Here is part one of our exchange.
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.