Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars HD Review

We reviewed Chinatown Wars twice already, first for the Nintendo DS, and then for the PSP. Both were highly rated, and for good reason: the Rockstar-developed game is just great, in so many ways. Yet both times I played it, heading down to Chinatown just didn’t feel the same as it’s home console brethren, the Grand Theft Auto III’s and IV. But with a new platform comes new possibilities, and the iPad brings Chinatown to the big (or at least, bigger) screen.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was made to be played on the iPad. The developers at Rockstar Leeds didn’t know it at the time, but their game was effectively muted by being on such a small screen. Even the DSi XL didn’t do it justice. No, handhelds were too flawed for such a game, and the iPad brought a whole new contender into the mix. It’s safe to say that anyone who held off on buying Chinatown Wars officially has no good excuse anymore.

The game is identical to that of the older game consoles. Huang Lee is still off playing drug and mafia wars with the Asian mob running Chinatown. Anyone who’s played the title will find no differences between this version and the prior two, except for the larger screen and on-screen controls. And while available on the iPhone as well, I highly recommend getting the iPad version instead, even if you own an iPhone 4/iPod Touch. As of now, Chinatown Wars doesn’t support the Retina display, so the iPad’s 1024×768 screen will have to make due. (According to Rockstar, support for the Retina display is not in the works, but it is on the developer’s to-do list.)

Of course, it does much more than just make do. Chinatown comes to life on a bigger screen. When I first played it on the DS, I never felt the need to use the included map, because the screen’s small size made me far too reliant on the in-game GPS, and the low resolution made it difficult to remember areas after plenty of drive-throughs, like we all remember in the home console GTA games. The PSP wasn’t as bad an offender, but limited screen real estate and loading from the UMD too easily took players out of the game.

No more. On the iPad, gamers have enough screen space to see a whole city block. Driving around town isn’t a terrible hassle. You can see ten car-lengths ahead, and never have enemies sneak up on you suddenly because they were off the screen. The big screen also makes cinematics look good, and eliminates the eye-strain of reading text on-screen.

What isn’t there to like about Chinatown Wars HD? Well, the digital controls are much harder to use than physical buttons. Driving is harder because of this. There’s more than enough space, but it’s hard to tell where the button is when there’s so much happening on-screen, and your attention is everywhere but the buttons. But like all games coming to the iPad and iPhone, this is not something developers are going to get around anytime soon.

Besides that, Chinatown Wars HD is one of the best and most time-consuming iPad games out there. It isn’t the best mobile game, thanks to the antiquated save-system, though once again neither the iPad nor iPhone version is made for iOS 4.0+. Yet unlike the game console versions, the iPad and iPhone versions can actually improve over time, with better graphics, better systems, and firmware updates. Whether Rockstar Games plans on performing such updates is yet to be seen, but for only $10, Chinatown Wars HD is a steal. Couldn’t ask for anything better with a mobile game.