Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cross Blog Dialogue: GTA: Chinatown Wars #3

It has been a few weeks since the last Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars exchange between myself and Daniel so it's easy to assume that we both gave up on the game. Not true! No, we both plan on seeing it through to the end and discussing it in its entirety, regardless of poor sales or a lack of discussion elsewhere. We are thoroughly enjoying the game and believe it is worth discussing, if you agree and also happen to be playing the game currently then please feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments below.

Need a refresher?
Cross Blog Dialogue: GTA: Chinatown Wars #1
Cross Blog Dialogue: GTA: Chinatown Wars #2

Daniel: The music initially bothered me as it just sounded like irritable chip tunes with some overlayed synthesizes, but it’s not actually too bad. It loops regularly like you said, but I don’t find that it grates too often. I particularly enjoy the music as played in this trailer, sounds perfectly suited to the cops-and-robbers nature of this game.

All of my in-game options are default, so I have the drive assist on and I don’t use the on-road arrow markers. Driving is mostly great, the biggest issue is the headway the camera provides, but it’s not too problematic and you can always refer to the mini-map as you drive. Occasionally the screen switching will make driving hazardous. The feel of the driving reminds me a lot of Micro Machines on the Megadrive and PSone, particularly when you’re stuck in a pursuit with the police. I also like how it’s easier to drive and fire, which was always a problem for me in the other titles.

I think Micro Machines is a pretty good comparison to make with this title, particularly with the visual design. The props and architecture littering the landscape jump out at you, it’s like a digital pop-up book (you remember those right?). Even more so in GTA: Chinatown Wars with the broader lines and more intricate architecture. The original two GTA games weren’t so much like this were they? Although buildings were 3D models, the camera was strictly top down, giving the game a different aesthetic vibe. Can you speak a little more about the differences here, as well as any other ties to the early games?

It’s interesting that you don’t feel so compulsed to explore the environment. Perhaps the opposite will occur when I play GTA IV and realize that the map is the same. Are there enough changes in the environment to keep you interested, that is with the new perspective, rendering and CW specific areas (gas stations, safe houses etc.)? Or does it just feel wholly derivative?

Lastly, one of the commenters in the last post mentioned that you can drag the icons from the PDA menu onto the quick launch. I tried this but it didn’t seem to work, maybe I’m doing it wrong. What about you?

Steven: Despite looping fairly frequently I have to say that I quite like the game’s soundtrack. It manages to cover different genres surprisingly and if I get bored of one station I can easily (and perhaps more importantly, quickly) change to a new one. I have to say that I was very curious as to how Rockstar would approach radio stations and the game’s soundtrack in Chinatown Wars, given the limitations of the DS. I knew they would find a compromise but I was expecting a lot less variety than what we got in the final product. Like the rest of the game, it’s quite a technical achievement when you consider that it also features some voices that come from the pedestrians. Let’s be honest, they didn’t need to include any voices in the game, it wouldn’t have affected the experience in any way and yet they did anyway. They sure do love their attention to detail. I also like how a lot of the game’s tunes are real songs, with the main theme song being created specifically for the game (as far as I know). That’s pretty cool if I say so myself.

I agree that the game gives a Micro Machines vibe while driving and as you say, for the most part driving around Liberty City is great. I liked how the way cop chases work kind of taught you how to drive around the city better, avoiding cars and objects at higher speeds while also allowing you to lose the cops fairly quickly if you accidently touched them. Of course the driving assists help here, making sharp corners a lot easier than they otherwise would be but with or without the aid, weaving in and out of traffic and reaching a destination is a lot easier than it arguably should be in a top-down game like this one. I also found that changing the game’s GPS options so that arrows would be displayed on the top screen helped out as well, as it meant not having to glance down to the bottom one occasionally in order to make sure I was still going the right way. Firing at enemies while driving is easy too, as you say and I like how when you are side-by-side with another vehicle the shots you fire are aimed at that vehicle rather than randomly. It’s a nice, subtle touch. I find what you say interesting when you compare Chinatown Wars – particularly the visual style – to Micro Machines, using a pop-up book as an example. While I can see where you’re coming from, my (admittedly foggy) memory of Micro Machines is that the objects surrounding the tracks were quite simple and kept that way to ensure that you followed the track and didn’t get confused by any clutter. Chinatown Wars is refined in a similar way but is certainly not simplistic with a lot more on screen and of course attention to detail. In fact I am still constantly surprised by just how much detail is in the game. It’s just, stunning.

As for comparing it to the older, isometric GTA games, I will be honest and say that I can’t. It has been a long time since I played those and my memory just would not be able to do any comparisons justice. Playing through Chinatown Wars has sparked an interest in playing those two titles again though (plus GTA: London) so I can relive some childhood memories. In fact, I think it would be awesome to see the games released on the PSN/XBLA services. It would compliment GTA IV (and beyond) nicely I think. Hopefully we see something along those lines happen shortly but if not, I’m sure I can find copies of the games on the net somewhere.

