Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories

Hands-on with the new multiplayer modes.

I'm standing on a highway, in my underpants, half-listening to a gun battle about two blocks away. I can hear rockets impacting on palm trees, and the sound of AK fire getting closer.

Suddenly a chap appears in front of me wearing an outfit called a Harry Balsac, and he's clutching a sniper rifle. I'm not bothered though, and neither's he, because while we're very much at war with one another, for now we're both far more interested in the little pink helicopter icon zooming across our mini-maps.

Pinky's breaking this way, and Harry's noticed. We both look up, and I raise my rocket launcher and fumble with the aiming reticule. Meantime, Harry clicks through a few magnification levels, finds his mark, and then there's a crack.

BOOM. Pinky, already a bit scuffed up from the AK fire, has flames coming out of the back of him, and is spiralling to the ground. Harry and I glance happily at one another. Then I shoot Harry in the face, because that'll make it a bit harder for him to get the next helicopter.

Yes - Rockstar is doing its multiplayer thing again. You might question how good a multiplayer action game can be when everyone has use of lock-on for gunplay, but in actual fact that's less of a problem than you'd think, because all of the really meaty stuff relies upon more than just holding R1 and pulling the trigger.

What's more, you're always aware of where your enemies are in the big city, thanks to the mini-map, and you don't just get to dive behind cars; if someone's causing you trouble, you can always regroup and come at them in a car, or whilst firing over the front of a motorbike.

Liberty City Stories had six modes of play for six wirelessly connected pals to romp through, but the team in Leeds has put three more into Vice City Stories, taking advantage of some of the new tricks the single-player game can do - like helicopters.

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There are all sorts of helicopters in Vice City Stories - medical, police, Air Force. Some missions involve piloting, others riding shotgun.

The mode I'm playing is called Hunter, and basically it's a bit like the average Battlefield 1942 public server mixed with Lord of the Flies: six people, one helicopter, and the only way to score points is to grab hold of the bird and then use it to mow down the folks left on the ground.

Fortunately, those folks are well tooled up, with AK-47s (which do immense damage to the chopper in free-aim mode), rocket launchers and sniper rifles. You can also find other things dotted around - although if you can take down a helicopter with a Molotov cocktail then you're a better man than me.

You might imagine that Hunter's a bit boring for the chaps on the ground - after all, helicopters are the ultimate vehicular prize in Vice City Stories single-player, and the Hunter is an Air Force chopper with wing-mounted rocket launchers. But in actual fact, you can have quite a bit of fun being the prey. Because after a bit of dithering around, every man for himself, what you sometimes get is an impromptu alliance. People spread out in one area, giving the Hunter less chance to score multiple kills. With no penalties for the ground team's failure other than points to the man in the sky, teamwork's the lesser of several evils.

But once the chopper's going down, all bonds are broken, and the only thing on anybody's mind is to get to the new one, indicated by a white helicopter icon on the mini-map, before anybody else.

So what's it like when you do get there first? Well, initially it's a bit of a challenge. Helicopter controls in Vice City Stories are fairly intuitive, don't get me wrong - you spin up by holding X, which puts you in the air, and you tilt forward and back on the analogue nub to push the nose down or pull up. And with the shoulder buttons ruddering you left and right and the analogue allowing you to strafe sideways, manoeuvrability is impressive.

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But of course sometimes it's necessary just to shoot people in the face. Handily, the lock-on aim and firing controls have come a long way since the bad old days on PS2.

But the Hunter's a wily chopper, and moves almost too quickly, so getting anybody in your sights is quite hit and miss to begin with. It's only after a bit of careful practice that you get the gist of it, and let's face it, nobody on the ground is all that interested in letting you find your feet. You can't just fly off and toy around with it either, because if you stray too far from the little enemy men indicated on your mini-map, then the game kills you off and respawns the copter for the others to grab.

All in all, it's a neat mix of tactics, backstabbing and, well, flying, and you can't say much fairer than that in a third-person shooter.

And we can't say much more than that about this particular third-person shooter either, because Rockstar swore us to secrecy about the other modes. Still, we don't like secrets that much, so we'll risk upsetting them to let you know that there's a fourth new mode, which is technically a variation on the old Street Rage racing mode, called Quadathlon, where you race between checkpoints and switch between cars, bikes, boats, dune buggies and even helicopters.

We can't imagine they'll be all that bothered if we point out how well all the new modes run either, even with helicopters and the like. For the most part, our experience was entirely lag-free, even in complex situations involving all six players, although the game did have a bit of trouble when we ran people over, with victims' models clipping through cars even if they did then fall down.

Still, like Liberty City Stories before it, the latest PSP GTA's multiplayer modes do a good job of capturing the manic, violent, treacherous fun of the main game, and we're looking forward to giving them a closer examination ahead of our review, which should be available for you to check out in the week leading up to Vice City Stories' 3rd November release.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories is due out exclusively for PSP on 3rd November.

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