No pressure or anything, Rockstar, but there are a few million people out there who are slightly interested in the fact you've got a brand new Grand Theft Auto title out at the end of October. Best make it a good 'un.
Subtitled Liberty City Stories, it's a game that Rockstar has kept characteristically close to its chest - until last week, when it finally took the wraps off a game that'll probably sell the PSP all on its own. Even more so if it's good.
But even though the Rockstar reps were only prepared to show off three of the game's "70 odd" levels, the all-too-brief 20-minute walkthrough of some of the game's key early moments instantly dispelled any notion that its PSP-exclusive is a quick and dirty GTA III re-hash with a choppy frame rate and hideous pop-up. It's literally a full-powered, all-new GTA in your hands.
So, what's the deal? As Rockstar has already confessed (any early information from these guys feels like a guilty secret), the game is set in Liberty City in 1998, three years before the events of the seminal Grand Theft Auto III, and stars Toni Cipriani - "a fairly low order mobster".
As the official details on the brand new website reveal: "The streets of Liberty City are in turmoil [now there's a thing...]. Warring Mafioso vie for control as the town begins to self-destruct under waves of political corruption, organised crime, drug trafficking and union strikes.
"No-one can be trusted as Toni tries to clean up the mess of the city's chaotic underworld. Deranged hitmen, morally depraved tycoons and his own mother stand in his way as Toni tries to bring the city under Leone control." Sound familiar? You could say it's a classic GTA scenario, in a classic GTA setting, or in other words what the world is gagging for on their shiny new PSPs.
I don't know how to say this, but I'm kind of a big deal
Shedding further light on the mess Cipriani returns to, Rockstar explains: "Toni was a bigger deal [in Liberty City] but he's been away for four years because he's been in hiding. Toni killed a guy [a "made man", according to the official website] as a favour to the Leone crime family, so he had to go and lay low for a while."
It seems Cipriani needed some breathing space: the cops and the mob were after him, but after a few years out of sight, the whole thing has blown over. He needs cash, he needs work, and the Leone family is happy to have him back.
"So he's lost all his contacts, but he's back and working for Don Salvatore Leone; someone who looks and sounds younger than he is." But that not his only problem it seems. "There's a guy, Vince, who's the Don's right hand man, who Tony has to work for, who's not the nicest guy, but obviously he has to deal with it at the moment, and attract [attention] by working for these different families."
And with the introductions out of the way, we're taken on a whistle-stop tour of three new but highly familiar scenarios that long-term fans will be well versed with. The opening mission ("about five missions in," we're told) sees Cipriani tasked with retrieving a sack of cash from one of Leone's warehouses at Callahan Point - but not without a fight. When you arrive, a gang of Triad thugs set fire to the warehouse and the usual mayhem ensues before Toni grabs said loot, nails anyone who gets in the way, gets the hell out, and is forced to dodge a bunch of Triad fish trucks on the way out. Inevitably, you squeak through against the odds and eventually plough a safe passage back to the Leone mansion.
Immediately, it's apparent that the PSP has very little trouble dealing with the technical demands of a full-blown GTA game, and as such it looks like a huge improvement over GTA III in every sense: the draw distance - while by no means perfect, with plenty of pop-up evident - is acceptable, the frame rate looked rock solid and smooth, and the character models looked up to San Andreas standard, complete with the trademark Rockstar mannerisms, and - yes - lifelike hands.
Elsewhere, the technical improvements were more than evident, such as reflections on the car and road, shadowing, the damage modelling on the vehicles, a variety of different weather effects, such as thunderstorms, snow, and glorious sunsets. Moreover, Rockstar claim that the weather will affect vehicle handling, too. It looks as good as anyone could reasonably hope. "It's a joint project between Rockstar North and Rockstar Leeds, and they've been working on it for two years now. It really shows what you can get out of a PSP." Indeed it does; comparing this to previous handheld GTA efforts shows just how far the industry has come.
But with only one analogue stick to play with, the issue of controlling the character and cameras arise. Evidently the main controls are all exactly the same, so no problems there, but the camera functions which would have been on the right analogue stick (or with L2 and R2 when you're in cars) are now possible by pressing the left shoulder button and using the analogue stick, with the camera being automatic for the most part.
"Obviously there are less buttons so we had to put in a combo. If, for example, you're facing the wrong way, you can tap the left trigger and it'll centre the camera for you. You've got all the control that you did on PS2, but just with a few combinations. When shooting, you can cycle through targets using the d-pad, so you can hold the trigger and you don't have to re-aim, for example, you just use the d-pad and left and right - it's pretty user friendly." Sadly, we couldn't find out for ourselves at this stage, with Rockstar preferring to wave the PSP tantalisingly close to our face instead. We would have brought a Tazer along and wrestled them to the ground, but suspect that might have been illegal.
Ahem, moving on, there are some vital technical questions stubbornly unanswered at this stage, though: that of loading time and battery life. "Until we get it made on UMD we don't know, and we haven't been given any hint as to how that will pan out," Rockstar told us. "We'll just have to see. Obviously it's something they're fully aware of, so they will be working on that, but no word at the moment. These are key questions that we don't have definitive answers to as we're still running it on the debug. Until we test it for sure, we won't be able to say." Bah. At least we won't have too long to find out, with Rockstar releasing the game on October 25th, with a Euro release likely to follow just a few days after on the 28th.
