Last Wednesday we had a few hours to kill before our flights took off, so on Tuesday night Rockstar invited us to stop by the office the next day. Due to the number of us there, we split into two groups. Adam, Jev, Psy, and Chris went first since their flights were earlier and morning here is like afternoon in UK time. G-WizZ, Kodo, Zidane and I got to sleep in late (and lounge in the hotel lobby scaring tourists), then around lunch time we piled into a cab and headed over to the office. Having only seen the place from the outside during our last visit, it was great to finally make it past security and the legendary zombie-proof door. Had we just been there to hang out, this would have been cool enough by itself. But, no, the Rockstar guys had something even better in mind..
After arriving and chatting for a bit outside, the UK group went out for lunch while us Americans were led into Rockstar's inner sanctum, and up to a conference room decorated with framed prints of various San Andreas artwork. It was there that we saw the giant Nintendo DS Rockstar built from a dev-kit. Upon which we were given a demo of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.
Previously I had only seen a handful of screens, so going in I was pretty much expecting a classic "2.5D" game with a blocky map and a lot of fancy sprite work to simulate 3D. Being a big fan of the old school GTAs, this would have been more than good enough for me. Once again, however, Rockstar had something better in mind; namely wowing us with a fully 3D game. Obviously the tiny DS can't render every little pothole/doorknob/finger/etc.. in 3D like GTA IV, but all the buildings, cars, peds, on down to street rubbish and signs, are made of polygons.
Naturally, the peds and cars are somewhat simple since they're so small, but on a triangle for triangle basis, the level of detail in the map is roughly comparable to GTA III. Given the size of the screen and the limitations of the hardware, this is truly impressive. On top of just being detailed, the map is huge. While they've tweaked and moved things around a bit so the scale would better match the action, the map is essentially the same Liberty City (minus Alderney) found in GTA IV. As such, the world should feel instantly familiar to anyone who has played IV, yet totally fresh at the same time, thanks in part to the slick cartoon shader. Oh, yea, and everything casts real-time shadows which move as the time of day changes.
But enough about the technical artsy stuff, how does it play? Well, after picking up our jaws off the floor following the demo on the giant DS, we all gathered around the table in the conference room to try it out for ourselves.
As mentioned above, I have a real soft spot for the old school top-down games, so it was quite exciting to see that they've returned to the over-the-top, arcade-like action of GTA2. One mission we played, called 'Driven to Destruction,' involved driving around in a pick-up truck with a Triad named Zhou Ming in the back with a minigun to exact revenge on a rival Jamaican gang. Keeping to the classic GTA style, there was a "carnage meter" on screen which filled up as he shot up the other gang and blew things up. Lots of things. Speaking of carnage, Rampages are back!
If you're wondering if there's anything in it for people who never got into the first two games, don't worry, Rockstar didn't forget about you. Unlike the old top-down games, the camera rotates around so you can see things from all sides, and it follows behind (albeit from an angle above) as you drive. In another departure from the classics, you can lock onto targets and strafe on foot instead of controlling the player like a drunk motorcycle.
But since the DS is designed to be played on the go (even more so than the PSP which feels more like a console), the fast, chaotic missions will be well suited for playing for a few minutes on your lunch break or whatever. In addition to the mission pace, they've streamlined and added features to make it easier to pick up and play. The most noticeable being that the phone, internet, and GPS related stuff from IV is all rolled into the PDA on the lower screen.
With a few taps of the stylus, you can check your e-mail, order guns from Ammunation, and sets waypoints on the map. One of the new GPS features is the ability to display to display arrow on the actual road so you can see where you're going without looking at the GPS. While it wasn't available in the build we played, you'll also be able to message friends and trade items and waypoints with them via WiFi and track your stats at the Rockstar Social Club.
The PDA isn't the only thing which got the touch screen treatment either. When you drive into the water, for instance, the bottom screen switches to a view inside the car, and you use the stylus to bust out the window before you drown. Other things we saw during the preview included filling Molotov cocktails at a gas station, digging around in dumpsters for hidden items, and popping ignition locks to steal parked cars. We were told there's more stuff where that came from too.
The army is back.
Another thing that's bound to make fans of III, VC, and SA happy is the return of the vehicle side mission. Granted, IV did have nice police car missions, but lots of people (myself included) were a little disappointed by the lack of other vehicle-based jobs. On top of the fire truck, ambulance, taxi, and food delivery jobs, we're told there will be others to discover. There will also be Ammunation trucks full of guns driving around, and rival gang vans which you can steal drugs from to sell.
On the subject of drugs, another fun new feature is the in-game black market economy. In total there are six types of drugs in three tiers of risk/value. Prices fluctuate throughout the game as events affect supply and demand, such as blowing up surveillance cameras, which in turn lowers the risk of selling in that area. Each neighborhood and gang has its own preferred products, meaning you can buy low in one area and sell high in another where demand is greater. And since getting arrested will cause you to lose any product you're carrying, there's also a lock box at your apartment to store them in.
There's lots of other things we saw (like the new wanted system and the ability to replay any mission..), and probably lots of stuff we missed since there was just so much to take in. But since this post is getting rather long, I'm going to shut up now. You're probably better off reading the preview at
Kikizo if you haven't already. I totally missed it before, which only added to the surprise of seeing the game in action. Oh, and one other thing, while waiting for the game to come out, you can also search the LCPD website inside GTA IV for Triads to get more info on several of the characters.