Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Review

By Patrick Klepek - Posted Jan 29, 2010

The Pros
  • Looks absolutely gorgeous on the iPhone screen
  • Possibly the best value proposition on the iPhone
  • Great melding of old school GTA with new mechanics
The Cons
  • Virtual buttons are a hassle and often confusing

The imitators--and there's a whole list of them--should watch out. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars has landed on the iPhone and it's an impressive accomplishment by Rockstar Games. Though by no means perfect, Chinatown Wars is one of the most ambitious games released for Apple's platform and acutely reflects the increased level of respect for the device coming from traditional game publishers. When your platform gets Grand Theft Auto, it's officially on.

GTA: Chinatown Wars (iPhone)


If you’re not familiar with G4’s Best Handheld Game of 2009, this page is a good starting point for learning more. The once Nintendo DS-exclusive iteration of the Grand Theft Auto franchise received a visual makeover for its PSP release, which Rockstar has transplanted to the iPhone version, too. Outside of its modified look, the central difference between the iPhone, PSP and DS versions is rooted in the controls. Since Chinatown Wars was originally built on the DS, however, that's an important distinction as it affects a number of mechanics integral to the core gameplay.

iPhone games with virtual buttons, d-pads and analog sticks on the screen are doing it wrong. The best iPhone games are the ones that recognize this misguided effort and use mechanics that work within the confines of the touch screen, rather than trying to make it do something it's not supposed to. With that said, Chinatown Wars does make use of virtual buttons to perform nearly every action in the game, plus an analog stick and d-pad to accomplish moving around the world.

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As is the case with most other iPhone games that push this control method, it doesn't really work. The lack of tangible buttons means you're never totally sure if your thumb is on the left or right side of the virtual d-pad controlling a car. Most of the time, it's not an issue because Chinatown Wars doesn't require particularly strict movement. Whenever you're being chased by cops and must force cop cars to crash, however, strict movement is required and it is frustrating to watch your car spin out of control because your thumb slipped an inch over. After some practice, driving proves pretty manageable, but the three buttons that manipulate punching, kicking and rolling/jumping on the right-hand side never feel absolutely natural. How come I can't just tap an enemy on the screen with my finger to have my character shoot them?

GTA: Chinatown Wars (iPhone)


Working in Chinatown Wars's favor, however, is that the gameplay driving those controls is absolutely fantastic. Nothing content-wise has changed for the worse during the transition to iPhone and what you're getting for just $9.99 is an absolutely unheard of value. Chinatown Wars is the best handheld iteration yet and a welcomed hybrid of old school and new-age Grand Theft Auto.

Not everything suffers from the focus on touch, either. The interface in the iPhone version is the most user-friendly one yet. Being able to tap the mini-map in the corner to bring up a full map of Liberty City (and set a GPS route by clicking any destination) just feels right. You even slide your finger across the screen to delete an in-game email, ala the iPhone's built-in mail application. It's enough to make you wish for an iPhone-specific Grand Theft Auto.

Control gripes aside, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a phenomenal offering from Rockstar. If this is an indication of how seriously the company plans on taking the platform, that's a very good sign.