There are enough changes in CW’s version of Liberty City so it hasn’t been derivative at all. As I explained in one of our earlier exchanges, there is less motivation to go out and explore because I do feel like I already know the city well enough, but subtle things like road changes and locations of certain things such as service stations are enough that whenever I am out on a drive the place is never boring. Add in the random events that can happen (again, something I’ve mentioned in a previous exchange) and the game remains compelling the entire time. I guess I am just approaching the city differently this time, not looking absolutely everywhere for hidden cars or things like that because I feel like I already know whether a car is going to be there or not. Yet I also feel like I am missing things, like possible easter eggs or hidden goodies. I feel like I have only scratched the surface of Liberty City and because of this I’ve started to explore a little bit more thoroughly in recent sessions with the game. What about you, how are you finding the city and have you stumbled upon anything cool or hidden? Based on what you have heard from me, do you think you will explore GTA IV when you play it or that you will be a bit more blasé because you will recognize some locations?

Daniel: Before I get into it, I did actually get the quick launch shortcuts working, so big call out to lis for sharing that with us.

I dig the pedestrian voices too, they really chip away at sad social stigmas and all that. Always gives me a chuckle. I agree, Micro Machines often pushed most of the household commodities to the side, unless they created the track design itself (acting as ramps, markers and so forth). Chinatown Wars is much more dense in that regard, which as you nudge at, is what forms part of its beauty; there is so much to visually take in. Sometimes I just want to quit a mission just to mosey around at some of the visuals for a bit. Last week on Co-op (online video games show, ex-1UP’ers) they discussed this title with unfortunately less enthusiasm than I had hoped. One of the interesting commentaries was that Chinatown Wars is a continuation of the design from the Tony Hawk threesome for DS, which I also think is very true.

Actually, you can download the original two GTA titles through the RockStar website free of charge. I have trouble accessing it though, might be an Opera thing, I’m not sure.

Recently I finished the main selection of missions and have been off attempting to round out the last 30% or so in hidden extras. One of the biggest surprises was the Liberty City Guns club, where you can participate in 5 or so small, arms-training mini games. The same goes for the go-kart track, with the four time trial races. Very neat. Early on I found the chainsaw which is my weapon-of-choice, very effective, doesn’t waste bullets and makes light work of enemies.

I think that when I play GTA IV, I’ll likely explore at a similar rate, it’s just a play style that I’ve adopted in recent years - gather as you go. I use to leave all extras until the end of a game for a while and then realized that it’s just better to mix the main quest and off-time activities, it’s like cheese and biscuits; they’re made to complement each other.

As I’ve discussed with you outside of these posts, I adore this hybridized approach to game design that’s been put to clever use here. Rockstar have approached old material and freshened it up with modern perks. I wouldn’t label it Neo-Retro or anything like that, but the game certainly has vintage blood running through its veins. Do you find playing this pokes at nostalgia lane a little? Is this title more of a GTA 1,2 and London or a GTA IV and San Andreas? Where do you draw the line on this spectrum?

Although I don’t have an extensive history with the series, here’s how I slice it. The overhead camera almost forces one to group this together with the earlier titles, but once you start playing, the small quirks from the newer titles begin to seep in. The density of the city, the PDA system, the set piece crashes etc. You’ve got the two games living inside one another. The DS functionality almost feels like the glue between the two. It connects the overhead play (GTA1-2) with the PDA system (GTA4), the conventional way of play (retro-esque) with the touch screen interaction (modern). There’s no doubt a push and pull effect going on, it’s marvelous and along with the presentation, colours this title a brand of it’s own.

Steven: Yeah the pedestrian voices are hilarious and hearing something like “I’m still a virgin” after you accidently bump into someone makes me smirk every time. The off-handed comments hearkens back to the more juvenile humour of the original games, which conveniently brings me to the hybridized elements that you mention. It’s almost as if Rockstar intended GTA: Chinatown Wars to be a summary of the entire franchise, combining everything you allude to (and more) in order to effectively convey what they want the series to be about. Simple additions that weren’t in GTA IV such as Rampages and the emergency services missions are staples of the series and their inclusion in CW is just one small example of something that is, arguably, a defining feature of the franchise. Throw in a handling system for the various vehicles that is quite similar to IV’s more tighter controls (Chinatown’s inclusion of assists to help make tight turns easier reminds me of the refined handling from IV); the PDA that has similar functions to the phone from IV, as well as IV’s version of Liberty City and you have a combination that, to me anyway, seems to summarise what Rockstar believes the series is about, the core of it anyway. The unique interactions using the DS stylus, as well as other DS-specific inclusions also demonstrates that while the series has a core, it also has mass potential to head in unexpected directions and constantly redefine what it can be. Whether you’re talking about using a platform successfully when no one thought it could work (Chinatown Wars) or changing one’s perspective on something ultimately familiar (GTA IV: Lost And Damned); the series has already been reinvented in unpredictable ways and I can only see that continuing with further installments. Returning to Chinatown Wars though, do you agree with me in that it seems like a summary of the franchise or if not that, then something along those lines?

To answer your question, it does poke at my memories a little though I wouldn’t call it nostalgia. I was a kid back when I played the original games and as I’ve mentioned before, memory of them is a little hazy but subtle things here and there definitely do remind me of my time with those games and as a result, playing Chinatown Wars is almost charming. Hard to believe when you’re constantly stealing cars, killing people and being a drug dealer, but I guess when one reminisces one remembers the good old times, or something. Anyway, it’s an interesting contrast because as I’ve also said, including these past elements while also basically being a handheld version of IV (minus a decent narrative and other things though, of course) is a little weird for someone like me who has been with the series since its inception.

