I remember reading a New York Times article that was calling the recently released entry in the Grand Theft Auto franchise of video games ‘one of the most important’ video games released in recent years. The article talks about how by bringing a fully fleshed out entry of the M-rated series to a platform generally associated with under-18 children, it signals an important milestone in the history and maturation of the video game industry. That is an awful lot to heap on a game that is barely larger than a SD card, so I will take a look and see if it really is an ‘important’ game, if it is acceptable for anyone under 18 to play, and finally if it is any good!
What is it all about?
The Grand Theft Auto (abbreviated GTA) game franchise is based around a character who is usually a low-level criminal who works his way up through the ranks of a crime organization. The gameplay involves elements of action, adventure, driving, role-playing, stealth, and racing. The series, which initially launched in 1997, has gained notoriety and infamy due to its’ mature themes and presentation. The games involve large amounts of murder, drug-dealing, coarse language, prostitution, killing police officers, vigilante action, arson, and so on. Throughout the series there has been quite a bit of controversy because of the strong attraction the game has for children under the recommended age of 17 years old.
GTA Chinatown Wars tells the story of Huang Lee, a young and spoiled son of a Triad boss who has returned to his home after his father is murdered. He had just gotten the ceremonial sword Yu-Jian from his father to give to his uncle before being murdered, and when Huang lands in Liberty City (modeled after New York City) to deliver the sword, his escorts are murdered, and he is shot, dumped in the river and left for dead. The rest of the game tells of him meeting his uncle, trying to learn about what happened to his father, and winding up in the middle of the struggles between the various factions for control of Liberty City.
The game features a wide-open Liberty City based on the one from 2008’s console favorite ‘GTA IV’, with plenty of interesting characters to meet, drug-dealers to trade with, rival gang members to battle, and of course cars and trucks to steal! The game is presented in a isometric perspective with a cel-shaded 3D graphical style, and uses the d-pad and face buttons for general controls of running and driving around the city and interacting with objects. There are also a number of mini-games involving the stylus and use of the microphone to ‘whistle’ for a cab rounding out a complete but non-gratuitous use of the DS hardware.
Is it ‘Important’?
When I hear ‘Important’ regarding media I always go back to the miniseries ‘Roots’ in the late 70’s and the early 80’s TV movie ‘The Day After’ … and the trend ever since for every television show to have at one point or other ‘an important episode the whole family must watch together’. Does that sound a bit cynical? Not really, it just means that rather than getting all excited when someone calls something ‘important’ I try to gather some insight about the context of the statement.
The reasons given for this being an important game are that it presents an unadulterated ‘mature’ experience that is in no way watered down in translation to the handheld, and of course the very fact that it is the first entry of the controversial franchise on what will soon be the best selling gaming system of all time. So while the GTA franchise has made appearances on popular consoles before, and while there have been numerous ‘Rated M’ handheld games before – including two GTA games for the PSP – things have changed. The Grand Theft Auto franchise has come to symbolize the battleground over sexual and violent content in games, and the Nintendo DS represents both an unparalleled sales success in the gaming industry and also a system most closely linked with children.
All of this makes the release of GTA Chinatown Wars a ‘milestone’, but the New York Times takes it further – it claims that an awful lot of people still live under the assumption that anything labeled ‘video game’ is pretty much ‘Donkey Kong’ and therefore good for anyone. It further states that many of these folks are parents who will readily slap down their credit card when their seven year old says ‘Mommy / Daddy, please buy me a new game for my DS, it is called Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars’ without even thinking about what is implied in the title. And when their first grader comes to them asking about why trading heroin is more profitable than downers, they will have a rude awakening.
To be honest, I don’t know if I am buying that argument. The Grand Theft Auto franchise has sold nearly 100 million copies in the twelve years since it was first released. This includes millions of copies of GTA III and its’ San Andreas and Vice City sequels for the extremely popular PS2 console. Also, video games have featured mature and controversial content since the days of 1980’s arcade games such as Mortal Kombat, and younger kids have been trying to convince parents to let them play these same games ever since they started appearing on home consoles. If you have gone anywhere video games are discussed over the past decade you have likely seen a younger kid asking for help ‘getting my parents to let me play Doom / Halo / Grand Theft Auto / insert other M-rated game here’. In fact, many of the parents of kids going through that ‘tween urge to play consume media well beyond their years were also teens during the early days of mature content in video games.
So while I might dispute the depth of the ‘importance’, I don’t begin to challenge this game as a milestone. It really is a full-on mature game experience brought to life with no compromises or apologies on the Nintendo DS.
Is it any good?
Let me state this plain and simple: I think that GTA Chinatown Wars is the best all-around game in the entire franchise.
The seamless integration of narrative and gameplay works better than in any other game in the series. The story lacks the ‘made for TV’ high drama of GTA IV, but that doesn’t mean the story isn’t good. As mentioned, you arrive back to your home in Liberty City after your father is murdered, and spend the rest of the game unwrapping the mystery of what happened to him and what is going on between the various crime factions of the city. You do this by taking on missions with a variety of people, which involves interacting with them and learning more and more about them as individuals and more about your character.
Technically the game is amazing – the reason the game is so well integrated is that they chose to use a cel-shaded 3D presentation for the main game and a graphic novel presentation for the cutscenes. Each style works perfectly for its’ own purpose while making the transitions seamless. The top down presentation used for the main game hearkens back to the older GTA games, but this isn’t a retro throwback: you can rotate the view and the graphics are highly detailed and the added cel shading adds a tremendous amount of character. It is amazing to me the sense of speed the game delivers.
