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Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (iPhone) review: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (iPhone)

The success of a GTA port for the iPhone was always going to rest on the implementation of good controls. Rockstar has quite a ways to go before it masters this aspect on the iPhone platform.

Joseph Hanlon Special to CNET News
Joe capitalises on a life-long love of blinking lights and upbeat MIDI soundtracks covering the latest developments in smartphones and tablet computers. When not ruining his eyesight staring at small screens, Joe ruins his eyesight playing video games and watching movies.
Joseph Hanlon
3 min read

Games for Apple's iPhone are quickly advancing in sophistication, moving beyond mere find-a-words and Sudoku boards and onto the brink of what some might consider hardcore games. We've got a Halo clone in Gameloft's N.O.V.A., fully-fledged EA Sports titles and now Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars which was originally developed for the Nintendo DS.


Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (iPhone)

The Good

Great design. Awesome soundtrack. Varied gameplay.

The Bad

Mastering on-screen controls is much more difficult than the game mechanics.

The Bottom Line

GTA Chinatown Wars loses little of its charm in this port from the DS/PSP to the iPhone, but the smartphone's touchscreen makes for a difficult control scheme, especially at the game's break-neck speeds.

You play as Huang Lee, the son of a recently murdered gang boss and the heir to a lot of misery in the seedy underbelly of Liberty City. Lee's goal is restore honour to his family and avenge his father's death, but doing this requires him to first earn the respect of his father's peers, a motley mix of egocentric low-lives who immediately put Lee to work running errands of murder, terrorise and peddle drugs — standard Rockstar fare.

GTA - story

The excellent story of Chinatown Wars is told in stills.
(Credit: Rockstar)

In terms of tone, language and explicit themes, Chinatown Wars loses nothing in the transition to the small screen. The characters are a dark mix of flaws, there's plenty of humour and the music is a real highlight. The 3D animations of Grand Theft Auto 4 are replaced by colourful still images and subtitles, but this doesn't detract from the game's ability to tell a story: a testament to the game's direction.

After the game's lengthy opening sequence there is the game itself to play; a mix of running, driving, killing and negotiating a fairly complex in-game GPS-cum-PDA system. As with its original incarnation on the DS, Chinatown Wars for iPhone assumes a top-down view for the player, reminiscent of the first handful of titles in the GTA series. This view trades complex visuals for speed in gameplay and the result is a lightning-fast frame rate but not an always coherent gaming experience. Jump in a fast sports car and you can all but forget about where the next turn is as you plough through oncoming traffic at break-neck speeds.

The game's on-screen controls don't help the confusion much, though we applaud Rockstar for attempting to make the controls as simple as possible. There are two basic control schemes: a left-aligned thumbstick with action buttons on the right for when Lee is on-foot, and simplified left and right directional controls plus accelerate and braking keys for when Lee is driving a car. Paring back the driving controls is a good option and we're seriously glad cars aren't controlled with the accelerometer as they are in dozens of other iPhone games, but we still much prefer the mechanical controls you would have if you played Chinatown Wars on the DS. The on-screen controls give no feedback (a fault of the iPhone's and not the game's) and games like GTA require quick reflexes and lots of input. Sometimes the difference between completing a mission and failing one is a poorly placed finger on the screen. As the player you can choose to forgive these terrible controls in favour of the game or you will soon become frustrated.

GTA controls

You try controlling this chaos with those on-screen controls! (Credit: Rockstar)

The position of the iPhone's headphone socket is also a consideration for us when playing a game that requires us to hold the phone sideways and interact with the screen constantly. In its favour, Chinatown Wars does auto-rotate regardless of which way you hold the phone, but we found that regardless of the direction the headphone socket still had us holding the phone in an unusual manner.

It is fantastic to see a game of Chinatown Wars' depth on the iPhone, but playing it on Apple's smartphone only makes the difference between the iPhone and a dedicated gaming system all the clearer, and during this review we longed for the DS with its mechanical controls and user-friendly form factor. The game runs superbly, it has a great aesthetic and an awesome soundtrack, and the gameplay has potential to be fast, furious fun if you manage to master the controls better than we did. We suggest waiting until Rockstar drops the price.