With just over four months to go before its blockbuster, records-breaking release, I obviously don’t have any sway over Grand Theft Auto V‘s design. Only showed to a small batch of reporters, the word coming out of Rockstar’s gameplay unveiling a few weeks back is promising, but I need more. The Grand Theft Auto games for home consoles have become increasingly impressive on a technical basis, but they’ve always left a lot of the fun out of the equation in favor of more grating realism. Somehow I dream that GTAV adheres more to the lightweight design of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, the oft-forgotten and most enjoyable game of the series, rather than the intense drama of its immediate predecessor that also ruined Max Payne 3.
Chinatown Wars came and went, almost like a mouse fart. The game was unveiled as a mere logo at Nintendo’s E3 2008 press conference to remind the crowds that “mature” titles were coming to the Nintendo DS and that it wasn’t just bright and colorful children’s fair. When I (finally) bought my Nintendo DS in early 2009, the game quickly became my favorite for the system, even knocking me off my first and only days-long Pokemon addiction. A top-down game similar to the series roots – and my second favorite game, GTA2 – you play Huang, a Chinese national who arrives in Liberty City to help his Uncle’s drug empire after his father bites the big one. Shot up at the airport, his family’s prized sword is taken and he’s presumed dead by his uncle’s clueless bodyguards, who proceed to dump off his broken body. Welcome to America, as they say.
Aside from an ethnic twist, this story is the same as any GTA game: you’re on the low end of the stick and must work through each successive crime boss until you’re on top. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. When we think of touch controls these days, we’re bound to think of smartphones and tablets, but Chinatown Wars‘ debut on the DS was greeted with a mushy resistive touch screen and the requisite stylus. While it didn’t always feel great on the DS, implementing touch-enabled mini-games was a masterstroke that carried over flawlessly to iOS. Jacking a car prompted a random mini-game in which you actually went through the (greatly simplified) motions of disarming a car’s alarm system and stealing the vehicle. Chinatown Wars featured shops where you could buy scratch-off lotto tickets, which fit the stylus perfectly, and dragging your “pharmaceuticals” in and out of your stash was incredibly rewarding.
The game wasn’t just about story beats, though. The inclusion of a Drug Wars-style metagame that worked itself into the story on occasion. By finding new dealers and paying attention to e-mail alerts for specially-demanded drugs around town, you could make a fortune running a variety of drugs. From time to time, the deal would be a bust and the cops would swarm in, threatening to ruin your entire streak if you hadn’t cashed in, yet. When I played it for the first time, I skipped out on the story missions entirely and unlocked all of my safehouses around town right off the bat because I’d made so much money. Only problem with building a fortune in Chinatown Wars? There’s almost nothing to spend it on.
Still, I know it’s tempting for Rockstar to include everything and the kitchen sink for their new game, but I dream of a game I don’t need to push myself to enjoy. A game that’s fun enough to keep me hooked for days and weeks and months. Saints Row figured it out. Just Cause did, too. Can Rockstar?