Version tested: PSP
There are two ways to look at this GTA on PSP malarkey: 1) It's dull and unadventurous. 2) It's huge, vibrant and full of endeavour.
It is, by design, witty, varied and hugely endearing. There's a reason I'm not bored of the GTA formula yet, and why none of the clones have overtaken Rockstar: the most important rules that govern the world are very effective. You will be able to drive cars like a stuntman, and they will only break if you treat them like wrecking balls or flip them on their backs. You will be able to blow things up and perform implausible vehicular acrobatics. You will be able to listen to the music or comedy interludes of your choice. You will only fall foul of the cops when you directly annoy them or do more than a few excessively naughty things in succession. You will find new toys and treats lurking just where they look like they might be hiding. Almost everything can be fixed within five minutes of screwing it up. For all its quirks when you get out of the car, when you're in one it'll feel like an adventure playground and a ball-pond rolled into one. Liberty City Stories gets all of this right.
Even so, one could easily argue that it's dull and unadventurous. Held up against GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas, surely it is! It's full of samey missions, straightforward objectives, forgettable characters and familiar quirks and flaws.
You have to bear in mind that GTA is about more than those things, and that the PSP hasn't really seen anything like this before. Sure, WipEout and Ridge Racer are handsome games, but this is an enormous, streaming 3D environment, often as good-looking as its PS2 counterparts - its shortfalls intermittent or cleverly disguised. We've all been to Liberty City already. We've all done most of what Liberty City Stories lets us do already. But this is uncharted territory on the PSP.
Next to San Andreas, which nearly drowned under the weight of its bells and whistles (being as they were made out of bling), LCS is a simpler and more focused effort. It takes up most of the stuff that worked anyway, and absorbs some of the best additions to the post-GTA3 titles while ignoring some of the worst. So, on top of the story missions, the taxi-driving, the emergency-servicing, the vast arsenal of melee, medium-range and distance weapons, the enormous variety of cars and the delightful collectibles (whether it's the 100 hidden packages or the one-of-a-kind cars), you've got bikes, diving out of moving cars, and the upgraded animation systems - and yet none of the snacking, exercising, dodgy rhythm-action, turf wars, spray-painting or questionable stealth. Or Hot Coffee.
Liberty City feels fresh and tight compared to the sprawling mass of San Andreas - the hilly terrain is welcome, the pathways and back-alleys well-placed, and the road system logical and realistic enough without being irritating.
Controls are mostly present and correct and sensibly mapped. The camera is now controlled by tapping L to centre (when it works), or, while in a car, holding L and pushing left/right/down on the analogue nub to look left, right or behind you. It does mean that you can't easily steer at the same time as doing a drive-by shooting, but it's doable with a bit of finger gymnastics. Nothing too awkward. Anyway, direct camera control was always going to be hard to do without a second analog stick, and although the camera will kill you from time to time, competent players will be able to keep that to a relative minimum. The rest works much as it does on the PS2 pad. Meanwhile, car handling is as loose and screechy as ever, and we're all comfortable enough now with the underlying mechanics and the general feel of this. In short, most of the speedy stuff is a bit lightweight, and the taller vehicles are prone to toppling, but it's usually pacy and responsive. And the handbrake is your friend.
Nothing's been done to make up for the on-foot problems, mind, although we didn't expect much. Player-character Tony Cipriani squirrels around, moves and jumps awkwardly and any shootouts he gets into quickly descend into just standing around waiting for everyone to die, particularly as you can't target while moving and the auto-target's often happier to pick out a civilian than your intended target. But, again, we're used to this - realistically, GTA's bread and butter is grandly thieving the autos.
The rest of the game lives in PS2 territory. The visual quality is about right, detail levels haven't dipped noticeably (any sacrifices are masked by the PSP's smaller, sharper image), and while the police aren't quite as excitable and numerous as they are in the other games, the number of pedestrians and the volume of civilian traffic is jolly impressive. Even the draw distance and level-of-detail effects aren't much worse than they were on PS2, and the frame rate, while it inevitably suffers in certain sections and probably isn't familiar with numbers larger than 30, isn't going to put anyone off. In its transition to PSP, GTA's picked up a few interstitial load-screens, and the odd pause when you get into a car and the game scrambles for the appropriate radio station, but on the whole it looks and loads with the acuity of a dyslexic Rambo. This isn't a disjointed GTA shoehorned onto a platform that can't handle it; it is GTA, but on the PSP. Well done Rockstar.
