Lance Vance began life in Vice City as a goofy old hippy, wearing shorts and making cracks about STDs. That's one of the first things we learnt when we got to try our hand at Vice City Stories on the PSP - Rockstar Leeds' second crack at a portable title - following our hands-off walkthrough of a few missions last month.
But it's Vic Vance, the playable character, who bears most of the brunt of Lance's peculiar sense of humour, as he finds himself propelled into a life of crime pretty much as soon as his brother steps off the plane at Escobar International Airport. In "Jive Drive", the first mission we're allowed to play, Vic and Lance have to make a getaway under fire from a group of Cholos.
Except, for once, the player isn't in the driving seat. Instead Lance takes you on a bumpy slalom ride past Cholo low-riders packed with enemies who need to be picked off. Some drive up alongside you and need to be dealt with there. All the while a familiar car-health meter gets worryingly close to death in the top-right.
Having reached the transition point for the mission, Vic is tasked with defending Lance from the Cholos as they close in on the crashed car in a car park. Plenty of gunnery and a two-star wanted rating later, you drop Lance off at his hotel.
As you'll know if you read our earlier preview, a lot of the things Rockstar's talking about in VCS are reactions to user feedback. They originally thought that missions should be bite-size, portable affairs suited to a train journey, but apparently people didn't want that. The overwhelming response was that people wanted to do more than drive from A to B. So now you get to ride shotgun from A to B, and then fight for control of B and escort a pal from B to C. While being shot by X, Y and Z.
The second mission available for us to try illustrates this further. On this one, "Leap And Bound", Lance is the bagman on a drug swap, set up by somebody the Vances have outed as police. Naturally it goes wrong, and the first part of the mission is a high-speed chase as Vic struggles to keep pace in a Porsche look-alike. Except here he's trying to keep pace with a boat. Reminiscent of the "follow-the-chopper" mission from LCS, but a bit more straightforward, this one involves rattling down a highway at breakneck pace and then launching yourself off a ramp to land on a tanker moored further down.
Once onboard, you need to take out enemy after enemy and fight your way into the hold of the ship, where Lance is captive. Controls in VCS remain consistent with LCS, for the most part, so there's the usual bullet-dance of left-shoulder auto-targeting and surging around with the analogue stick to try and preserve your health. With Lance rescued, there's much more of this, as Vic has to collect a series of drug bundles scattered on various decks, and then grab a motorbike and leap back to shore - at which point Lance buggers off without so much as a thank-you.
At least he's consistent, then - he did the same thing when we last saw the game. And he'll not be the only thing that's familiar. Naturally there'll be character and lots of location overlap, as we've already heard, while staples like taxis that return you to the mission-start, emergency service side-missions and hidden packages endure, along with the original PSP version's first-time-ever multiplayer. And the po-lice, who continue to get their knickers in a twist about the slightest things, like you blowing up their stations.
The best example of them going nuts is the third mission I'm allowed to play, which is called "Turn On, Tune In, Bug Out". Lance is getting paranoid about bugs in his office, so Vic has to trawl around town blowing up antennae at police stations while an "evidence" meter builds up. Initially you drive there and fire rockets. And while you're on the roof, it becomes apparent that the only way to continue is by carving a path through the skies. Cue our first playable PSP chopper.
Helicopter handling is perfectly tuned to what it was in the console versions, and as we buzzed over familiar landmarks - often with other choppers circling to try and cut us off - it was possible to see for quite a distance. Details pop in and out on the horizon, but that's to be expected and doesn't hurt the game too much. For good measure, the final escape from the last of the antennae involves a six-star wanted chase to a spray-shop, with tanks and all the rest in tow. We managed it in a SWAT van, swapping for something sprayable once Vic got close to the end.
Another chopper mission, "Lost And Found", involves picking up a girl from a hospital and then nicking the resident air-ambulance to effect a rooftop rescue elsewhere. Once you've gathered the troops, you have to fly low over some boats speeding along the harbour and hold the bird steady so that Lance can lean out and rip them up with a machine gun. It's tense, as they're firing back at you, but once all the gunmen are dispatched you drop Lance on the lead boat and then head home. It's clear that the game engine can handle itself much better than it did in Liberty City, with Rockstar throwing plenty of complex objects and scenarios together without the need to be concerned about frame-rate, which is consistently decent.
That this sort of escalation in technology's reflected in content is encouraging, and consistent across the missions we've seen. "Unfriendly Competition" involves a mass gun battle with bikini-clad mercenaries, spitting lead all over the flowery scenery, while "Nice Package" sees you involved in a high-speed tug-of-war for a drug bundle, shooting up Ocean Drive at ridiculous pace with a dealer riding shotgun to try and loosen the dope from your adversaries' grasp. All in order to prove yourself to a chap called Umberto, whose vernacular's almost as phallic as his hairdo.
So far, Vice City Stories is well within the bounds of what you'd expect - some new elements, but mostly abstractions of Vice City itself. What's clear though is that Rockstar Leeds is more comfortable with the hardware, and isn't afraid to up the ante. Think Liberty City Stories, but done on the scale of the original 3D GTAs. Expect to learn more about the game in the run-up to its November release, but for now the signs are very good. I'd do it, anyway, providing Lance gets a check-up.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories is due out exclusively on PSP in November.