On Co-Op’s discussion of the show, it definitely wasn’t as in-depth as I would have expected from those guys (long time watcher of both the 1up-Show and now Co-Op) but it was still nice to hear what they thought about it and to see it being discussed when, of course, the game still seems to be flying under the radar. I’m glad the guys managed to work out a way to feature DS games in the show again too because I remember when they first started Co-Op, they mentioned that it wasn’t easy to do. Unfortunately for me I can’t comment on the comparisons to the Tony Hawk DS games as I haven’t played them.

Weapon of choice so far for me has been the flamethrower – there’s something strangely satisfying about burning the citizens of Liberty City to the ground, not to mention their cars and anything else I can set alight. If I may ask, where is this gun club? I keep on hearing about it because a little message pops up from time to time informing me of a new weapon I can try, but I haven’t stumbled upon the club throughout my travels yet. I have done the four Go-Kart time trials though which were fun and a nice addition after seeing the track in GTA IV and not being able to really do anything with it. Without spoilers, do you have any final thoughts on the story of the game now that you have finished it? What about the characters? I’m not as far as you with my progress sitting at roughly 45-55%. My thoughts on the story so far have remain unchanged; I still feel like it is just there to serve as a mission provider and nothing more which is a bit disappointing.

Finally, I have been asked a few times to try and describe what it feels like to actually play this game so perhaps it’s time we tried to do just that? To begin, I will say that at first playing Chinatown Wars felt surreal due to the reasons I’ve mentioned above: the combined elements of the series — The perspective of play on the DS; familiar inclusions such as Rampages and Vigilante missions; Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV – all of it feeling new and yet strangely familiar at the same time. That feeling comes from experience with the franchise though, how does it feel to someone like you who doesn’t have the same background that I do?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Racing Like A Pro

Welcome to a small series of posts that I am going to focus on the various racing games I have been playing in recent months. I will be using this series to share my thoughts, discuss what makes them tick for me as well as where I think or would like to see the genre move forward. The genre is without a doubt my favourite, mainly due to my love of all things cars and Motorsport in real life. It begins with Simbin’s first foray into console gaming: Race Pro.

I will be honest, I had high expectations for this game, expectations that I shouldn’t have had and ones which resulted in mild disappointment once I got my hands on it. You see, due to being a racing simulator I assumed that Race Pro would replace Forza 2 as the game I would play whenever I wanted a realistic, circuit-based racer. This means that I expected to fire it up whenever I wanted to do laps around a track, test my skill and precision by setting and beating lap times or whenever I wanted to have a race or three with my friends online. For now, it provides this but once I have finished Race Pro completely I can see myself setting it aside in favour of playing Forza 2 again.

Don't get me wrong, I love Race Pro. For their first attempt at a console game, the sim experts that are Simbin (they're renowned for their games on PC) have created a decent title that gives people like me the chance to finally see what they're capable of, but being a first attempt also means that it contains a few flaws. The obvious one and something that puts many people off is the graphics: they are fairly average. They do the job, but in a generation which features stunning and beautiful games, it can be off putting. I don't have a problem with it, but most people do so it is worth mentioning here. The game's handling, while pretty damn good, also needs refinement and doesn't feel as tight as Forza 2. Unfortunately for you guys, I can't really explain the difference between the handling of both games as it's something you can only feel, and sometimes the differences are so subtle that only experience with both games (and others) would bring them to attention. Race Pro's handling seems to be inconsistent. An example could be that you go to brake for a corner at the exact same place you did on the previous lap, changing down gears like you normally would and yet you end up in the gravel trap instead of taking the corner properly. It's like the car's handling changes on you randomly and I will admit it has caused some unnecessary crashes and excursions off track. You could argue it's simulating a track's grip level as tracks in real life change and evolve over the course of a race, but if this was the case then I believe it would be obvious and would also happen in every race rather than randomly. AI is also inconsistent; I am playing it on the Professional difficulty which is the hardest and for the most part, passing and beating opponents is easy. If, for example, I choose to not qualify and therefore start in the middle of the pack, I have no problems getting to the front and once I take the lead, I usually end up being many seconds ahead of second place. Not a small distance like 5-10 seconds, but at an absurd 30-50 seconds ahead. That's how easy the AI is to beat. Yet sometimes when I go to pass them they will be extremely aggressive and will move over to block me, push me off the track or even spin me and to say it gets frustrating after such an easy time in other races is an understatement. It's like a button was switched on and suddenly they are supposed to take you out at all costs. Another inconsistency is despite being so far behind, one of the sixteen drivers can end up having faster sector and lap times than you. It puzzles me purely because if they are supposedly that fast, then why are they so far behind? It doesn't surprise me though because the game's online leaderboards (for time trials and stuff like that) are also inconsistent, perhaps even glitched. Some people have managed to set six second lap times around tracks which is clearly impossible, and my own times registered on the leaderboards have been quicker than the ones I actually set.*

Those aren't the only problems I have with the game; I have some more personal issues as well. The races in the Career mode, for example, are too short. Ranging from two-seven laps, they are fine but I enjoy longer races too and it would have been nice to see some within the career, especially in faster cars such as the F3000s. I would have also liked to see some Endurance races but their exclusion doesn’t matter too much because you can choose the amount of laps you want to do in the Championship mode. I also don't like how the game doesn't seem to use some of its features when it could, with a prime example being the weather effects. I was really happy to see weather be integrated into the experience, but throughout the career not one race has any rain. It's always sunny and therefore if you want a rainy race, you'll need to create your own via the aforementioned championship mode, or in time trials or online. That's a little disappointing and it seems like a waste of effort on Simbin's part.

