While certain features of "Grand Theft Auto" games can elicit scandalized reactions, those same features -- including the already-notorious drug-dealing game in the DS' upcoming "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars" -- often exhibit some clever gameplay mechanics. Seriously.
The M-rated "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars" that arrives in mid-March will let players virtually deal heroin, ecstasy, weed, cocaine, acid and downers. That much was revealed when Edge magazine featured the game in a cover story a couple of months. The article's author mentioned this aspect, an apparent ode to the old, popular PDA game "Dope Wars." For some, that might be all the information needed to write this game off as another one of those "GTA" games glamorizing bad behavior.
But, put that aside for this post and let's consider the game design here.
"Chinatown Wars" stars Huang Lee, a young Chinese-American who Rockstar Games reps described to MTV Multiplayer as a bit of a "spoiled brat." He doesn't use drugs in "Chinatown Wars," but he can sell them. He doesn't have to sell them, but it does help his cash flow.
As Rockstar's demo man for "Chinatown Wars" explained it, the economy in this "GTA" is different from those in the series' past. The player-character still earns money by completing missions, but he won't net the increasingly big bucks netted in the earlier "GTA" games. Huang Lee will not be a crime boss or top-earning mercenary. He'll make peanuts for his anti-social efforts. So he'll need to make extra money to buy extra weapons and who knows what else. Dealing is one such way to make the money.
As a gamer, the first red flag that I saw regarding the drug-dealing was that it sounded like managing it could be boring or tedious. The player won't hire lieutenants; they'll have to make Lee do each deal himself. Drug prices vary across Liberty City, and the idea of traveling cross-town to make a sale every time my character needs extra money sounded like a drag. Not to worry, the Rockstar reps said: locations for sales are abundant. Sales will be easy to make en route to missions and won't detract from the action. We'll see. Obviously this mechanic will need to be finely balanced so it doesn't feel like enforced grinding, some ort of repetitive, un-fun but required action. That would scandalize me as much as any other aspect of the drug-dealing mini-game.
The system has another wrinkle. The just-published February 2009 issue of Edge exposed another complexity to the game's drug system:
"Chinatown Wars'" "Dope Wars"-like trading minigame is lent greater depth by an economy that's affected by CCTV cameras. When destroyed, these cameras are the equivalent of '"GTA IV"'s pigeons or "GTA III"'s hidden packages, but have a distinct effect on the economics of the area they're in. Prices tumble in regions where cameras have been taken out, while remaining higher where they still work, though the risks of being caught in the act of dealing are also greater.
This is all classic Rockstar, plumbing the depth of notorious behavior and extracting innovative gameplay.
Ultimately, what we're considering here is an economics mini-game tucked into a "Grand Theft Auto."
We'll see when the M-rated "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars" goes on sale on March 17 in the U.S.