It seems Rockstar Leeds did everything right with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on DS - everything, it seems, except give it to an audience that would fully appreciate its charms. Far from a poor seller, it nonetheless seemed a relative disappointment compared to the stellar sales the franchise is used to achieving on other platforms.
That’s not the reason for bringing the game to PSP, though. Rockstar always planned Chinatown Wars as a handheld GTA, not a DS GTA. Playing through a fairly complete build of the game in the developer's swanky Fulham office, that becomes readily apparent.
Those wondering how a dual-screen experience with heavy touch-based elements could possibly survive the transition to a single screen with traditional controls can stop worrying.
The GPS has been minimised to a small dial in the bottom left of the screen, just like the console versions. With a wider, sharper, less restricted view of your surroundings (and a fully rotatable camera) we found ourselves far less reliant on it for taking fast-approaching turns.
Those who struggled with the rather severe auto-correct while driving around Liberty City on the DS are also in for a pleasant surprise, as its implementation feels a lot more subtle here. Perhaps it’s because of the larger playing field, or perhaps it’s just the introduction of analogue steering, but driving around definitely feels more natural on the PSP.
One major concern for some was how the quirky mini-game sections would make the transition. Perhaps the best thing we can say for them at this early point is that it doesn’t feel like a transition at all.
When searching for a firearm in a dumpster you simply tap ‘L’ and ‘R’ to remove the rubbish bags. Unscrewing the dashboard panel in order to hotwire a car is a simple case of rotating the analogue nub in the appropriate direction.
On paper the Molotov-making mini-game sounds complicated: press Triangle to pick up the fuel hose, keep it over the bottle with the analogue nub, press Triangle again to put the nozzle away, press ‘X’ to put a rag in, tap ‘Down’ on the D-pad to stuff it in and repeat. In practice, however, there’s a nice rhythm to it, and discreet button prompts ensure that you never get confused.
What this all amount to is a GTA experience that feels, at this early stage, perfectly at home on PSP, and potentially better suited to the platform than Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories.
Elsewhere there’s the kind of improvements you’d expect given the extra PSP grunt at Rockstar’s disposal. While the cel-shaded style remains, there’s greater feeling of depth to the city. Cars are decidedly more three dimensional, giving them a greater sense of weight and heft.
Undoubtedly the most noticeable visual improvements come with the new special effects. Buildings and trees cast realistic shadows during the day, while at night the game’s gorgeous new lighting effects come into play, with street lamps and car headlights illuminating Liberty City beautifully (distractingly so, in fact).
Special mention should be made, too, of the ramped up explosions and fire effects. They really do make those destructive rampages all the more satisfying.
Speaking of destructive rampages, we got to play one of a handful of brand new missions added to the PSP version. Climbing into a NOOSE tank, our task was to build and retain a wanted level of at least three stars until receiving further instructions. With a fully operational cannon at our disposal, this first part was not difficult.
Having caused quite enough chaos, sending cars and SWAT vans soaring through the air, we were instructed to dump the tank in the sea. Having driven off a pier (with the FIB in hot pursuit), we had to escape from our sinking ride by rotating the analogue nub to open the hatch. Job done.
It’s a huge game, of course, so our brief time with Chinatown Wars PSP gives only a partial indication as to which version deserves the ultimate bragging rights. What we’re fairly certain of, though, is that come October both DS and PSP owners alike will have every reason to be happy with their handheld purchases.