Wow, quite a lot of criticisms for a game that I love. Again, don’t get me wrong, Race Pro is great and I have really enjoyed playing it. It features some tracks that aren’t usually in other games such as Brno and Zandvoort, so it has been nice to learn and master them. Despite rarely being used, features such as the weather effects are welcome as far as I am concerned and I have thoroughly enjoyed racing on a wet track, using the in-car camera view with a windscreen covered in water, wipers working in overdrive. Racing online with friends has been a blast as well, with it containing practice and qualifying events before a race (there’s an option to turn this off) -- something that isn’t usually done in other games and breaks up the pace as you go from track to track. Despite my concerns above, the handling system is a remarkable effort for a first attempt and I give full credit to Simbin for creating a game that rivals Forza 2 (the king at the moment for realistic handling on console) in that department.

In summary, Race Pro is flawed but for a first attempt I absolutely love it and fully commend Simbin for achieving so much on a platform they have had no experience with. If this is the result of their first attempt, I seriously cannot wait to see what they can do in future installments.

*Thankfully a patch was released just yesterday which eliminated these leaderboard glitches as well as fixed a few other things in the game. While it is easy to argue if patches are a good or bad thing, it is nice to see developers working on their games after release.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Just Getting Started With LittleBigPlanet

Over the weekend I finally managed to finish LittleBigPlanet.

I know, I know, it's shocking that I took so long, isn't it? What can I say? There is no excuse for it, regardless of whether I try to hide behind one or not. It is irrelevant now as I have finished it, loved it and look forward to redefining what the game is by experimenting with its other assets.

A few months ago I watched my girlfriend play many of the game's levels as well as some created by the community. I even watched her start creating her own. She's still working on it, but in the meantime I was able to play the single player campaign myself and see everything that developer Media Molecule created for the game. Unfortunately for me, my thoughts have hardly changed and seeing her play it has definitely influenced my opinion, so nothing has really changed. I still came away from it impressed by what MM were able to achieve, and I'm happy that I was able to play such a different, unique and yet familiar game. One of the things that stands out from my time with LittleBigPlanet is the multicultural themes that exist within the game's levels and their themes, as well as the art direction of the overall product. It was, in a word, charming and completely different from anything else I have played in quite some time.

So with the game finished, what is left? Well, the user created levels of course. I've already played some but would still like to take the time to try a few more. After that, I will be trying to create my own level and I look forward to experimenting with the editor to see if I can make anything that may be remotely decent. I would also like to play the game in co-op, something I've been unable to do due to the lack of a second controller and the fact that every time I have tried to play it online, I have never been successful. The completionist in me also wants to try the co-op as there are still stickers, items and so on that can only be collected in those sections of the levels.

So basically, there are still plenty of things for me to do in the game and as such I intend on playing it for many more months to come. I also intend to discuss some things in particular on the blog, such as the game's multicultural side I mentioned above. Stay tuned, then.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Gentle Breeze

As I have mentioned already, Flower came at just the right time for me. I was feeling fatigued after playing through many games with darker, supposedly 'mature' themes and my motivation to simply play a game was disappearing, fast. My anticipation for Flower was built by reading what other people thought about it, reading about why Flower is so enthralling, exhilarating and exciting to play; how it was artistic yet was just like any other game we're already familiar with; and how it was a symbol of our medium's growing maturity. The end result, for me, was an expectation that Flower would be a relaxing experience. An expectation it met without even trying, and a game that was such a breath of fresh air at the time I needed it most.

"If words like 'stunning' can describe most of the good looking games out there, then the word beautiful is how I would describe Flower. It is beautiful -- not just visually but the whole package. The minimal soundtrack, the implied narrative, the sense of discovery and the simplicity. All of it, every single element, combines to make what is just simply a beautiful game."

I also used the above quote to suggest how it made me feel. Seeing it in motion was a sight to behold; playing it using the motion controls of the Playstation 3 controller felt exhilarating; hearing the game's minimal yet effective music made me smile, something that grew wider as I uncovered the sensations of simple discovery. Every time I turned the game off, I was impressed by how enjoyable it was, how it made me feel and the thoughts it inspired. The game is simple after all -- short, sweet, accessible and doesn't pose a challenge nor punish the player at any time. The combination of these elements makes a beautiful game as far as I am concerned, and yet, wonderfully, it also provokes thoughts of a different kind.

One of the main things that Flower's experience indirectly showed me was that we, as gamers, take things for granted.

Throughout any given year we gradually buy games to get us through the months, then once the holiday season comes around we overwhelm ourselves with purchases on impulse, all because of the desire to be playing the latest and greatest thing. Of course that is not just our fault as consumers; developers and publishers alike save their bigger titles for this particular period spoiling us with choice and in recent years, quality. Some of us out there crave for these games to be spread out slowly across the year allowing us to dedicate more time to them; while some don't care about completion or seeing a story through to its conclusion, instead focused on ensuring they are seen as cool because they are playing whatever game happens to be popular that week. Some aren't as fortunate and don't have the privilege of being able to afford every single game they want, using the following year to catch up on titles while everyone else continues to play the next big thing.