Equally in its favour, Liberty City's a funny place. The radio stations, no longer bogged down by 400 old songs you barely remember, are full of witty ads again (some of the best involve Citizens United Negating Technology - which, if not a collective nod to Jack Thompson, are certainly poking fun at that brand of sentiment), and the talk-shows feel sharper. Repetition's inevitable given the relative lack of disc-space, but what with all the changing cars and shooting things, it'll still be a while before you've exhausted the lot. Particularly the talk-shows (hurrah for Lazlow!). Listen out too for British rocker Crow, whose segment on helping the needy in third world countries is particularly mischievous.
By this stage, though, you're wondering when I'm going to start talking about what you actually do to keep the game alive. The thing is, I already am. The missions themselves are where the game is weakest - while passable, they're just glue for the game's true strengths which lie elsewhere. Doled out through Tony's various contacts, your missions involve delivering X to Y, going to X then escaping the cops to Y, killing a bloke at X and taking what he drops to Y, killing people scattered around (some even at Z!), taking out other cars, using a rifle to guard X at Y, and so on until your grasp of the last vestiges of the alphabet is without compare. On top of that are the usual array of rampages and unique jumps (complete with those oft-imitated cut-away camera angles), and the latter are more fun because, in general, exploring Liberty City and mining it for hidden treats is what sustains the game.
The way LCS presents you with tasks and playgrounds is as familiar as ever - and the fact that you've been there before undermines the sense of excitement when you reach Staunton Island or Shoreside Vale for the first time. It's a bit tiring initially, too, to have to relearn the same ropes all over again, even though you can probably weave them into a tapestry blindfolded if you've played the other 3d efforts. Even so, the volume of fun-to-be-had exceeds that of most PSP titles - and you'll put more time into the game to reach Shoreside Vale than it takes to complete at least half of them.
The difficulty level, as ever, is inconsistent. Often you fail because you ought to be trying a different approach, and having to think a bit and apply your broad skill-set is where the game proves most satisfying. Gunning down the mayor in the park and nicking his mobile phone can be done by waiting for him to leave its closely-guarded borders and running him off the road, or you can snipe him then gun for the mobile using a bike, or maybe you just put your guns away, wander in and suddenly whip them out when he's ten feet in front of you. Or use a katana.
But, as we've established, a lot of the story missions are rather more straightforward, and some are arbitrarily difficult (like the feckless chainsaw palaver at the end of one of the mafia threads), or become difficult arbitrarily when your plot-object-car is overturned and blown up. The frustration stems more from the knowledge that returning to the point that killed you will be a tedious trek, of course, and the PSP version makes no concession to those with just five or ten minutes to spare - even if it does make near-flawless use of the suspend feature - continuing to rely on safehouses for save-games. What use is a taxi back to the mission-brief if you need to shop for guns and armour first? On the other hand, some players will greet mission-failure with a shrug and a determination to go off and have some more fun in the meantime; the frustration of repetitive routine is always harsher on reviewers hungrier for knowledge than they are for fun. Which is my way of saying, "your mileage may vary".
Multiplayer, a new addition, warrants a similar sentiment, if only because two players are going to have to cover a lot of ground to find one another. Bring in a few more though and you might surprise yourself. In a game with such lousy third-person mechanics, I didn't hold much hope for this, but beyond the cluster of everyman game modes like deathmatch and capture the flag are some more interesting examples. Like fighting for control of a tank (one chap in it, the others armed with rocket launchers), or playing tug-of-war with limousines. All throughout the game's huge play area. And naturally the street races are engaging too. Given GTA's almost universal appeal, it may actually be practical to, you know, actually play this in public, too. Like the advertising said.
Not that GTA LCS will require much of its own. Liberty City was where it all began - both for the series, whose original top-down effort began there, and for the Rockstar monopoly, which began with GTA3 - and its return here is the best advert yet for Sony's claims that the PSP is as powerful as the PS2. In gamey terms, its return also underscores the series' strengths, and best sums up the game's approach: not so much more of the same, but just plain the same, since you're patently not bored of the same. Not a truly outstanding new Grand Theft Auto game then, but an excellent PSP game. Although I do wonder how it'd do in a year's time.
9 / 10