Guess who played Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars at the weekend?

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Rockstar had Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on display at the New York Comicon at the weekend. (Expect a video of the show itself sometime tomorrow; please note that editing video on a plain ol’ MacBook is stupid.) The guys at Rockstar gave us (well, me) a thorough overview of the Nintendo DS game inside a delivery van on the show floor. Sorta weird, yes. It’s hard to top Edge’s cover story from a few months back, but I will say this: whatever doubts I had about the game being “worth it”—$34.99, to be exact—are now gone.

As you may already know, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was developed by Rockstar Leeds, the same team that developed Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories for the PSP. The thing about those games is that they were essentially paired down PS2 games, so much so that they were eventually ported to the PS2. Chinatown Wars is different. It was designed, in newspeak, from the ground up for the DS. And while the screenshots may give the impression that it’s some sort of top-down 2D game à la the first GTA games, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s a fully 3D world. (Note that word, “world”: though the name is Chinatown Wars, the whole of Liberty City is the game’s playpen: Bohan, Dukes, Broker and Algonquin.) If you were to somehow force the game into the standard third-person camera, you would see the whole city as you did in GTA IV. Rockstar Leeds chose the pseudo top-down camera angle in order to make the most use of the DS’ limited screen real estate; the camera freely rotates. The fact is, you’re not playing the game on a 50-inch plasma, so Leeds had to design the game as such.

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Liberty City is just as alive here as it was in GTA IV: people walk about the city going about their non-scripted (that is, dynamically generated) business, cars weave in and out of traffic, day turns into night and clear skies into a cloudy soup. Taxi missions and the like (paramedics, fire trucks, etc.) also make a return.

The analog to GTA IV‘s cellphone is a PDA. From here, you can save your game at any time—another nod to portable gaming—, read and send e-mail, view your stats (how many cars stolen, etc.) function as a GPS (waypoints work the same as in GTA IV, replay previous misions, and so on.

Police chases work differently this time around, and they’re more action-y. Once you hit two more more wanted stars you need to actively eliminate police cars to lower your wanted level; once you hit once star you can simply duck into an alleyway to escape the po-po. (See? I know street lingo.) That is, you need to ram into police cars, disabling them, in order to lower your wanted level.

So I’d say Rockstar Leeds has done a darn fine job bringing the console GTA experience to the Nintendo DS. The core gameplay remains the same, so if that’s your “thing”—and it’s a lot of people’s “thing,” judging by how well the series has sold—the game will more than likely warrant your attention. Just a few weeks to wait now.

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