If you ask me, we also expect too much. We expect certain features like a multiplayer component to be in most games. We expect games to release on the date that was announced, getting frustrated if that date isn't met and the game is delayed. We expect complex games -- from their systems and mechanics, to their visuals and sound -- to work absolutely perfectly, with no bugs, glitches or signs of a broken element. We expect to get what we paid for, no, more than what we paid for giving nary a thought to the fact that people made the game, people who need to make a living and people who are human. We are all human, we all make mistakes and yet we are all too happy to jump on our virtual soapboxes criticising in an inconsiderate manner as soon as we don't get what we wanted or expected. Some of this expectation is justified, perhaps even all of it (we are paying a lot for our games after all), but the approach with how people complain is at times, horrific. No one seems to stop and think about their fellow gamers, the developers behind their favourite games or how long, expensive and hard it is to create a unique game that stands out from the rest of the pack. We may be spoiled for choice and quality these days, but with that also comes a lack of consideration for any possible situation that may, or may not, factor into the equation. We just take it for granted and now that I have noticed it, I can't help but be disappointed in that fact or even myself for participating in it all.

You could even take this further and beyond the medium. Taking things for granted is not exclusive to video games, it's something that we do in our everyday lives as well. Common household objects like a fridge, kettle or TV are used daily, and it's quite easy to also assume that we all have cars, able to transport us to where we need to go. We have a roof over our head, devices to help us keep in contact with our friends (phones, computers, etc), beds to sleep in and food on the table. Every day we use, consume and/or enjoy these things and every day, we don't give them a second thought. It doesn't matter whether we earned the right to have these things because of employment or our hard work, and it doesn't matter how much or how little we enjoy using them -- my simple point in mentioning them is that we use them and don't ever think about why. They're convenient, aid us in accomplishing various tasks and that is good enough for us. Using them daily also makes us grow accustomed to the convenience they provide and because of that, we take them for granted. Just like we do with games, the people playing them and the people who make them, we don't stop to consider those who are less fortunate and don't enjoy these luxuries.

This post isn't meant to be a rant on how I feel about that nor is it expressing my overall opinion on the matter. Flower's elegance and simplicity showed me just how complicated all the other games we play are and as I thought about it more, I began to realise just how good we have it, and how lucky we are. Forget the luxuries of life. Just being a gamer today, in a time where the medium is progressing in wonderful and unexpected ways and a time where there is literally a game for everyone's tastes, is one hell of a luxurious position we find ourselves in. Continue to take it for granted by all means, but don't forget that it wasn't always like this either, and for that we should be thankful.


I love Flower, so of course I also love reading about it. Below are some links to other posts on Flower that I thought were fascinating.

- Flower's Precious Play
- I'd Rather Let The Flowers Keep Doing What They Do Best
- Flower Song
- The Odd Couple: Flower And God Of War
- Flower And WiiWare's Woeful Wilting

Hopefully you enjoy them as much as I did.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cross Blog Dialogue: GTA: Chinatown Wars #2

Welcome to round two of my email exchange with Daniel from DanielPrimed about Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on the DS. I have really enjoyed participating in this so far and hopefully you have enjoyed reading it. If you have been playing the game and would like to discuss it, feel free to post in the comments either here or on Daniel's blog.


Daniel: I reached 25% progression on my last play through before I started to write this response.

On the story, it’s pretty pathetic. What surprises me is how long some of the pointless dialogue dribbles on. It’s intended that the gatekeepers to the missions come across as arrogant criminal hypocrites. They’re meant to be annoying pricks because literally they are annoying pricks that murder and beat people, but in Chinatown Wars they roll around in it too much. Yes, we know that the Chinese guy is going to protect honour through means of murder, theft and villianary but why does he need an extended script to get this simple message across. I remember the characters in GTAIII were frankly too busy to bark orders, they just told me to piss off (often literally) and the game filled in the gaps. I was originally bothered that Rockstar had to promote the protagonist Huang Lee as an spoilt, mature age brat, fortunately though he doesn’t have an exerted amount of character, and is fine.

Hmmm…the Chinese angle. Yeah I reckon that I’ll probably discredit any cultural investigation. Most of the cast is Chinese, making it feel like GTA: Shanghai, although in Shanghai they don’t speak like typical American thugs. Beyond some minor cultural tie-ins, the cast could be re-skinned as Americans and it wouldn’t make a difference. Not sure why the Chinese are at war with the Koreans though, I guess Chinese living in America haven’t caught onto the latest K-Pop/K-drama phenomena sweeping Asia. ^_^

I wanted to ask you if the game’s map is a mirror of GTA IV, that is a smaller, pocket-sized mirror. Also, in terms of scale, how do the size of the two game worlds compare? Obviously GTA:CW is smaller, but to what extent?

I found it interesting that the whole map is free to roam from the beginning. The lack of restriction sometimes loses me actually. I head in one direction and then realize I’m lost in a district I’ve never visited before. It plays around with the dynamic, don’t you think?. In previous games you use to familiarize with the game world piece by piece, now it’s delivered all in one gulp. Is this troublesome do you think? The missions tend to congregate in pretty close proximity, but drug tip-offs can send you from one island to another, and with the police on high alert it can make the venture out a little risky I find. A game like GTA encourages the player to explore at will, and with no constraints, I lack familiarity with the environment, it’s a bit concerning.


