up a hotwiring screen where you have to remove screws to expose a panel, then drag the two wires together and draw a circle to twist them together. Fancier cars have more elaborate alarms and, thus, more elaborate requirements.
But the touch screen stuff never gets too complicated. In addition to car alarms you'll smash locks, rewire control panels to open gates, assemble sniper rifles, work the controls of a crane, restart a pesky motorboat engine... you get the idea. Because of all this, you either need to be OK with using the touch screen with your fingers, or you'll need to play with a stylus in-hand, just in case something breaks out. It's gimmicky and sort of silly, but it doesn't happen so often that you'll get tired of seeing them. However, some of it does go a touch overboard. The drug dealing interface requires you to tap to open car trunks or satchels to trade goods, when a simple screen full of numbers would have been a bit faster.
Chinatown Wars is understandably shorter than the standard GTA game, as well. I completed the story in just under five-and-a-half hours. Of course, if you're the sort of person who gets wrapped up in all the side stuff, you'll be left with plenty more to do outside of the main missions. Online, the game will log into the Rockstar Social Club to put you on leaderboards and such. Locally, you can play a handful of two-player modes that put you in races, deathmatches, racing deathmatches, and others.
Chinatown Wars is an impressively designed game. The developers at Rockstar Leeds were very smart about which elements of GTA to carry over and which would just drag the final product down. The end result is a game that feels new and fresh, even though it largely relies on the concepts forged in GTA's past.