Motorbikes. When you look back at it, for all its technical ingenuity and impressive length, Liberty City Stories' main contribution to the retrod streets of GTA III's home were crotch-rockets.
That won't do this time. That's why Vice City Stories takes onboard feedback about mission length and diversity, introduces new geographical features to help make the city a bit more interesting for returning players, and even aims to deliver some new mission types - about which the publisher remains notably quiet, despite the occasional sighting in the preview build we had the chance to see in action recently. Nope, it's more than motorbikes.
Although just in case the motorbikes thing will do, there are also some jet-skis as a symbolic equivalent.
They're in evidence right away in our demo, which locks our Rockstar handler into the broad shoulders of Vic Vance - Lance Vance out of the first game's 28 year-old brother - who's been kicked out of the army for a bit and finds himself reluctantly thrust into a life of crime. Apparently he's off for a stint at Guantanamo Bay later. We're not actually making that up.
In a mission called "Say Cheese", Vic tumbles into the studio of Remi, a pampered, film-making prima donna with a touch of Grace Jones about him. Vic needs cash, and agrees to work on a TV advert for a brand of chocolates, which Remi intends to shoot from a helicopter. Vic leaps onto a jet-ski and sets off with the chopper flying low overhead.
It's vintage GTA - and a good introduction to the skis - and yet somewhat different too. The jet-ski skims nimbly over the water, the physics for which have been massively improved since the bad old days, leaping over ramps as the Rockstar man whose shoulder we're looking over switches to an optional first-person view, with the chopper visible in the top-right, and then out to a cinematic cut which frames the action rather neatly.
Then it's onto dry land, where Vic takes to a bike, and goes haring through traffic aiming for checkpoints picked out on the mini-map, weaving like a maniac and eventually stopping outside a house. The game then cuts to a picture of a box of chocolates on the doorstep. "All because the lady loves Milk Tray," we mouth, before killing ourselves.
Apparently this sort of mission set-up - transitioning between land, sea and air - will be a bit of a theme for Vice City Stories. It's all about maintaining interest - Rockstar really did take to heart all that moaning you did about the missions in Liberty City Stories. They don't cry in Leeds, obviously, but they probably butchered some kittens in self-doubt.
Anyway, the next mission completely undermines the above point by being a bit of a classic "blow three things up" archetype. Called "Waking Up The Neighbours" it involves taking out some Cholo vans on behalf of a drug-dealing pimp called Marty Williams (Vic clearly has all the best friends). At least you get to do it with grenades or, if you're playing on a debug version of the game like our Rockstar friend is, you can give up when the going gets tough and spawn a rocket launcher instead. Cheat.
Next it's "Steal The Deal", and here we learn a bit more about how Rockstar's improved the water systems, and get our first look at a younger, bouncier version of Vice City's Lance Vance, who is being voiced by Phillip Michael Thomas out of Miami Vice by the way, despite speculation to the contrary. Lance has made friends with another of Vice City's familiar faces, Ricardo Diaz, and in this mission it's up to Vic and his brother to try and find the location of a rival drug dealer's stash.
It kicks off with Vic and Lance staking out a strip club looking for a goon. This is because Lance has "reliable information" that out-of-towners tend to head to this place to get drunk and do it. He's not wrong, and as dawn tolls a weary-looking goon jumps in a waiting car and speeds off, rather recklessly. Very recklessly in fact; adding a bit of spice to the old tailing missions, Vic and Lance's mark is all over the road, smashing stuff up, although he's still capable of causing problems if he spots you on his tail.
Things then segue into a jet-ski chase, as Vic follows the goon to the hideout, which is a series of jetties and little huts out in the sea. Vic now has to dodge some boat-riding patrols and pinch the dealer's stash, conveniently located in a speedboat. But oh no! He's fallen in the water.
Fortunately, in VCS this no longer means near-instant death. Vic can swim, and not only that but unlike all the other GTA games has can also grab hold of the edge of a jetty and pull himself out of the water. Apparently this is limited to getting out of the water, but still a plus. Once he's taken out a few patrols, Vic speeds off in the boat, and a fast chase through the islands around Vice City eventually delivers him to Diaz' dock, where it's mission accomplished. The boat handles very differently to the jet-ski, of course, and looks properly heavy in the water, but the water itself is much more variable than we remember of Vice City or San Andreas - backing up Rockstar's claims that the Leeds team has delivered "series-best water". Someone give them a medal. Or a snorkle.
The final mission we're shown is called "Taking The Fall" and it's our first sighting of a GTA favourite absent from Liberty City Stories (sans hacks): helicopters! Hurrah. Vic and Lance have to take out some bikers, who have apparently stolen a bunch of cocaine from Lance - although you get the impression perhaps Lance is being a bit dishonest about whose nostrils it wound up in.
In keeping with the theme of new mission styles, this one starts off with you in the driving seat of the chopper and Lance leaning out of the side with a mini-gun. The object is to swoop low over a biker convoy and hold the chopper steady so Lance can take them out. Then it's off to the bikers' construction site base, where there are more targets before, eek, a rooftop gunner sinks one into the chopper's propeller and it's time to bail out onto the rooftop. No time to rest though, because Vic has to race inside and gun down the rest of the bikers. "Where's the coke?" he asked Lance. "They must've sold it already," he replies, before buzzing off unhelpfully on the one remaining hog.
And so ends our brief look at Rockstar's second GTA PSP. Time for some questions. What sort of things can we expect to see in this Vice City that differentiate it from the last one? Well, for a start, we're told, the game's set two years beforehand, and there's a massive class divide separating the super-rich from the broken-down slum-dwelling lower classes, so the conditions are ripe for crime. Lots of familiar landmarks are still under construction, although there are some new ones, like the Chunder Wheel - a reference of course to The Warriors' iconic ferris wheel, and something you'll get to ride on later apparently. Since it's not in Vice City PS2, it seems fair to assume it'll meet a fiery end at some point as well.
In technical terms, Vice City Stories is twice the size of Liberty City Stories, which you might have inferred from the fact Vice City was that to GTA III, and the frame-rate is much better than its PSP predecessor's too. This is because Rockstar Leeds is much more familiar with the hardware now, we're told. It does show a bit. Draw distance in the chopper, in particular, is very impressive, while pop-up is infrequent and "clumping" - the repetition of pedestrian models - is reduced despite the greater number of visible NPCs.
There'll be new weapons too, of course, and potentially new side-missions, with multiplayer returning as well - although they're not talking about that yet. They're still nailing down specifics of the radio stations too, although many will be familiar, like Wave and V-Rock, and the script-writing team is consistent with the other games in the series, so you can expect the same trademark humour. One radio ad we hear advertising action-hero underwear for pre-teen girls ought to give Jack Thompson something to do for the next few months at least. There should certainly be lots of content - with an estimate of 60 or 70 story missions offered during our showcase.
Even with a lot still to be locked down though, it's easy to paint a portrait of GTA: Vice City Stories, and for those of you expecting another familiar retread there might be some surprises in store. Rockstar says it's listening to gamers, and on this evidence Vice City Stories will certainly be worth keeping an eye on. Oh, and it's got motorbikes in it too.
Following a slight delay recently, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories is due out on PSP exclusively (how long that lasts is anyone's guess) in November.