Steven: I’m also at 25% completion at the time of writing this response and, to put it simply, I agree on the story so far. I’m leaving myself open to the idea that it is still early days and it has the potential to go places, but until it does (or does not), it’s just been the excuse to participate in and tryout the unique missions we’ve already discussed. The characters aren’t compelling at all, including Huang Lee who as you know, we play as. It is like his role in the story so far is to throw in a one-liner here and there, to interrupt the boring and long ramblings of the characters that give you missions. Perhaps I am spoiled by GTA IV’s narrative so it will be interesting to see whether Chinatown Wars’ one improves or continues to be there for the sake of acquiring missions. There seems to be a disconnect between what the characters talk about before a mission and then the objectives you end up doing as well. I know that has been the case in all of the GTA games but I guess the boring dialogue just makes it more obvious or something.

To answer your question about the game’s map, it is fairly similar to the Liberty City in GTA IV though there are of course subtle differences and changes in Chinatown Wars’ version. The entire state of Alderney (where downloadable expansion The Lost And Damned takes place) is missing, so that’s one big omission there that I assume was made due to technical reasons. Roads sometimes branch off in different directions as well, though for the most part it isn’t a problem for me because it is mostly similar to the GTA IV version. In fact, I felt right at home as soon as I fired it up (one of the first things I did was go for a drive to see what was or wasn’t different) and had no hassles realizing where I was within the city. Reading about your unfamiliarity surprised me actually, though obviously you haven’t played GTA IV like I have. I found that having the GPS display on the top screen as well as the bottom one, helped in the areas where I did get confused or lost, though. Having the entire city open to explore isn’t unique to Chinatown Wars, it was all open from the beginning in GTA IV as well so it feels no different here, though I understand where you are coming from about gradually learning the city. I never thought about it like that before you mentioned it though, which I will put down to my photographic memory. Going back to the story, then, have you met the two characters that appear at around the 25% mark yet – the ones who look like they could lead the story into a more interesting area? I’m looking forward to seeing where these particular characters take the game and I seriously hope the story starts to pick up as well. Though, if it doesn’t, I’ll still be happy to continue exploring Liberty City and participating in all the side missions.


Daniel: I probably wouldn’t hold out much hope for the story. I don’t think I’ve run into those two characters you speak of, is it before or after the point where the Korean gang enters the narrative? Story-wise I’m around that mark. I’ve been spending a good half of my play time hunting down the hidden security cameras, buying property and partaking in rampages, the latter which I thoroughly enjoy. I can’t help but feel that I immerse myself quite heavily in these distractions as a means to better familiarize myself with the boundless environment. As I said in the last response, I don’t feel completely comfortable with the territory, at least as much as I did with the other games, due to the game world being fully open from the start (rather than gradually revealing itself). My familiarity is now spread over a much larger surface area and is naturally thinner than it would be if that area was contained.

I think this has other implications too. For example; exploration is meant to be one of the game’s freedoms, yet with such a large area to explore, I feel that my “off-time” out of missions to just mess around and explore has to be managed, otherwise I’ll explore endlessly and it’ll get tiresome/I’ll get lost. This for me, places a burden on what I consider to be the strongest element of this series. It’s by no means a flaw I don’t think, just how I’m personally responding to this change.

While we’re looming over some complaints I wanted to know what you think of the PDA system which manages your missions, map, drug trade and so forth. This tool plays an integral part in the exploration element, and it mostly works effectively. I have a couple of quibbles though and wanted to know if you share them.

I find myself wishing that you could just guide the mini-map on the bottom screen, rather than it prompting the larger map to appear. I usually only want to see what’s around the local area, I only need to peep over at the next few blocks. Secondly, I wish that there was a quick launch to the inventory of your drug stash, at the lower right hand side of the screen. I rarely ever need to quickly check the mission ‘brief’, and the inclusion of a quick launch into the stats menu is simply unfounded. There’s no reason for me to want to quickly activate my statistics. In contrast I have to slide through the menu to reach the Trade Info and from there tap through to see my inventory. It’s clunky. The Contacts and Music options are also useless inclusions that clutter up the interface. I just find these things slow down the flow a little. Any harsher criticism on your side of the fence?


Steven: The two characters were Hsin and the cop and, after playing a little more of the game since my last response, I agree with what you’ve said. To be a quarter of the way through the story and not interested in it whatsoever is, well disappointing to be honest. Again, perhaps I am spoiled by GTA IV’s narrative but unless something unexpected happens, Chinatown Wars’ story will just serve as the provider for the game’s unique and interesting missions and nothing more. This doesn’t bother me as much as I originally thought it would, though; Chinatown Wars seems to be a combination of all of the fantastic elements from the series. It has the fun factor covered by random Rampages, races initiated by entering certain vehicles and a return of the Vigilante, Ambulance and Fire-Fighting missions. It has exploration covered thanks to the hidden cameras, not to mention the unique situations and interesting places you can stumble upon. And, as we’ve discussed previously, it takes full advantage of the DS’s features to make an exciting game. Honestly, we don’t need the story to be decent but I still can’t deny that it’s a shame that it has been relatively boring so far. That could change though so we’ll see how it goes.

Returning to exploration for a second, I have to say that I haven’t had the desire to explore as much in this game. That surprises me a little because I always explore my games thoroughly and the GTA series has always been one of the most enjoyable to gradually explore. It’s not that the city is boring, far from it in fact, but rather I think that because I am already so familiar with Liberty City thanks to GTA IV, I just don’t have the urge to see what I already have.

