Review: A PSP to PS2 conversion? Why that would require some kind of Rebigulator and that's just absurd!
Generally, when it comes to PSP/PS2 conversions, it's the PS2 game being ported down to PSP, frustrating PSP owners looking for original content, not an original PSP game sent to its big brother the PS2. But with Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, that's exactly what we're seeing. While LCS is the best-selling PSP game, it was not the multi-million selling success we're accustomed to, so it's easy to figure out why Rockstar Games is sending its portable masterpiece to PS2; the need to make up the cash from the investment. However, while on PSP the game was an amazing showcase of the potential of PSP, the rules are different on PS2, where not 2 years previously, San Andreas completely redefined what's expected from a Grand Theft Auto title, making this single-city, slightly stripped down game a bit out of place in the GTA evolution. Those who have played the PSP version to death won't find anything new, and thus even for $20 it might not be worth it aside from playing on the big screen; but for that same price, LCS is a great summertime PS2 title for those lacking a PSP. Just don't expect a game on the scale or production of San Andreas, and you'll enjoy this nostalgia trip.
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, who GTA veterans will remember as Sal Leone's right-hand man, but in LCS is an average wiseguy, 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, as made men are typically untouchable. 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 Sindiacco families, dealing with the shady Sicilian mob, handling rival crime syndicates that aren't of Italian descent, and forwarding the career of Salvatore 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).
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. 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. 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.
The thing PS2 owners do need to keep in mind is that each mission is generally designed with brevity in mind ? as this was developed for PSP, where people want a quick fix, most missions are short and to the point, which compared to the lengthy epics in San Andreas, might seem weak. The cutscenes are shorter, the objectives less demanding (but yet still very intense), and the goal is much more direct. Actually many GTA fans might appreciate the quick missions simply because they're easier to get back to after getting wasted, while other might think of them as shallow. But seeing the format the game was originally designed for, it's easy to understand. What makes up for the relative quickness of missions is the total amount of them ? they might be shorter but there's more missions here than GTA III.
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. 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.
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. The return of GTA to PS2 means the control scheme is much improved compared to PSP ? while it was decent there definitely were problems. If there's anything in the PS2 version that's far better than PSP, this is it. Now it feels much more natural ? drive-bys and the delivery missions are easier thanks to the shoulder buttons, the 2nd analog stick gives you camera control rather than fighting with the shoulder buttons on PSP all the time. The San Andreas-style targeting is refined and useful, but still needs some work to avoid targeting the wrong people. The important carryover from San Andreas is the health meter built into the target lock, so you know how much you have left to take an enemy out.
The PSP version of Liberty City Stories had one thing that no console version had ? multiplayer. Many were expecting it to make an appearance when coming to PS2, perhaps with online play to compliment it...but that's not the case. The multiplayer is gone, as Rockstar wished to keep at least one thing exclusive to PSP. But rest assured, this is the only thing that's been removed that could have still worked on PS2, and while yes the game feels like a step back from the huge San Andreas, it's still a new GTA, albeit in a familiar city. For some this might feel small and limiting, taking freedom away from a franchise that made freedom in gaming hip and clich?. But others will find the game to be more focused and direct, with enough non-story activities to pass time when the main game ends. Remembering that on PSP this is uncharted territory is vital to 'getting' what made the game special, and on PS2 it's not special, but instead just a fun, solid entry into the GTA universe that sheds light on many things you'll see later in Grand Theft Auto III.
The main draw to this PS2 version is now millions of people who don't own a PSP can give it a shot, and see how well the game turned out on a portable platform...and of course, make Rockstar a whole lot of money to make up for what they lost in the Hot Coffee fiasco. The move to PS2 might seem questionable, but LCS is a great game, and the return to Liberty City is huge for many people who have been wishing for the city again after Vice and the trio of cities in San Andreas (even the Leone mission to Liberty City in SA wasn't enough). Some of the characters are silly and uninteresting, but many favorites are here, in perhaps less flattering form, and some characters shed light on details missing from your last trip to Liberty. The pricing of the game at $20 covers up for the slimmed down game (compared to San Andreas), which makes it a great bargain ? name me another game that has this much play that debuted at retail for such a low price.
Perhaps the only real disappointing aspect of this port is how the visuals turned out. On PSP, LCS was beautiful, using that LCD screen and smaller resolution to portray Liberty City like never before. In many places it surpassed GTA III. However in the move to PS2, with a larger screen and higher possible resolution...the game looks dated. It also looks very dark even with brightness turned all the way up, and has plenty of moments where slowdown occurs. PSP owners will be shocked, but PS2 owners will wonder what the hell happened to what was once a good-looking game in this conversion. That said, some things are still good ? the new areas are unique and fun to drive through (you might actually think Fort Staunton is far better in LCS), the car designs are a cross between the ones you'd see in GTA III and plenty of cars that will get redesigns later (the Manana actually looks...kinda cool). The same goofy character designs are here too, though many will wonder how Toni aged so much between LCS and III. San Andreas was no looker either, but LCS shows that blowing up a portable game for a TV is not always a good idea.
As you would expect from Rockstar, LCS has great audio production, but it feels much more, um...'indie' rather than star-studded. 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 and are more about the weird hosts. 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. A completely new Chatterbox station would have rocked. Sadly, while on PSP this was countered by custom soundtracks, it's not possible on PS2 since there's no standard hard drive. So if you don't like the soundtrack, you're in for a bumpy ride, and you can only listen to freaking Nurse Bob so often.
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 the star of the show.