Next up in our demo sessions, Rockstar drives Toni back safely to the mansion with the cash, job done. "His clothes are a little dirty, so we're going to head back to the safe house to change clothes before we head to another mission," and as with Vice City and San Andreas players will get to wander into an internal location and save the game. "They're not the same safe houses as GTA III, and there are detailed interiors now where they weren't before. There's a CD-ROM where you save the game. You can change clothes, there's a clothes icon. I don't know the exact number [of outfits], but it's roughly similar to Vice City, not an enormous amount, obviously nowhere near the number in San Andreas with all of the different combinations. I'd guess somewhere around ten."
Swiftly skipping onto a mission in Portland, the chaps trigger a mission called 'Blow Up Dolls' in the Red Light District involving a new character called JD O'Toole. Pulling up outside a building in GTA III once owned by Luigi (called 'Sex Club Seven'), it seems that previous to that it was own by this O' Toole fellow and now goes by the name of 'Paulie's Revue Bar'.
So who is J.D? "He works for a family called the Sindaccos, and has done for many years," says Rockstar. "He's sick of it, he can't work his way up the ladder anymore and he wants to work for the Leone family. He gives Tony a bit of a tip off, about a Sindacco gambling house and brothel that, if taken out, would cripple their operation."
Taking us into Sindacco territory, our man jumps into the Sindacco Argento in order to infiltrate behind Sindacco lines, but stops off at 8-Ball's to strap a bomb to the bottom before we get there. "Once that's done we head back through the Sindaccos in a car they thought was their own, so, with a detonator in our hand we get away from it and blow the place up. Job done." Again, nothing we haven't seen in GTA many times before, but it's familiar, classic stuff.
Next up we skip straight to Staunton Island to a mission called 'Caught in the Act'. An on-rails speedboat shooter mission: "This involves you escorting Mr Leone; he needs to talk to a Mayor's aide and get some information out of him in a bit of a shakedown. It takes place in the water, so you get to drive a speedboat". Given that it's of the on-rails variety, it's one where you're entirely in first-person, controlling a targeting reticule. In true GTA style, the action's fast, furious and ridiculous. Secret service choppers descend, it all kicks off. And then our demo machine crashes and that's the end of that. "That was the end of the level anyway," we're assured.
But we chose to fire some more questions at them anyway. So, boats that you can drive? What else? "There are ferries as well, so you can go by ferry between islands." Still got the subway and overland trains? "Yep, and lots of new vehicles; new cars, motorbikes..." Tanks? "I think so; they have been in all the others". Why no flying vehicles? "No there aren't any. I would guess it’s just to do with size. To add a whole class of flying vehicles, the whole city needs to look good from half a mile up, etc, etc. I think it's just a space thing."
What about the gang warfare element introduced in San Andreas? "There are gangs in the streets as there were in previous GTAs, but no territory warfare." What about the stat system of San Andreas? Is that in? "It's more on a Vice City/GTA III level; you do build up stamina, like, the more you run, the longer you'll be able to run for. There's certainly not all the 'you get fat/you get thin' stuff."
Any new side missions? "All the taxi missions and all the little side missions are in there. There are going to be some new ones, but I'm afraid we're going to be leaving them for you to discover for yourself for your review. There will be Phone Booth missions this time, though; more of them and spread around, and entirely optional. They're shorter missions, so if you’re on a bus and you've only got five minutes... they're our only concession to the fact that it's a portable mobile experience, otherwise the philosophy's been to try and get a full GTA, fully in-depth, the next in the series." But it'll be big, right? How many missions will there be? "Oh yeah, it's roughly similar to GTA III and Vice City, about seventy/eighty". Blimey. There goes November.
Another key question is obviously the soundtrack and the voiceover cast line-up, but Rockstar is reluctant to get drawn into the subject, and for pretty good reasons, as it happens: "In terms of voice actors it's not something we normally announce - ever. It'll be in the back of the manual if you want to have a look; we don't want to sell the game on the back of a Hollywood star that has come into a voiceover studio for one day, and he's the star of the game or something like that.
"Ooh, there are famous people in it"
"We've got 150 programmers who have been working on the game for two years; [announcing voice actors] would take it away from all their hard work if we say, 'ooh, Samuel L Jackson's in it,' or whatever, so we've never really done that on either the music or the acting. I'm sure it'll be the same this year." But there will be the usual soundtrack CD, though, right? "I don't know if there will be or not. Obviously it won't be as extensive as San Andreas; we've got an idea of what's going to be on there."
Okay, so how many radio stations are there going to be in the game? "We still don't have that confirmed. They're still doing licensing stuff. There's Double Clef, and a pop mainstream station called Head radio, a Talk station, Flashback FM, which you all saw pop-up today. None of them are confirmed, though." Presumably there's the usual theme and variety this time? "Yeah, I mean it's set three years before GTA III, so that's late '90s. You saw Flashback FM pop up there, so there's a fair chance that's going to be in, although not 100 per cent. Is Lazlo back? "I've heard Lazlo's in it, but don't quote me on that." Whoops.
But is it good enough to get excited about? Well, until they deign to let us play it, we won't know for sure, and it's surprising they only showed off three missions (previous GTA demo sessions went on far longer). But that's Rockstar. They play it by their own rules, keep things as enigmatic as possible as show off what they want to show off and nothing more. It's the game that could catapult PSP sales into the stratosphere; it takes a very special game to sell a gaming platform all by itself, but no-one would be surprised if Liberty City Stories did just that, and repeat Rockstar's Midas touch just like GTA III did four years ago...
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories will be released on October 25th in North America. A European release date has yet to be confirmed. The game will be released exclusively on the PSP via Rockstar Games.