I agree with you on the location of some of the features in the PDA, specifically the drug trade info you mention. Bringing it up to see who is selling a certain drug cheaply, or who wants to buy a bunch of something I may have, is clunky and I definitely wish it was more accessible. It does work how it is, but I’ve found that I am buying/selling drugs a lot more than I expected to and having to bring up the PDA, slide to the right menu and then click through a few times becomes tedious after a while. Especially when I then usually back out of it all, bring up the map and then look through the list of dealers to find their location on the map so I can set the GPS waypoint. It wastes a few minutes and I agree that your inventory should have a shortcut option on the bottom screen instead of the Brief menu option. Another minor criticism I have is the music. It’s not bad, so don’t get me wrong, but it is repetitive and I wish there was a little more to it. I realize that the DS’s limitations are probably the reason for that, so it isn’t of major concern. Other than that, I guess my biggest gripe is what I’ve already discussed above, the story, so there’s no point repeating it here. So, a random question for you: how do you feel about the cars, the handling (do you use the assists or not?) and the visibility while driving on the top screen?


More discussion to follow shortly.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cross Blog Dialogue: GTA: Chinatown Wars #1

Readers of this blog would be fully aware of what I think about Grand Theft Auto. I may have only had the chance to take a look at GTA IV and its expansion The Lost And Damned, but within those posts I've proclaimed many times my love for the series and what the guys at Rockstar manage to do with it. It should be no surprise then that their latest game, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for Nintendo's DS was on my radar and immediately purchased upon release. I've been eagerly looking forward to discussing the game, deciding to exchange my thoughts and experience with fellow blogger Daniel from DanielPrimed via email. We're playing it simultaneously with the aim to discuss the various elements such as the game's narrative and mission structure. If you are also playing the game currently then please, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments either here or on Daniel's blog.

Here is part one of our exchange.


Daniel: G’day Steve, thanks for joining me on this joint play through of GTA: Chinatown Wars. I’m sure it’ll be great, but to start off with I reckon we ought to provide a bit of context on our past experiences with the franchise and then based on that, what we’re hoping to get out of this game and the ensuing discussion.

I first came into contact with this series through one of the top down, 2D titles, which I didn’t think of as much more than an inexpressive crime-sim with juvenile humour and violence. The guy who introduced it to me was high on those parts of the game, but I just found that the limited perspective made it difficult to catch on. Years later I bought GTAIII on the cheap for $AUD10 at an EB Sale. I’d figured that the massive hype had to be telling of something, plus I needed something for my just acquired, graphic-card-less laptop. I only ever got to the second island though as the rain effects chugged on my machine, how shameful. It would have been months later when I bought Vice City, the only game in the series I’ve finished and by default my favourite. I also have San Andreas but the disc is terribly scratched, so I’ve never played too much. I own GTA IV too, but haven’t tried it yet (argh, it’s a trend!), my brother has completed it, which has exposed me to some of the newer elements. What about you? Did you start with the originals or the newer titles? And which is your favourite? I suspect your credentials for this series are probably much higher than mine. ^_^

This new title interests me greatly though, and for many reasons. Firstly, as I’ve written elsewhere this title is endeavourours for the handhelds, and that automatically gives it good cred on my part. Secondly, Chinese context. You may have noticed that I’m into this whole cultural business of how games represent culture with my interests in Asia, predominately China. I’m curious as to how GTA:CW will represent (American-born) Chinese and also a supposive Korean faction in the game. And lastly, this looks like a damn fine game, don’t you think? The city literally pops out at you, and the way they incorporate the DS functionality looks very intriguing. I wonder how hybridized the game feels, I mean you’ve got the older 2D style mashing with some 3D and the elements of the latest games, and then there is the DS hardware and some internet features on top. Seems like a rich brew. I’m concerned about the drug dealing elements though. Do you think that’ll be controversial at some stage? It’s a bit of a fine line to tread, as RockStar always seem to do. Over to you.


Steven: Hey there Daniel, thanks for giving me the opportunity to share and discuss my thoughts on GTA: Chinatown Wars with you. Our discussion should lead into some interesting things and hopefully allow us to articulate what it is exactly that we think about the game.

My history with the series also begins with the original 2D isometric titles on a family friend’s PS1. Once a week we’d probably visit and every time I was able to play the games on the console. I can remember loving it purely because I could just drive around and do my own thing, something that seemed big and important to me back then as a young child. I eventually got my own Playstation but for whatever reason never owned the GTA games. Instead the first Grand Theft Auto that I owned was GTA III which I got a month or so after getting my PS2. To put it simply, it blew me away. I went into it not realizing it was part of the franchise, not knowing what to expect and came away with levels of excitement that honestly, I had never had before. Liberty City was huge, the variety of things I could do was overwhelming and I loved it. I played it for months on end and as you’d expect, that carried over into GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas as well. I completed them all to 100%, played through their stories repeatedly and also used them as the games to play when I wanted random, mindless entertainment. Fast forward to the current generation and April of last year; the release of GTA IV again blew me away. Not because of the size of the city or the things you could do within, though, it blew me away because the narrative managed to grip me and hold on tight and I wasn’t expecting that. I knew it had one, I knew Rockstar was intending on creating a more compelling and in-depth narrative, but it still went above and beyond my expectations for the title. Then, as I have outlined in a post of mine recently, the downloadable expansion The Lost And Damned came and reeled me straight back in, providing a different perspective on Liberty City that I found fascinating – especially after seeing TV shows like ‘The Wire’ that do a similar thing. I have written about how I have grown up with the Grand Theft Auto series, though, so I will move onto the expectations I have for GTA: Chinatown Wars.

