Confucius once wrote, "Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without."
The glittering gem of pocket gaming that is Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars has finally parked itself on iPhone and iPod touch with noted shortcomings: occasionally awkward controls, lack of combat targeting, an interface mired in menus.
Even with these flaws, however, it still sparkles with great gameplay that makes competing titles look like nothing more than shiny river rocks.
Huang Lee's Liberty City escapade shines thanks to a combination of varied gameplay and entertaining storytelling.
As a member of the Chinese Triads, you're jacking cars for illegal street races, trading goods with corner drug dealers, evading the cops in high speed chases, and protecting territory in intense shootouts. There's always something to do, buy, steal, kill, or trade.
It's the way in which all of these activities are brought together that gives them meaning. Money is a motivator, to be sure, but the story also drives the experience forward in a meaningful way.
Huang has a distinct personality, and the interactions he has with his self-absorbed uncle, various criminal allies in Liberty City, and even his foes provide a dimension that's altogether lacking from similar games.
In other words, Chinatown Wars materialises the seedy underbelly of Liberty City by going beyond contract kills and drive-bys to deliver creative scenarios that are as fresh as they are fun.
Instead of just being a drug courier, you're actually wheeling and dealing dope. Saving a fellow Triad in one missions means more than just killing a bunch of cops - you're asked to steal an ambulance and keep him alive while you make a getaway with taps of the screen that jump start his heart. You even get to play the role of a dragon in a Chinese new year parade.
Same cookie, different fortune
Cramming the game onto a single screen from the original dual-screened edition has clearly been tricky. Chinatown Wars struggles to provide ease of use without cluttering the screen with controls and layering endless menus for options, yet succeeds only in part.
Simple actions like accessing the options menu requires sifting through a couple of menus first. Limited screen space means some virtual buttons are ridiculously small. Errors in the porting process yield instructions to press buttons that don't exist. At one point, the game asks you to press the circle button as though you're playing on PSP.
More critical is the lack of a targeting system, which unnecessarily complicates combat. Huang shoots, stabs, and punches in whatever direction he's facing. There's no way of hard-targeting an enemy to ensure an accurate attack and so many a bullet goes wasted. A simple tap-to-target and double-tap-to-deselect system would be enormously helpful.
Lastly, the driving controls could benefit from additional tweaking. While functional, they never feel completely tight.
The default button configuration is preferable to the analogue stick scheme, though it could be polished up to provide easier handling. An accelerometer option is absent, but would be an interesting alternative. On foot, the controls work beautifully.
Other changes are cosmetic. Reducing the number of tunes per radio station decreases the download size at the cost of repetitive music. While Chinatown Wars looks better on iPhone than it did on DS, it's a far cry from the sophisticated lighting and detail of the PSP incarnation.
Aside from the poor targeting system, these are but trivial blemishes on a portable gaming gem. Chinatown Wars dazzles with excellent gameplay that belongs right at your fingertips.