Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is an action-adventure game set in an open world environment. It has a different presentation from previous games in the series, by partially resembling the first Grand Theft Auto titles. Instead of a ground-level view behind the protagonist or a top-down perspective, Chinatown Wars uses a fully rotatable camera angled down at the action. Chinatown Wars also uses cel-shaded polygons with black outlines to produce a comic book-like aesthetic — a first for the series. The title takes place in the Grand Theft Auto IV rendition of Liberty City, with the exception of Alderney.
Unlike Grand Theft Auto IV, the player can disable as many police cars as possible to escape the police instead of leaving a “wanted zone.” The more stars the player has, the more police they have to take out for each level. For example, for a six star level, they have to take out six police cars to get down to a five star wanted level, and so on. There is also a drug dealing sub plot which allows players to peddle heroin, acid, ecstasy, marijuana, cocaine and depressants around the city. Players can make a profit by recognising market conditions and demands based on geography and plying their wares accordingly. CCTV cameras work as this game’s secret packages, destroyed by throwing a Molotov cocktail bottle or a grenade. This also decreases the chances of being caught while making a drug deal and provides discounts for buying drugs. Chinatown Wars applies many Grand Theft Auto IV features such as the next-gen HUD. Ammu-Nation returns in the form of an in-game website where the player can order various weapons through their PDA to be delivered to their safehouse. Players will also get emails which they can read either from the PDA or the laptop present in their safe house.
While stealing a moving vehicle is similar to that of previous Grand Theft Auto games, Chinatown Wars uses a different system for stealing parked vehicles. Depending on the car, it can be started in one of a few ways. Older cars require a few turns of a screwdriver in the ignition, while other cars require hotwiring. Newer, more expensive cars (with the exception of a bulletproof van) require the player to “hack” the computerised immobiliser. It is still possible to flip cars or set them on fire. The player is unable to pilot any of the aircraft in the game, but he can still see the ones at the airport or flying above him, although if a player uses a certain code on the Nintendo DS by using “Action Replay DS” the player can acquire a helicopter and fly it.