The things I am expecting from the game are, well, I’m not entirely sure. I am however looking forward to seeing what Rockstar Leeds have done with the game: how they’ve used the 2D perspective in combination with 3D, the way Liberty City looks and feels when compared to GTA IV, where the developer’s priorities lie (did they focus on the narrative ala GTA IV, on gameplay due to the new methods of input courtesy of the DS’s features, or something else entirely?) and whether they have managed to successfully transition what we know and love about the franchise into the new format. Beyond that I don’t really know, the very fact that it is a GTA game on the DS completely throws away any pre-conceived ideas of what I think it could be as I go into the title. I’m just going to take it how it comes and you know what? I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It might even make it more enjoyable.

With our histories and expectations out of the way, I think it is time we actually played the game and discuss some of our initial impressions of it so have you begun playing yet? Has anything in particular stood out to you in the early parts of the game? Has it met your expectations, exceeded them or have you found it disappointing? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Daniel: Just to tangent for a second, you might find this post by Jeremy Parish quite interesting. In it he discusses Dragon Quest V in relation to how the game takes on different meanings with the maturation of the player. It’s similar to your article regarding your past experiences with the GTA franchise.

Anyways, I’m about 15% through the game, and thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve dabbled in most of the core activities; drug dealing, rampages, noodle delivery etc and they’ve all been quite good. Overall I’m thrilled about this title. Technically it’s an unbelievable achievement, yet above that it looks much more visually interesting. Love at first sight perhaps. As I mentioned briefly in my first response, the game does indeed feel like a complete hybrid of ideas, the best of which is brought out with the DS hardware. I think it’s quite safely met my expectations. What about you? This game is flying pretty low on people’s radar despite some absolutely killer press. Does this do the series justice?

It’s hard to say what has stood out the most for me, it all seems like a conglomerate of equally ambitious and successful ideas. Something that I’ve found with this iteration is that the missions don’t feel like such a drone. Even GTA IV copped criticism for the same old “drive here, do that” mission structure. GTA:CW is interesting in that each mission – at least so far – has felt individual and unique. Have you found this too? I chalk a large part of it up to the DS touch screen implementation. Every second mission incorporates some form of touch screen interaction, such as defusing bombs or keeping a dying patient alive. You can’t really predict these, so it adds a new edge to the formula. There are a lot of individual components that are worth mentioning, I’m sure we’ll get to those later, for now though, what’s caught your attention the most?


Steven: Does it do the series justice? Absolutely, in fact I think it demonstrates that the franchise has legs; that no matter what Rockstar focus on (mechanics, narrative, perspective, etc), the series will hold up. They’ve created a game on a platform that no one expected to see the franchise and instead of just creating it for the sake of taking advantage of the DS’s insane popularity, they have instead put the effort in to create something that works within the context of the handheld while also providing a game that is different yet still manages to be exactly what it is, a Grand Theft Auto game. Perhaps I am biased towards the franchise but to me, that is a remarkable achievement. DS specific features like the drug-dealing or the fact that the DS stylus is used in many varied ways is almost irrelevant, the game is Grand Theft Auto through and through and that is all that matters.

With that said, those mechanics and features are worth looking into and I can honestly say that so far, I’ve been surprised a lot more than I was expecting. Nearly everything you can do in the game uses the stylus in some way and the thing that amazes me is that none of it gets repetitive. Creating Molotov Cocktails; searching through bins to find weapons or drugs; hotwiring cars – all of it done by touch screen and all of it done in logical ways. As you say the missions are varied as well – I’m also about 15% into it and so far each mission I have completed has been unique. There are no cookie-cutter missions and I can’t help but respect the creativity being shown here. It could change later in the game but for now, it is above and beyond any expectations I had for it. Especially when you consider just how nice it looks and, perhaps more importantly, how smoothly it runs. You called it a technical achievement and I agree wholeheartedly.

The attention to detail in the game is the other thing that sticks out so early, though I shouldn’t be surprised given Rockstar’s reputation for it. I was surprised to see series staples such as weather effects and off-hand pedestrian comments – shocked when I stumbled upon something random like an accident with the intersection blocked off by police cars, a fire truck dousing a fire and an ambulance racing to someone’s aid – sure we see it all the time in the console games, but the amount of detail I’ve seen so far is surprising when I stop to consider the platform I am playing the game on. And to think, I’m only 15% into it – What else is awaiting me? What else will I discover in Liberty City? I can’t wait to play more and find out.

To summarize, Chinatown Wars met my expectations and surpassed them. I should have known it would do so based on previous games but regardless of that they’ve created something special and I’m curious to know why it is seemingly flying under everyone’s radar. Initial excitement has died down a little now which allows me the chance to focus on other elements such as the narrative, so I’ll hand it you by asking – what do you think of it so far? Have you found it interesting or compelling due to the Chinese angle? Have you found the characters intriguing or do you need to see more before you can form your thoughts?


More of my conversation with Daniel will be posted shortly so stay tuned.