Review: Portable gaming's status quo just got whacked, GTA style.
Ask any GTA fan what their favorite in-game city is, and chances are they'll tell you Liberty City. After all, most of the GTA fanbase got their start with Grand Theft Auto III and that famous town, even though Vice City was a bit larger, and San Andreas was not a city but instead a state, the old LC was always the most beloved. Obviously Rockstar has a soft spot for Liberty as well, since here we are again, 4 years after GTA III hit, with Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories exclusively on PSP. However, this is not a mere port of that seminal hit, but instead, LCS is a whole new game with a unique storyline, merely placed in the familiar locale ? with enough changes to make it almost completely fresh. Ever since LCS was announced, there's been doubters as to whether or not the team of Rockstar Leeds and Rockstar North could pull off the entire city on a UMD, but those doubters have been put in their place. Far from a typical dumbed-down portable game, GTA: LCS is a stunning achievement; it takes everything great about GTA, simply reduced into a portable format for GTA on the go ? and even adds strong multiplayer to the mix. It isn't as big or deep as San Andreas, and still carries some of the GTA quirks that drive non-fans and fans alike insane, but regardless, this is a full-fledged game in the GTA universe and one that will most likely tie in with later games, making it a must play for those who follow the GTA plot. Indeed, this is the killer app for PSP, and if this catches on like GTA III, it could change portable gaming forever, just like its source material ushered in a horde of cheap knockoffs that never could grasp what makes GTA great.
Liberty City Stories takes place in 1998, a mere three years before the events of Grand Theft Auto III. You're placed in the capable shoes of Toni Cipriani ? GTA III fans will remember him as a bit player who you took Triad-centric missions for and ended up being the guy to introduce you to the Don, Salvatore Leone. In LCS however, he's a mere capo, returning to Liberty City after laying low ? after all, he assassinated a made man, and that's not something you tend to get away with when you're in the organized crime profession. LCS is the story of Toni's rise to power ? however, unlike previous GTA games where the intent is to rule the streets yourself, it's more about making the Leone family the strongest mafia in town by taking out the rival Forelli and Sindacco families, handling rival crime syndicates that aren't of Italian descent, and forwarding the career of Sal Leone, who has a far larger presence this time around than in either GTA III or San Andreas. Like always, the journey is long, bloody, and bizarre, full of twists, turns, and creepy characters along the way (you will never look at Donald Love the same way again by the time you finish the game). This is not a watered-down, substandard version of Grand Theft Auto ? it's a legit 'sequel' to the overall GTA universe, full of the same sorts of things you'd find on consoles.
Though the game does take place in Liberty City, where many have already set foot and experienced the corrupt town firsthand, it isn't a complete recycle of the Liberty you know. Hidden packages are hid in different places. Your hideouts are in other parts of town (though there's a certain feeling of nostalgia when you wander to your old GTA III hideouts), and a great deal of the businesses different. Most notably, there's a lot
of environmental changes ? the ferries take up the space where the Porter Tunnel is in GTA III, the building being constructed in Staunton Island near Colombian territory is instead Forelli territory, loaded with businesses and whatnot, and a handful of things have been changed in Shoreside Vale. For a game that only takes place 3 years before its 'sequel', there's a lot of differences. But at least Rockstar took the time to explain why certain things were the way they are in GTA III. Many of the vehicles are the same, but there are a bunch of other models which apparently stopped being manufactured between LCS and GTA III. Motorcycles are included as well, and though many would raise an eyebrow considering last time we were in Liberty, bikes were extinct, Rockstar made up an explanation that some sort of anti-motorcycle law was responsible. Continuity is king.
Mission structure is classic GTA ? you visit the marker shown on the map, and off you go on some crazy quest. Most of the missions are very direct, part of keeping the game portable friendly ? most of them last 5 minutes at most and thus are perfect for those who only have a little bit of time at best. For the most part the missions will be familiar ? steal this, blow up that, kill these guys, scare people, etc. There are some cool ones though, such as a Staunton mission where you take control of a rival mobster's car remotely and cause havoc, a mission where you compete for territory against a rival of series regular Donald Love, and even a crazy mission where you kill off three celebrities...at the behest of a 'priest' ? sure to cause some controversy. There's just as many missions in LCS as you'd get in any console GTA, but because they're mostly designed with brevity in mind, though the longer missions are definitely the best, especially the ones that come in multiple objective format. Like always, there's no rhyme or reason in terms of difficulty ? usually the missions are tough, but doable, and in GTA fashion, there's usually more than one way to skin a cat. Early on things might get a bit touchy without access to the heavy weaponry, but once you get to a certain point things even out and it's a challenging, but never cheap format.
