"Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars," released in March and October of 2009 for Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, respectively, arrived with little fanfare on the App Store earlier this week. I've spent a bit of time tooling around with Rockstar's isometric representation of the Liberty City built for 2008's blockbuster release, "Grand Theft Auto IV," and the experience easily measures up to what you get out of the versions released for the dedicated handheld gaming devices. Assuming you can get over not having any real buttons to press.
Functionally, "Chinatown Wars" for iPhone is a direct port of what's already available. The open city, lengthy story, drug pushing sideline activities and touch-based minigames appear on the iPhone. If anything, this latest port falls closer to the original DS release than it does to the touch control-lacking PSP release.
It's not a perfect experience. Touch screen controls are fine for walking around, but any driving that involves maneuvers more complex than traveling forward and turning is... problematic. Never has the need for some kind of D-pad/face button-equipped iPhone dock to be released been more apparent. The game runs as smoothly as it does on either of the other handhelds, but the controls frequently rise up as a barrier to having fun.
There's also the iPhone's small screen to contend with. The DS and PSP both have display space that Apple's device doesn't, and that fact is immediately apparent in the early stages of the game. As you drive around and receive tutorial instructions, text pop-ups appear frequently, getting in the way of the on-screen action. It doesn't ruin the experience completely, but it's definitely enough of a distraction to demand mentioning.
Ultimately, it's hard to ignore the basic facts. We're talking about a $9.99 version of "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars," arguably one of the strongest and deepest handheld games released in recent years. And you can play it on your cellphone. Those are the sort of details that help you to get over some of the minor quibbles.