Rockstar bring their portable rendition of GTA to the iPad, and it could very well be the best version yet…
We’ve been enjoying the throw-away violence of the GTA series on our screens for over 12 years now. First appearing on PC, GTA (Grand Theft Auto) sees you taking to the streets, as you rise through the ranks of the criminal underworld, jacking cars, taking out rival gangs, selling drugs and any other illicit acts that will boost your street cred and criminal status. Seen as being responsible for an increase in violence in kids and teenagers, the game isn’t without controversy, but it has stood the test of time and is considered one of the best games series thanks to it’s addictive and varied gameplay. One of the main draws is its sandbox approach, allowing you, the gamer, freedom to do anything and go anywhere. While the game has moved from city-to-city, era-to-era and character-to-character, it is this core gameplay mechanic that keeps gamers coming back for more.
The original game was presented in a top down view, with the streets rotating around you as you drive. Later, on the more powerful consoles, the game moved into a 3rd person 3D view, with the latest GTA IV striving for high realism. With GTA: China Town Wars though, Rockstar have gone back to their top down roots. Released first on the DS, the game had to be able to present a full 3D Liberty City, all crammed on a limited DS cart, and to do this the game featured less texture and geometric detail to ensure a smooth gaming experience. The resulting cel shaded style works far better than expected, and fits incredibly well with the cartoon violence that many would usually find too gratuitous when presented with more visual realism. The game eventually found its way onto the PSP with enhanced graphics and sound, and in January of this year it was, rather surprisingly, released on iPhone. Now, some eight months later, the game has been released on the iPad.
In GTA:CTW you play as Huang Lee, the son of a Triad Boss. After learning of your Father’s murder, you head to Liberty City to present the family heirloom, a sword called Yu Jian, to your father’s brother Kenny Lee (your uncle). Unfortunately, you are kidnapped on arrival in Liberty, and the sword is stolen. Here begins a storyline of honour, deception and of course murder, as you rise through the ranks of the Triad’s and Liberty City’s underworld to uncover the truth of his father’s death and avenge him.
The game starts with you being left for dead in a sinking car. Using the touch screen you must smash out the rear windscreen of the car to escape before swimming to shore, jacking your first car and visiting your uncles noodle restaurant for your first mission. Navigating the streets is simple thanks to a great context sensitive control setup. When on foot you are presented with an analogue style v-stick for moving Huang around, and on the right of the screen are buttons for jumping, flying kicks and punching. The punch button changes to new weapons as and when you pick them up, and through the pause menu you can access a weapons wheel for quick selection. For the most part though, and as the tile suggests, you’ll be driving around in a large variety of vehicles. As you approach a vehicle, an icon appears, and tapping it will cause Huang to steel it – usually by kicking the poor helpless owner to the curb. Once behind the wheel, the analogue stick changes to a more streamlined left and right button system, and on the right, your character controls are replaced by both throttle and brake controls. Controlling vehicles does require some getting used to, particularly the feeling of driving blind thanks to the top down view and only seeing a few cars in front of you at all times. But, eventually you’ll master driving by the seat of your pants and glancing back and forth between the on-screen GPS and the game-world to successfully navigate the busy streets. There are a large variety of vehicles, from cars, bikes and even boats, and all have their own characteristics. I find the more sporty cars are easier to drive, while the slower cars feel clunky around corners due to their heavier nature.
While the game can be enjoyed by free roaming around the city, stealing cars and escaping the cops, the meat and potatoes of the game is in it’s missions. Taking on missions progresses the story, as well as offering up intense challenges to test your skills. Through the use of your GPS, you can visit individuals to take on missions. These start with your Uncle Kenny, but eventually as your reputation increases, other individuals will contact you with tasks to perform. There are over 50 missions in the game, ranging from simply steeling cars within a time-limit; saving gang members from a burning car with a firetruck, to multi-part tasks that include the likes of creating molotov cocktails and fire bombing targets; recruiting gang members; and a stand off with a heavily armed chopper, culminating in a car chase. While, the majority of these are based on a ‘get from point A to point B’ then complete a task and return, the variety in the missions is never stale… with only the ramp in difficulty becoming a barrier for continued play.
Once the missions are complete, there is still much to do in Liberty City. Featured in a few of the missions are drug dealing tasks, and while this may seem like a small part of the game, it’s pretty deep. If you are so inclined, you can play as a drug dealer indefinitely, touring Liberty city and doing business with the 80 or so drug dealers available. Through the use of your PDA and GPS, you can check which drugs are selling well, and where to get the best prices. it’s possible to make a ton of cash from drug dealing, allowing you to purchase better weapons and the higher priced vehicles available from the lock up.
There are also plenty of mini games, and just like the opening task of escaping the sinking car, these are all touch based. Even jacking some cars initiates a mini game, requiring you to unscrew panels and hot-wire it before you can drive off. It is these touch based mini games combined with great onscreen virtual stick controls that make the game unique from it’s console brothers.
Add to these over 30 races, stunts to perform, an easter-hunt style side quest to destroy 100 security cameras, odd jobs for passers by, rampages to complete, a crazy taxi style game and many police missions, then you’ll be playing GTA:CTW for weeks to come.
Visually this iPad edition is the best yet. The DS version was obviously restricted by processor speed and screen size. The PSP version looked best with its higher poly count, more detailed textures and enhanced lighting effects. The iPhone edition fell somewhere in between, benefitting from the higher resolution, but lacking the lighting effects of the PSP version. The iPad version includes all the PSP’s enhanced visuals, and the iPhone’s quick load times… and with the benefit of the larger display you can really appreciate the detail that has gone into the game. Cel shaded Liberty City never looked so good.
If I had any criticism of the visuals, it’s that the GPS should fill the screen. But, as it is supposed to be emulating a handheld PDA, it does makes sense being smaller. Though making it an iPhone would have been a nice touch.
One of the great details of the GTA series is the sound track to your criminal life, predominantly the radio stations on offer to you when driving. While the DS version included limited looped music, the PSP version included full musical tracks, including commercial dance tracks from the likes of Deadmau5. Both the iPhone and the iPad version include all the radio stations from the PSP version, including: the Alchemist station for the gangster in you, Truth+Soul for the jazz minded, Tortoise radio for the psychedelica, and Turntables on the Hudson for a spot of culture. However, exclusive to the iOS version is Independence radio, which, as you might have already guessed, allows you to use your iTunes music as a radio station. The rest of the game is no slouch in the audio department either. As you explore Liberty City you will not only enjoy the sights, but also the sounds. Whether it’s the incessant drone of police sirens, the honk of an irritated driver, the backtalk of a hooker, or the crazed ramblings of a passerby staring down the butt of your gun, GTA:CTW is a veritable bouquet of sound (note: the iPhone edition DOES NOT include voices, whereas the iPad version DOES).
Grand Theft Auto: China Town Wars has a tonne to offer any gamer. Whether you want to get engrossed in the story and take on missions, or just fancy a quick joy ride, there is something for everyone. It’s perfectly suited to any one of the platforms it has appeared on, and the iPad is no exception. The bigger screen gives it the edge over the competition, with only the PSP’s multiplayer mode offering something extra. Take into account that both the PSP and DS versions originally retailed from around $30-$40, then at just $9.99 for both the iPad and iphone versions, you are getting a whole lot of bang for your buck!
For me not only is GTA: CTW’s one of the best games in the GTA series, but it’s also one of the best games on the AppStore.