As you might expect, there's tons of side missions to take on if you need a break from the story. There's underground racing leagues for both car and motorcycle races, as well as the usual vehicle-based missions ? namely taxi, vigilante, ambulance, and delivery missions. Hidden Packages and unique jumps make their returns, and smartly none of the jumps from GTA III count, and the packages are hid in 100 other places (and some are really hard to reach since there's no helicopter to fly this time around). There's even a car collecting game just like the Import/Export garage, though it's in Staunton and not Shoreside/Portland. The idea of 'assets' introduced in Vice City are here, but not in too high a number. The easiest ones are the Car Salesman property (Capital Autos next to 8-Ball's place), where completing it nets 4k a day and a speedy Hellenbach GT in the showroom, and the Bike Sales in Staunton. You don't 'own' the property however, as you instead merely offer 'protection' in the form of payment. Since Toni is a mobster, after all. There's a ton of side missions to find, probably more than any GTA game aside from San Andreas. Considering I unlocked Shoreside Vale at just 37% completion, there's a whole lot of crap to do in Liberty City this time around. Like always, exploration is rewarded ? moreso this time around than in the past.
In terms of actual gameplay, LCS plays more like GTA III, but it has qualities of San Andreas. The cars are heavy and fast, lacking much of the 'floaty' physics of the older games. Obviously the sports cars and motorcycles are almost impossible to handle at high speeds, and can flip out, blow up, and skid out easier than a mini-van or limousine. At first, the handling might seem a bit awkward due to the PSP nub, but after a while it becomes second nature and not a problem. If you see fit, it can be setup where the d-pad is used for controls and the nub handles the default d-pad functions. It's a bit weird to do a drive-by or merely look around while you're driving since you have no 2nd analog stick or added R+L buttons to aim, but thankfully there's few missions that actually require it unless you're doing the delivery missions (it might have worked better if the analog nub could use used in the same style as the PS2's R3/L3 function). And because there's just the one stick, there's no real way to shift the camera naturally, as you can only hold the L button and then move the camera, which of course is quite fun when you're fighting a horde of gangsters. A simple habit to get used to is when you're walking around to just hold L all the time, as the camera will then shift in the direction you're moving automatically, like a traditional behind-the-character setup.
Speaking of fighting, the thing that's always plagued GTA ? the targeting ? is once again a tad clunky, though manageable. Usually, when you press R to take aim, it will direct you to an enemy, but sometimes it won't and thus you have to tap the d-pad to cycle until you find who you want...and of course those precious seconds can mean injury or death. In conjunction with the clumsy camera movement, this can really be a pain for those who want precision. Naturally GTA vets know all about these issues and can deal with it, though on PSP it's more prevalent. Most of the time though, it's not all bad and thus forgivable...though it really needs to be fixed. If you want, however, LCS offers a manual aim option. By pressing R and then down on the d-pad, you can switch to a PC-style aim, so you can just move around the analog nub & fire at will. Of course, you can't actually move around using manual aim, so if you need to run you have to 'cancel' the manual aim and then set up again. As is this is rather loose and imprecise, but by pressing the L button you can employ a 'fine aim' to allow for more accurate shots. This also applies when you're using a sniper rifle or rocket launcher - two weapons that don't have any auto-aim. It's nice that Rockstar made sure you have a choice between auto and manual aiming, especially since the auto aim does indeed need more work before the next big GTA on next-generation hardware.
Finally, it would be remiss to not mention the one thing Liberty City Stories has that none of the other GTA games have had officially ? multiplayer. Though it's just Ad Hoc wireless play, it's a strong step forward, especially since multi has been asked for ever since GTA III hit. Most of the seven gametypes are based upon traditional multiplayer options found in other games, with a GTA twist. There's a standard deathmatch, seige, and CTF option, as well as some quirky new stuff. The Hit List could be considered tag with guns ? one character is 'it' and their job is to survive as long as possible. Whoever survives the longest without getting whacked is the winner. Naturally there's a street race option (it's not GTA without some crazy checkpoint-based race), but unlike single player options, if you're killed or your car blows up, you can respawn with a car or switch vehicles. There's a couple powerups as well, like an instant repair option that heals your destructed car automatically...just like it says, instant repair. Finally, The Wedding List is a spectacular gametype ? your job is to find cars around the city and dump them at randomized shipping crates. You get a payment depending on the condition of the car, and whoever has the most cash at the end wins. If you know up to 5 PSP owners with GTA, multiplayer can be highly satisfying. However, you must play the single player story to unlock them ? as you reach Staunton and Shoreside, the multiplayer games finally show up and can be accessed through the pause menu (as there is no title screen like always).
One thing that has to be made clear is the game is nowhere near as deep as San Andreas (or even Vice City in many ways), even if it is an amazing achievement on PSP, which might make the game feel like a step back regardless of said achievement. You can't buy new safehouses, you can't deck out Toni with anything other than set outfits, there's no skill system and much to the chagrin of many, you can't swim. LCS borrows elements from all 3 of the current trilogy, but mostly it's taken from GTA III and Vice City. For some, this will feel like a step back (especially since you are paying as much for this game as all other GTA games), but for others this might be a refreshing return, since much of the micromanagement is gone because of this and thus you can explore at will without worrying about eating, keeping in shape, improving abilities, and keeping girlfriends happy. Liberty City, which used to be massive in scope 4 years ago, is still a large city that arguably is the most varied of them all, but it definitely seems smaller after being able to visit 3 cities and a bunch of countryside areas in San Andreas. Again though, for some this will be great since San Andreas had many moments of confusion since the state was just so dang big.
