iPad Game Review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (GTA:CW from now on) has had an interesting history – it was originally released in arch 2009 for the Nintendo DS, got excellent reviews and was praised by older gamers who had complained that there were too few ‘mature’ DS games … yet it didn’t sell very well. For me,it remains one of the best games for the DS. Later that year it was ported to the Sony PSP, with better graphics and audio and reworked mini-games to deal with the lack of touch control. Once again great reviews … and once again lousy sales!

In January the iPhone / iPod Touch version arrived on the App Store, though not for the first-gen iPod Touch. It was a solid port of the PSP version with some things added and others removed as noted in my review. Now, we have a HD version for the iPad. I’ve now played it, and am ready to review it and let you know how it plays – and how it compares to the others!

The Hype:
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars HD brings the most-critically acclaimed handheld title of this generation to the iPad with stunning 1024 X 768 HD graphics. With new control layouts optimized for the iPad, higher polygon-count models and all new lighting and effects, this is your chance to get behind the wheel of the best looking Chinatown Wars ever.

Left For Dead in the Worst Place in America
Following his father’s murder, Huang Lee has a simple mission: deliver an ancient sword to his Uncle Kenny to ensure his family retains control of the Triad gangs of Liberty City. Huang is a spoiled rich kid who expects everything to run smoothly, but his trip does not go exactly as planned. After being robbed and left to die, he will search for honor, riches and revenge in the most dangerous and morally bankrupt city in the world.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars HD has been specifically redesigned by Rockstar Leeds, the world’s premiere handheld studio, to deliver even more critically acclaimed, innovative GTA gaming for the iPad.

The Reality:
Back when I reviewed the iPhone version of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, I was concerned about how the game would work in terms of the transition from the DS and PSP to the iPhone. As the review indicated, the game survived quite nicely – aside from the controls, which were the worst part of the game and worse than on either the DS or PSP. For the iPad version I will run through the same list – with an added look at the game itself.

1. General Game Summary:
GTA:CW has a story that is ‘right-sized’ for a portable gaming system. You are the son of a murdered triad boss who needs to return to Liberty City to present a supposed ceremonial sword to your uncle as a way of passing the leadership. However, as soon as you arrive you are shot and dumped in the river, and need to escape and find your way to your uncle.

From there, since you no longer have the sword, you need to help your shamed uncle out of trouble and restore the family name … or do you? You will be given missions with information that leads in all sorts of different directions, with a mix of in-game and pre-rendered cutscenes delivering the plot and character interactions. This not a RPG and you really don’t have any significant choices, but you can accomplish things however you want.

This is the best portable GTA game by a wide margin – the other PSP games were ‘cut-downs’ from console versions, and lacking in many ways. They were fun, but obviously not primarily meant for the handheld gamer.

2. Installation & Compatibility:
While I lamented the lack of support for first generation iPod Touch in my review of the iPhone version, there are absolutely no issues with the HD game installing on any iPad so long as you have updated to iOS 3.2.

Another nice thing, when I initially tried the iPhone version it required more than 600MB of free space to install. Since then the installation process has become more efficient, so that even on my iPod Touch it only takes up 223MB. The HD version has higher resolution graphics, and occupies 445MB.

3. Graphics:
I was surprised by the graphics on the iPhone version of the game, and commented that “the graphics were definitely not as crisp those on my PSP Go. Not that they were substantially worse, they just didn’t pop with as much contrast and clarity as the PSP version and sometimes even felt blurry. At night I had some issues seeing things clearly, and too many things felt indistinct.” Since then the original game has been updated, but I never checked if that improved the graphics – but there is nothing in the release notes specific to graphics.

On the iPad it is a whole different story – this is the best looking version of the game by a long shot. Everything has been cleaned up, optimized and retouched to look great on the iPad. The models for just about everything are rendered at higher resolution, the lighting is more detailed, and the explosion effects were given a great deal of attention. It is more than just a scaled-up iPhone version, it is better graphically in every imaginable way.

4. Soundtrack vs. Game Size:
In my original review I complained about the greatly reduced audio resources compared to the DS and PSP versions. There were only a few stations, with your iPod left to fill the gap, and no environmental sounds to speak of. The iPhone version got an update that added 6 radio stations that brought that version in line with the PSP version.

The iPad builds on the iPhone version, with tons of in-game music and environmental sounds available to enhance the overall experience. As I said, it seems like a small thing, but roaming the city in silence felt very odd, so I’m glad that Rockstar took the time to address this issue.

5. Controls:
In my review of the iPhone version I called them the (out of) controls! I simply found that the controls were sloppy and limited, took up too much real estate, and were generally significantly worse than the DS or PSP for doing … well, anything!

So how does the iPad fare? Better – but still not perfect. The reality is that in a fast paced action game such as this the need to look to see what is going on and also keep looking at the controls to make sure your fingers haven’t slid off is just inefficient. Worse, you WILL fail missions on occasion for no reason other than that your thumb moved a fraction of an inch to one direction or another and you stopped shooting long enough to get taken out.

I found that the huge virtual analog stick was a great addition, allowing me to move around and seldom make an error, and the driving controls were also just the right size for most situations. It was when things got really frantic that I had problems with accuracy.

I loved the touch screen mini-games on the DS, and found them inadequate on the PSP and iPhone … but on the iPad they are, once again, the best version yet! The gestures are just the perfect ‘size’ to feel natural and comfortable – I tried my iPod Touch again and there is definitely a major difference!

My other complaint is that the camera is computer controlled, just like with the iPhone version. I had fiddled around again with the PSP version recently and love the use of the L & R buttons to swivel the camera, so the iPad camera self-controlling got me into trouble more than a couple of times and was generally just an inefficient hassle to deal with.

That said, while I found the controls on the iPod Touch a serious impediment to playing and enjoying the game, on the iPad it was an occasional minor hassle – and the joys of the huge mini-games balanced off the occasional mis-fire on the weapon button.

6. Overall Impressions:
To repeat what I did with the iPhone version, I will once again rank the four versions of GTA: Chinatown Wars, I would do it as follows:
– The DS version has the most balanced overall experience … but worst graphics
– The PSP version has the best movement controls.
– The iPhone version is the worst version but still a solid value
– The iPad version is the best value, has best graphics, solid controls and is my overall favorite

Once again, let me reiterate that I think all four versions of the game are excellent, and think that you should get the game for whatever platform you are using the most. The iPad and iPhone version are both priced at $9.99 on the iTunes App Store, but are still considerably cheaper than the other versions. The DS and PSP versions each currently sell for $20 at Amazon.

Review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars HD

Where to Buy: iTunes App Store

Price: $9.99

What I Like: Great graphics; Solid controls; Full port of excellent game; Cheaper than DS or PSP versions

What Needs Improvement: Controls are still somewhat sloppy during frantic action; no manual camera rotation

Source: Personal Copy

Categories: Gaming, Reviews

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