Apparently 13 can be a lucky number. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, the thirteenth installment in a series that's approaching 100 million copies sold, returns the franchise to its core design philosophy: plunging the player into an amped-up world of depravity, mayhem and speed and wringing as much giddy gameplay out of it as possible. This is a GTA I will play through to the end, which is something I haven't done since Vice City.
GTA: Chinatown Wars exemplifies the worn-out adage that less is more, but not in the way you might expect. The game crams more content into its tiny DS cartridge than seems possible. In terms of gameplay, it nearly matches its big brother GTA IV feature for feature, and the geographic scope of the game's Liberty City is vast and surprisingly detailed.
It may be a handheld version of GTA - and it feels very strange (and oddly exhilarating) dealing drugs on my family-friendly DS with the Zelda stickers on it - but this is a full-throttled, no-holds-barred Rockstar GTA game.
GTA:CW got small in exactly the way it needed to. It delivers a limited and perfectly preposterous story, with suitably ludicrous characters, that provide a simple framework for progressing through the game. The cutscenes, such as they are, arrive in the form of comic-book still-frame interactions punctuated by the droll self-mockery that Rockstar's writers do better than anyone. GTA:CW is all about the game. Its clever but simple story exists to accentuate and contextualize the action. Margaret Robertson would be very happy.
Robertson, as you may know if you caught my recent post-GDC podcast, delivered a talk in San Francisco called "Stop Wasting My Time and Your Money: Why Your Game Doesn't Need a Story to Be a Hit." In it, she pointed out that not all games require thick narratives, and sometimes such narratives do little more than hinder developers and players. When you realistically consider the development requirements for such games, you wind up facing a workflow that looks something like this: DEVISE, STORYBOARD, SCRIPT, CAST, VOICE RECORD, MOCAP, BUILD, ANIMATE, IMPLEMENT, TRANSLATE, RECAST, RERECORD, REIMPLEMENT. 
Would GTA:CW have benefited from such an approach? No way.
I'm a regular advocate for ambitious storytelling in games, but not every title requires them...not even games like GTA:CW that feature lots of characters. Robertson gets it right, I think, when she suggests that players prioritize their needs when they play games. They want to know (in descending order of importance):
- Where I am
- What I can do
- What I look like
- Who I am
I'm not sure I agree that "Who I am" always falls last on the list, but perhaps I need to think about the question more carefully. A game like GTA:CW certainly seems to work this way; but, interestingly, GTA IV attempted to emphasize "Who I am" at various times in its narrative, and this is precisely where the game ran into trouble.
Was Niko Bellic a problematic character because the game tried unsuccessfully to reposition "Who I am" at the top of its list? Perhaps the game was built according to Robertson's list of player priorities - just as Rockstar has designed every game in the GTA series - and no amount of contemplating Niko's nature or backstory could overcome this overarching structure.
I don't know. But one thing seems clear to me. GTA: Chinatown Wars succeeds on its diminutive hardware more completely than its older next-gen brother, and that's an accomplishment worth noting..and contemplating.