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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars HD: Not The Masterpiece It Could Have Been

After just finishing playing Gameloft’s Gangstar, moving on to GTA: Chinatown Wars HD felt like a natural progression. Rockstar’s reputation and the solid history of the Grand Theft Auto franchise on consoles and handhelds alike led me to expect a solid product on iPad. And that’s what I got. A solid effort. Nothing more, nothing less. The iPad version of Chinatown Wars feels like a game that is within arms reach of greatness, but handcuffed by a few unfortunate limitations. These flaws are especially apparent after having played Gangstar on iPhone, a game which somehow manages to do a better job of simulating open-world crime despite its shoddy visuals and clumsy story . . . GTA certainly isn’t without its strengths. Rockstar has given us a big, complex game with some great visuals and a nicely-woven story. It succeeds in some places where Gangstar fails, but ultimately does little to really stand out.

This time around, you come to Liberty City as Huang Lee, a young man whose father has just died, and must leave his homeland to ensure that his family stays in control of the triad Gang in Liberty City. At the center of this story are a corrupt uncle and an ancient sword that must be delivered if the Lee name isn’t going to be trashed amongst the major players of organized crime . . . The story is adequately layered, and populated with enough colorful characters that fit the mold of eccentricity we expect from Rockstar and GTA. In a major contrast to Gangstar, there is no voice acting. Instead, we see cut scenes as mere slides with text at the bottom. Call it style or what have you, but this method isn’t as engaging as true cut scenes and voices. But even so, Rockstar displays their mastery of story with the complexity of the plot, which shows a clear upper hand over Gameloft’s best efforts.

The gameplay and controls are where the real flaws start to show. As usual for this type of third person setting, a joystick on the left controls your player’s movement on foot, while punch, jump, and action buttons are all on the right. Shooting weapons simply requires that you turn in the general direction of the enemy, and the gun will auto lock. Some bullets will be wasted, but you’ll ultimately take out the target. It’s a sufficient mechanic, but leaves you feeling less in control than with with Gangstar’s gun fighting . . . On that same note, Rockstar should take a cue from their imitators and do away with the left/right arrows for controlling vehicles. How about tilt controls or a digital steering wheel? The directional arrows result in a lot of banging around while trying to chase down an enemy or escape the cops, and this distracts from the experience.

The visuals are Rockstar’s greatest strength in this iPad port. The big screen is a great home for the glossy, slick graphics that are far and above any other open-world game of this scope. But even here the developers didn’t take full advantage of what would seem to be at their fingertips. The third-person perspective offered by Chinatown Wars doesn’t allow you to touch the screen and adjust the viewing pane. Instead, we’re stuck with the top-down view, and never get a chance to look up at the building or take in the expansive city on a larger level. Again, I’m reminded of Gangstar, and left missing the ability to soak in the city by moving my head and eyes around at will.

There’s no question that Rockstar knows what they’re doing and tapped into some great ideas with Chinatown Wars. The small windows that pop up when you need to accomplish an action like breaking a window, hot wiring a car, or making a molotov cocktail are a great touch, as is the drug selling system and the depth afforded by your PDA’s capabilities. But what’s it all for if the game falls short in action? Driving is a big part of GTA, and so is looking at your surroundings. On these counts, I’ll take Gangstar. Chinatown Wars HD is definitely worth playing for enthusiasts, who can expect to find all the detail, glamour, and level of explicit content they’ve come to expect. But for now, GTA on iPad isn’t the final word for open-world crime on iOS, which is what we might have expected . . . Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for that.

Our Score: 3/5

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