Rockstar's surprise PSP installment to the formerly DS-only Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars made more sense in my hands when I played it late last month at the company's Manhattan HQ. Finally, I can explain why.
Chinatown Wars is the new version of Rockstar's 2009 return to top-down Grand Theft Auto gaming, rebuilt for Sony's handheld. The DS version was the best-reviewed game on Nintendo's portable (Read our GTA: Chinatown Wars DS review to see why).
Rockstar Games presented the PSP game to me as a more ergonomically friendly version of Chinatown Wars. I had played through the DS game happily and comfortably, with my thumbs on the d-pad and buttons and stylus cradled in my left hand, ready to be used at a moment's notice. But some people literally couldn't handle it. They'd have benefited from a third hand or the dexterity to wield their DS stylus with their teeth.
Chinatown Wars PSP, the Rockstar rep showing me the game told me, was engineered to allow players to keep their hands in constant contact with the PSP. No reaching for another control instrument for this game.
I expected that added comfort to come at a cost. I believed that the DS' touchscreen gameplay, which I had found more charming than gimmicky, would not make a successful transition to the PSP.
The PSP has no touch screen, yet Chinatown Wars DS had included a lot of smartly-made touch-screen snippets that zoomed in during typical chaotic GTA action to force momentary concentration on a more focused goal: Flicking change into a toll booth; shocking a heart to keep it alive; smashing the window of a sinking car; rummaging through trash to find a gun.
The folks at Rockstar told me this content was adjusted for the PSP version, not cut. For proof, I asked if I could hotwire one of the game's cars. I moved GTA CW protagonist Huang Lee toward a car and had hm break into it. If this had been the DS game, the lower screen would have switched to a close-up view of the dashboard and a touchscreen challenge would have begun to twist wires or punch in a code to deactivate the alarm system. On the PSP, a small comic-book-panel inset box emerged on the left side of the system's screen, right next to where my thumb was on the analogue stick. Rotating arrows showed me which way to turn the stick to unscrew a panel on the dashboard and how to twist two wires together to get the car going. The interface was smooth. My apprehension about converting touch-based challenges to stick-based challenges diminished greatly.
I drove through Liberty City to see the sights. The metropolis is rendered as it was on the DS, still top-down, still with extraordinary detail and vertical depth, just in widescreen with better textures, sharper resolution and improved lighting.
The game's map and missions haven't been changed, the Rockstar rep said. But I found that the game will play a little differently. Interface tweaks enable the player to throw grenades while still maintaining control of their car. The presence of the mini-map on the same screen as the one your character or car is on is also a game-changer. I found Chinatown Wars DS hard to play without the option turned on to render GPS routes as coloured lines on the city's roadways. Without it, I could barely tolerate having to glance away from the top DS screen where the action usually was in order to look at the lower screen to view the map. With the PSP's mini-map on the same screen as the action, that aggravation is remedied — though I like the GPS option enough that I'd probably still use it.
Rockstar is adding six radio stations to the PSP game, though sticking to the all-instrumental style of the DS release. New rampage and other variations on Chinatown Wars' side missions have been programmed for the PSP release. The most prominent of the new content may be the addition of video documentary maker Melanie Mallard. I played one of her missions, keeping her alive while Lee raided a drug warehouse. The first game had very few moments of indoor action; this new mission was full of it, playing out almost as a GTA-ized ode to Gauntlet. Mallard hung back with her camera; Huang Lee had to make sure she didn't die.
The iPhone/iPod version of Chinatown Wars wasn't announced yet when Rockstar showed me the PSP iteration, so I don't have details on how its controls and content compare to the DS and PSP games. I also wasn't able to get a clear answer from Rockstar yet about when the PSP version was greenlit. It is attractive enough and has tight enough controls that it doesn't feel like a rushed port, whether it was one or not. What it does feel like is an appropriate modification of an entertaining and content-rich game, a return to GTA's top-down roots that can soon be enjoyed by non-DS owners.
I had expected something a little clumsy with the PSP version of the game. Instead, GTA: Chinatown Wars, at first play, appears and feels to be smooth. The game will be out as a disc or download game for PSP on October 20.