GTA: Chinatown Wars
| GTA: Chinatown Wars

How times change. Nintendo used to be so obsessed with family friendly that it created a document for publishers which banned everything from the use of religious symbols to lewd language. It got so silly that the SNES version of Mortal Kombat replaced red blood with grey sweat.

I only mention this because as seductive and captivating as GTA: Chinatown Wars is, if you're a parent you need to be aware: this is Not Suitable For Minors (this means your children).

In fact, Rockstar's latest is the first ever DS game to be awarded an 18 certificate in the UK. (This means only people aged 18 or old should be playing it. Yes. Really)

And with good reason, for despite the game's clever irony, comic cut-scenes and beautiful cartoon visuals, it's also a nasty piece of work. It glamorises drug dealing, treats violence with casual disdain, and makes crime seem more appealing than the soft play area in the nudist colony.

It's also totally and utterly wonderful (if you're an adult, of course).

The first thing that will grab you is its extraordinary attention to detail. It does pretty much everything you'd expect from a GTA game but manages to do it on a console that's a world away from a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox 360.

Nevertheless, car doors swing open during handbrake turns, cops batter you with batons if you step out of line, boxes crumple and smash like something out of a Starsky and Hutch trailer, and headlights cast dynamic shadows across the pavement, much as you would expect from a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox 360 game.

So this may be a tiny clockwork GTA world but it's all the cuter and more adorable for it. I could spend the entire review raving about the little details - and they are important - but all you really need to know is that exploring Liberty City is a joy.

Ramps are available for stunts, there are nooks and crannies galore, and all the extra challenges, like taxi missions and hijacking, add to the city's sense of inter-dependence and breadth.

From the first opening sequence, which sees 'hero' Huang Lee enters Liberty City only to be kidnapped, beaten and left for dead, the game screams quality. Told with beautifully hand-drawn graphic panels, the plot is delivered with Rockstar's trademark incisiveness, cultural savvy and razor-sharp wit. The writing alone will make you snort with glee, whether you're in polite company or not.

Indeed, for our money the narrative is more compelling than in the PSP GTAs and the characterisation and brilliant one-liners etch themselves deep in the brain within the first couple of hours.

I won't spoil the plot but the main thrust is that as Huang you must avenge your father's death and recover a sacred sword that he requested be delivered to a Triad boss. The game contains some superb plot twists and, as you might expect, loyalties are tested when you begin working for different factions.

The bulk of the game consists of missions, which are short, sweet, and incredibly varied, while the fact you can save almost anywhere reduces potential frustration. The level of imagination that has gone into generating fun missions is staggering. From arson attacks to sniper missions to helicopter chases, everything is meted out in such a way that it never gets samey.

Again, it comes down to the little touches that compel you to play on.

For example, there's hardly a mission that doesn't include some novel touchscreen component - we're talking hotwiring cars by twisting screws and joining live wires together, throwing boxes at on-coming vehicles, cutting open the back of a police van with a blow torch, attaching bombs to engines, operating cranes, chucking Molotov cocktails from helicopters, even scanning the ocean for sunken booty and lifting it onto the back of supply boats.

The touchscreen features have been integrated beautifully and add to the sense of fun and discovery rather than feeling tagged on.

Outside of missions, there's tons more to explore with your stylus - revealing prizes on scratch cards, tracing tattoo patterns for cash, finding hidden weapons in dumpsters by removing garbage. I simply can't think of another DS game that uses the stylus with such imagination.

But all this would be for nothing if navigating Liberty City was irksome. And let's face it, it would be easy to foul up the controls given the compact nature of the game. Yet driving is an absolute joy and there's a kindly auto-centre feature that keeps your vehicles on the straight and narrow.

The traffic system has been designed admirably too - vehicles allow just enough room for you to pass between them but not quite enough if you're ripping through the city during an epic chase. Clip one vehicle and chaos often ensues.

The police remain vigilant although not over-zealous. If they catch you perpetrating any crime your 'wanted' status goes up (represented by the familiar stars) but tagging a black and white by accident won't be enough to get them buzzing round you like angry wasps.

Still, once in a chase the police act with admirable gusto and there's great joy to be had just from the bump and grind of pursuit evasion and the Blues Brothers-level of mayhem that often follows.

It's difficult to even criticise the on-foot elements of the game, though things are self-evidently small and on the fiddly side. There's a run button, a lock-on when entering combat and the X button gets Huang quickly back in and out of passing vehicles. These work with surprising alacrity, the only weakness coming from targeting multiple enemies in the bigger gang firefights.

By its nature, GTA serves up the occasional moment of frustration as you'll find yourself having to repeat some missions several times. Getting busted, running out of health or failing an objective will throw you back to the mission start, but at least this is ameliorated by a 'trip skip' which gets you back to the meat of the action.

I also found that around five per cent of the time a mission failure was down to either poor signposting or the action disappearing behind a building, if only for a brief moment. Such indiscretions were rare though and generally the game doesn't throw too many banana skins at the player.

Beyond the beautifully honed driving mechanics, great mission variety and narrative drive, witty touches also abound. Whistle into the microphone and taxis will stop, the satnav and email system (accessible from the touchscreen) not only texture the experience but genuinely make life easier, and a whole essay could be written on the drug running metagame that provides yet another compelling reason to own this title.

Rockstar could easily have skimped on depth and detail simply because of GTA's universal power, not to mention the fact the DS shouldn't be able to handle a 3D sandbox world.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Chinatown Wars not only represents an extraordinary technical achievement - it also provides one of the funniest and most entertaining experiences on any gaming platform.

Just don't let your kids get hold of it.

GTA: Chinatown Wars

A pocket rocket that's sumptuous to look at, riotously funny, and deeply rewarding. GTA: Chinatown Wars is one of Rockstar's and the DS's best ever
Mark Walbank
Mark Walbank
Ex-Edge writer and retro game enthusiast, Mark has been playing games since he received a Grandstand home entertainment system back in 1977. Still deeply absorbed by moving pixels (though nothing 'too fast'), he now lives in Scotland and practices the art of mentalism.