'Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars' Preview - Tons of New Details

'Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars'

I played the March 2009 "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars" for an hour at Rockstar Games' New York City headquarters and walked out with a notebook full of details for the most radically different "GTA" game I've played in years.

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There's going to be a crush of "Grand Theft Auto" news today, as the press embargo for the Xbox 360-exclusive "GTA IV" episode "The Lost And Damned" lifts in just a couple of hours. I played that Episode yesterday as well as the franchise's DS debut.

In the interest of keeping people informed, let's summon the great writer's crutch of bullet points!

"Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars" Details

-The March 17 M-rated DS game stars Huang Lee. Rockstar reps compared Huang to other recent "GTA" protagonists like Niko Bellic, saying Huang is more of a "spoiled brat" and a bit "hapless," less the confident criminal of a Niko and more a young man a bit out of his depth.

-The game starts with Huang having to deliver a sword, but no, there's no shield and bombs Rockstar says. This game isn't "Zelda."

-The game renders four of GTA IV"'s five Liberty City regions from a top-down perspective (Broker, Dukes, Bohan and Algonquin) , with buildings and vehicles modeled in 3D on the DS' top screen. The bottom screen offers a map and item/map/stats interface. Console players, this game doesn't take place in the Liberty City of "GTA IV." It takes place in a Liberty City. So don't expect crossovers with last year's console game. And the recreations of Liberty City neighborhoods are, according to a Rockstar rep, similar but not "street for street" with "GTA IV."

-Rockstar boasts that the game includes more than 900,000 lines of hand-optimized code. The primary development team, Rockstar Leeds, reports that the game's terrain is larger than the cities rendered by the team's PSP "Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories" and "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories."

-The game is primarily played with buttons and D-pad. The former control things like shooting and jacking vehicles. The latter is used for vehicle movement.

-The game's missions are scored and designed to be replayed at any time. This is a radical departure from recent "GTA" games. Finishing a mission in a required amount of time or by meeting otther criteria will reward a player with a gold, silver or bronze medal. A bulletin board in Huang's hideout allows him to re-access each of those levels to try for a better medal.

-The Rockstar's "Chinatown Wars" public relations rep who played some of the game for me, did so with a stylus cradled in his hand. He plays like this because the game is stuffed with touch-screen game moments which are rendered on the game's lower (touch) screen. There are lots of them. In my time with the game I had to use the stylus to assemble a sniper rifle, I saw the Rockstar rep have to flick change into a toll booth (a moment the rep said had only been added in the most recent two builds of this March game), a windshield needed to be poked out of a car sinking in a river, and one of many dumpsters could be rummaged through wiht the stylus swiping garbage this way and that before uncovering a pistol.

-The game plays more like an arcade game than recent "Grand Theft Auto"s. From a top-down view it would be easy to recall not just the original 2D "GTA" games but arcade classics like Robotron that had players firing in all directions at enemies swarming the playing field. The sound effects of the gun splatter and the burning tire tracks from a well-spun-out car make this game feel more like an action-cartoon than the more serious quasi-realistic console "GTA"s of the last two console generations.

-The game requires minimal use of the game's mic, allowing players to whistle for taxis, but press a button instead of whistling's a chore.

-A couple of missions I saw were named after other video games. Rockstar reps tell me that those missions, Pursuit Farce and Street of Rage, are not the only ones that nod to other games.

-Even though the game is played in top-down perspective, it has some of the staples of the 3D "GTA"s, including slow-motion stunt jumps, a 24-hour day/night cycle and licensed music. The licensed music has been turned into instrumentals for the game ("Chinatown Wars" has no vocals). While Rockstar isn't releasing a track list yet, reps for the company indicated that some of the licensed music would be quite familiar.

-The series' police system has been changed. Players will still get in trouble with the law, which triggers police chases marked by a number of stars in the game's Wanted Meter. What's different is that evasion is not an option. Gamers must force police cars to wreck to lower the wanted rating. They can't blow up the cars to diminish their heat. Instead, they have to cause them to go off-road, bang into a building or otherwise become disabled. Whent his happens, the car is marked with a red "x." To support this system, the Wanted Meter displays icons of police cars. The number of car icons indicates the number of police cars that need to be stopped to drop the Wanted Meter down a star. The number of cars will increase for each Wanted level.

-Players will be able to commandeer trucks, cars, motorcycles and boats. But there are no planes, and helicopters can be rode but not piloted.

-The game makes your DS talk. Like any DS game, "Chinatown Wars" will go into a sleep mode when the DS is closed during a session of the game. When the DS is opened, players will immediately hear one of several samples from pedestrians. The first one I managed to trigger was a woman saying, "You want a piece of this pie?"

-There won't be any dating in the game, and, no, there won't be any touch-screen dating games.

-"Chinatown Wars" will have multiplayer modes, but Rockstar isn't detailing them yet.

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There's plenty more in my notebook about "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars," but deadlines demand I stop this piece short here. I'll have more on some of the game's other interesting features on Friday. The impression I walked away with is that "Chinatown Wars" feels like a thorough re-thinking of the "GTA" series for Nintendo's handheld. Some of the ideas contained in it are ambitious for the series and the system. More on some of that tomorrow, but where the PSP "GTA" games felt like more of the same impressively packed into a handheld, this game feels like it's going to be a new flavor of "GTA." The first impression it leaves is a good one.

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