Regardless of that though, it's quite a feat that we're playing this game on a portable system. 4 years ago, GTA III was considered one of the largest games on consoles, and though that was surpassed by stuff like San Andreas and the Elder Scrolls games (especially the forthcoming Oblivion), it's still a large game. But that was on DVD format. Here, you're talking about a 1.8 GB UMD disc ? and they put the entire City of Liberty in here, and not only that, they even revamped numerous parts of town to reflect how Liberty changed between the events of this game and Grand Theft Auto III. Like how that game was the largest console game ever made when it hit, Liberty City Stories is the same way for portables ? and shows the exact vision Sony has for the PSP; console quality games with console quality depth. It comes with one major sacrifice however ? battery life. Load times are minimal, pretty much the same as GTA III, and the game streams like crazy to load the city on the fly as you wander through it (you can even see it sometimes before it loads up the textures). However, you can get about 3 hours tops out of it with max brightness and sound. Now since usually you can get 4-5 hours out of a game, that's not bad, but if you're a GTA addict, it's one of those games you should play with the PSP plugged in, or carry a spare battery. There are some tricks, like reducing the system brightness to the middle level and then maximizing the in-game brightness, which can stretch another 45 minutes or so out of the game.
Visually, believe it or not, Liberty City Stories is actually better looking than GTA III, though that really isn't saying much since it has been 4 years and of course, the PSP's LCD screen is far superior in quality to your average television. The frame rate is slick and rarely slows down, the city is loaded with pedestrians and cars, and there's some nice weather effects, including snow-like conditions which actually affect the performance of vehicles. The Character models are a bit screwy like every other GTA game, and the cars are mostly recycled from GTA III with the exception of a few that apparently got revamped in 3 years. Most importantly, LCS pulls off the most important visual quality ? the city truly is alive and bustling. The draw distance is amazing ? when wandering around one part of town, chances are you can see the other islands in the distance. It doesn't quite have that same impact that GTA III did ? when you saw other islands in that game, chances are you were all geeked up to visit. In LCS, you know the islands well, so it's more about seeing what's new rather than being amazed at a whole new part of Liberty City. Naturally it doesn't look 'great' technically, as it doesn't have the polish of your usual games, but artistically it has a great style. Yes, that's just as bad as saying that an ugly girl has a great personality. But it's true ? other games have copied the GTA formula, but none have captured the style and appeal of it artistically.
As you would expect from Rockstar, LCS has great audio production. Unlike Vice City and San Andreas however, there's no big-budget soundtrack ? instead, you get a ton of original and/or unknown songs on familiar GTA III radio stations like Flashback, Lips 106, and Head Radio, which also had mostly unknown/generic songs. However, Liberty City Jams, which is the equivalent to Game Radio, features a fully licensed soundtrack of hip-hop, from acts like DMX and Mobb Deep for starters, with famous producer DJ Clue handling, err...the DJ responsibilities. There is of course a talk radio station, and Chatterbox with Lazlow does return, but like San Andreas, it's a multi-format station so none of the shows get a chance to flesh out. Yes, they're all pretty funny, but I would have preferred a single format like Chatterbox or VCPR. If none of this interests you, there is an out this time around ? custom soundtracks. However it's not as easy as merely putting MP3 files onto your memory stick; instead you have to use a special program on your computer to convert songs off an audio CD to .gta format (and no, you can't just take an MP3 file and rename it to .gta), then place them in a special folder to get the game to see them. It's a bit of a pain but it's better than nothing. There is a workaround where you can download the same program designed for TOCA Racing 2 (a UK only PSP release), take MP3s, convert them to the .toc needed for TOCA, and rename them .gta ? I've tried it, and it works.
There's no star-studded voice acting cast this time around either. Fans will remember Toni being voiced by Michael Madsen in GTA III ? not this time around. Instead, you get an unknown that could pass for a young Toni, and he does a good job so it's no big deal. Frank Vincent returns to voice Sal Leone, but that's about the only real returning voice from past games. But the cast is very good and captures the high-quality voice acting the GTA games are known for. On the streets, you get to hear the usual goofy phrases from the pedestrians, always a favorite pastime ? and many are more off the wall than ever before. Otherwise, you'll hear many of the same sound effects as in the past games, such as gunfire from all around, the sounds of fast cars blazing by, etc. In many ways, LCS is a throwback to how GTA III was put together ? i.e. using a smaller budget for voices and music, instead focusing on making Liberty City as cool as possible again and coming up with some great missions ? and most importantly getting this game running to perfection on PSP with minimal sacrifices. I'm sure future GTA games on PSP (such as the one that was leaked in a recent Take Two financial report) will return to the same big budget audio once LCS has run its course.