Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars: iPhone app of the week

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was recently released for iPhone and iPod Touch and it's definitely worth the money. We take a closer look at the most recent release from the storied Grand Theft Auto franchise from Rockstar Games.


I usually write about two iPhone apps every week, but this week is special. This week, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars came out for the iPhone and it is worth every cent of the $9.99 price tag. Though it is certainly not what I would call a family game, it is done so well that serious gamers should head to the iTunes Store immediately. I want to reiterate here: this is not a family game. Gratuitous violence, bad language, drugs, theft, and murder, are all commonplace in Chinatown Wars--in other words, we strongly suggest you don't buy it for your kid's iPod Touch.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Get game tips as you drive through Liberty City. (Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

Having played many console versions of the games in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, I struggled to see how Rockstar could translate the action to mobile devices. I admit that the iPhone version was the first I tried (it's been available for some time on the Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP handheld game systems), but even after 5 minutes spent playing Chinatown Wars on the iPhone I realized Rockstar knew what it was doing developing the game for handheld devices.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Get new missions from NPCs in cut scenes and from in-game e-mails. (Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

You play as the young Huang Lee who only recently arrived in Liberty City. Your first contact is with Huang's uncle, Kenny, a drug lord who is going through a rough patch, requiring you to take on various missions to improve his gangster image. Like all of the GTA games, you'll be sent on missions to steal cars, take out rival gangsters, and other nefarious activities. You view the action from a top-down (yet 3D) perspective with the control system involving an onscreen joystick, and onscreen buttons for driving, shooting, punching, and kicking. I should warn you that driving takes some getting used to, partly because of the onscreen controls and also as a result of the top-down view (making it hard to see what's coming). I definitely prefer the driving on the console versions, but with some practice I was able to get where I needed to go without too much trouble. The controls also make it difficult to shoot or use melee attacks with no targeting system, but fortunately the game is forgiving when it comes to aiming.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Unique touch-screen mini-games add to the charm. (Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

Even with the well-written storyline and challenging missions, what makes this game even more entertaining is the clever use of the iPhone's touch screen. Little things like spinning your finger to take out the screws of a panel to hot-wire a car, or swiping your finger to move trash bags out of a Dumpster to reveal a hidden gun add to this game's charm. Though some of the actions get kind of repetitive, it's fun to discover the various ways Rockstar utilized the touch screen.

In between missions you'll be able to visit your apartment to save the game, view a bulletin board where you can play previous missions, and log in to a laptop to check your e-mail. Like older GTA games, you also can save cars you find by parking them in the garage at your apartment before a save. There are several apartments to unlock as you play through the game, all of which will make it easier to complete specific missions in different locations.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Your apartment is where you save games, access your stash and e-mails, and play old missions. (Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

Overall, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is an excellent game for iPhone with few issues, mostly revolving around the controls. Once you get used to the driving and melee fighting, Chinatown wars offers an engaging storyline, unique cartoonish graphics, a city that's alive with constant action, and music that puts it among the best games for the iPhone. The mature content makes it an adults-only type of game, but the sandbox-like gameplay and huge open world will make adults remember why they liked video games in the first place. Also, now that arguably one of the biggest video game publishers ever has made a game for iPhone, it could mean we will see more and more top-tier games making their way to our favorite handheld device.

What's your favorite iPhone app? Do you think Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is as good as I say it is? Do you find the whole concept of this game offensive? What game do you think should have an iPhone version? Let me know in the comments!

About Jason Parker

Jason Parker has been at CNET for more than 13 years. He is the Senior Editor in charge iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.