One thing I wasn’t sure of was how driving would feel, and while there is some lack of precision due to the D-pad, each car feels and handles differently and really gives you a sense of what it is like to drive it. For example, steering a delivery van feels slow and ponderous while a sports car tends to over-steer and accelerate quickly. It is also amazing that they have packed nearly the entire Liberty City as shown in GTA IV without losing any scope or detail.
But where the game really takes off is the integration of the PDA and touch screen. The bottom screen shows you the mini-map and some additional info, and tapping on it brings up a full multi-faceted PDA with access to a larger map of the area along with way points and assignable markers. You can also use the GPS to map your way to a local dealer or plot-critical character. The touch screen is used for the PDA and also a number of mini-games such as hot-wiring cars and slashing open secret panels on vans.
I think I’ve made it clear that the game hits it right on just about everything – from graphics to sound to story to gameplay to integration of the touchscreen, GTA Chinatown Wars is the sort of game that will keep you coming back for more.
Is it OK for kids?
To answer this question with a question, do you want your 10-year old coming up and asking why heroin is so much more valuable than acid? Or what that lady means when she says ‘you want a piece of MY pie?’ about every fourth time your kid opens their DS? The answer is probably a solid ‘no’ to both of those questions, and with solid reasoning.
My kids are in 5th and 6th grade right now, so I hear a lot about getting access to M-rated games, especially from my older son who has a penchant for more violent games (wonder where he got THAT from?). Many of their friends have played several of the GTA games on consoles, but given that we had friends who allowed their 5-year old to watch R-rated movies and play M-rated games, the ‘but my friends are doing it’ held little sway over us. The general theme of the GTA games is clear – you are part of a crime world and you will be required to murder innocents, take out police, buy and sell drugs, deal with prostitutes, and more in the course of playing. GTA Chinatown Wars is a little different in that Huang Lee is generally trying to make decent choices, but he is still a harsh character who isn’t above brutal violence to accomplish his goals.
That said, I certainly am not someone who believes that violent video games create violent people, nor do I see the GTA games as the root of all evil. Far from it – I tend to see media as a reflection of society, and also think that violent media in various forms can be cathartic. Not to get on a soapbox here, but the bulk of research has shown the the vast majority of kids can easily tell reality from fantasy, and separate research in years past has shown that the impact of watching real violence on TV (from the news, for example) is much more stressful than watching something that kids know isn’t real.
But I also believe that there is a time and place for everything – our kids have only recently started watching R-rated movies, and only with us (starting with the ‘why is this rated R’ Stand By Me). There are loads of wonderful movies rated G/PG/PG-13 and therefore no need to rush to R. The same is true with video games. There are so many excellent E and E-10 and T-rated games available that there is no need for them to rush into M-rated games yet. Part of this also has to do with the gameplay – many of the games with M-ratings have higher levels of violence and are often first-person or third-person shooters. While I love those genres, they really bother my wife due to the visceral and interactive nature of the violence, and therefore they are genres we have de-emphasized with the kids.
That is a long way of saying ‘it depends’. But then, that is really what all ratings systems are designed to do – not to give you a hard and fast rule, but more to provide guidance to help make informed decisions. For us, for now, that means saying ‘no’ to our kids playing GTA Chinatown Wars for now. You might read all of this and look at the game and say ‘sure’ to your kids who might be the same age – to me what is most important is that parents take time to make an informed decision. And hopefully this can help a little bit.
A Final Thought
Since finishing the game for a second time and writing most of this, a new article (http://www.businessinsider.com/take-twos-grand-theft-auto-chinatown-wars-bombs-2009-4) appeared, looking at sales of GTA Chinatown Wars during the first ‘month’ of release (actually first couple of weeks). The sales of this ‘important’ game only totaled up to ~89,000 in those first weeks, leading some to call it a ‘bomb’. Others, however, say that the ‘movie theater’ business model that also seems to work for console games – which basically says that you’re going to hit the vast majority of sales in the first few weeks – doesn’t apply to the majority of DS games.
Looking at games such as Mario Kart (still topping charts years after release) and even Call of Duty World at War (<60,000 first month, now more than 500,000), that analogy works pretty well. Another article at Joystiq compares the game to Spore Creatures and LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Spore has sold over a million and LEGO Star Wars more than 2.5 million despite selling <45,000 in their first couple of weeks). I think that is a reasonable thought process and think we’ll continue to see this game sell more and more copies as the months go by. Of course, in a month we’ll have the April sales data and know better how things will trend with time.
Of course that begs the question – is the ‘importance’ of the game diminished or enhanced based on sales numbers? I believe the answer is ‘NO’ – some of the best and most influential games ever released were things like Planescape: Torment and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, and neither of those sold massive amounts. I think that this much is clear – GTA Chinatown Wars is an excellent game that delivers a fully Mature and deep experience for the Nintendo DS and is worth getting for any adult gamers who own the system.
MSRP: $34.99 (Amazon Link)
What I Like:
- Graphics are nicely done
- Controls work well
- Overall structure is perfectly suited for a handheld
- Story and mission design is excellent
- A blast to play even when you’re doing nothing at all productive.
What Needs Improvement:
- Tends to drain your DS battery faster than most other games.