"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," he said, summing up Liberty City Stories on the PSP, ooh, six months ago.
Well, I doubt those extra six months I wondered about would make a lot of difference, because while this is a fairly straightforward port of the PSP game, at £20 it's one of the best-value PlayStation 2 games you'll be able to buy all summer.
Shorn of multiplayer that, while good, was never the focus anyway, what's left is a singular, familiar, thoroughly proven and ultimately not that self-critical take on Grand Theft Auto's 3D initiation. Liberty City is more or less the same place it was back when GTA III was such a revelation, and returning to it now with motorbikes, improved animation and third-person targeting, and the ability to dive out of a car while it's moving is surprisingly satisfying.
Not that you'd put that stuff on the back of the box. Liberty City is the real star here - compact but vast at the same time, with an easily remembered layout of neatly connected streets and alleyways, it's got enough big hills, jumps and idiosyncratic touches to prove memorable without exhausting your memory banks the way Vice City and particularly San Andreas did. Key checkpoints on your road to evil-doing - the gun shop Ammu-Nation and the respray shop for dumping the police - are located centrally, and hideouts have enough entertaining areas around them - the multi-storey car-park, the hilly mafia region with its desirable Leone Sentinels, etc. - for ten minutes of directionless fun to satisfy when you're not in the mood for a proper burn.
The learning curve is virtually nil for fans of the... Actually, is there any great point specifying "fans of the series"? Probably not. In any case, the learning curve is virtually nil. We know how the cars behave, for example. So precisely imprecise and delightfully unrealistic. Some people don't like it, but I say bollocks to 'em! (Although actually, this being the Internet, I should probably say that I acknowledge and respect their views and boundaries and will buy them flowers more often and yes I know a hug wouldn't go amiss.) We know how to evade the cops. We know how to run around and shoot at people. We even understand, by now, the quirks of the various mission archetypes - the safe distance it's important to keep when tailing someone, the invisible span of the street-race checkpoints.
It's all unmistakably GTA, and it's almost fair to say that the components parts can afford to be a bit straightforward, the missions unashamedly familiar. To get to the game's second of three islands, Staunton, you have to complete 32 of the things - a mixture of deliveries, multiple-target killings, running people off the road, fending off waves of hostiles, street racing, evading cops, covering friendlies, assassination/theft rituals and so on. The only unusual effort is a Smash TV inspired top-down run-around the hull of a tanker, trying to put distance enough between yourself and lumbering chainsaw-wielders to turn and take them out one at a time. It can be frustrating the first time, but like everything in GTA there's a knack to it - and by now we understand the knack of virtually everything LCS does.
There's also something to be said for the less epic approach. Some of the multi-part missions in Vice City and San Andreas were horrendously difficult. Here you're unlikely to spend more than five minutes on a particular task before you emerge to the familiar tune of a few hundred or thousand dollars. Other free-roaming titles like Driver 4 and Gun have started checkpointing these multi-phase missions, and GTA may yet have to, but Liberty City Stories doesn't need to.
Six months ago I said the missions were LCS' biggest weakness, but in actual fact there's a lot to be said for them. They give the game much-needed focus, and while seldom surprising they're seldom less than engaging either. You can still approach tasks, like taking down the mayor in the park and stealing his phone, in several ways. Saving a mafia boss from the boot of a crusher-bound car can be done by running the car off the road and nicking it, but you could always steal a fire engine and block the entrance to the goons' hideout before they've made a break for it, and take them down with close-arms-fire instead.
Outside this, the range of sub-missions - taxis, vigilante, etc. - is uninspired but not unenjoyable. Indeed, there's a general theme of returning to a familiar sandbox without hesitation. I absolutely murdered Grand Theft Auto III, and I've played through LCS twice in six months, and I'm still not sick of Liberty's streets. Talkshow host Lazlow, in a typically entertaining turn on the LCFR radio station, remarks, "What's wrong with this town?" The answer is: not very much.
Because where it's the same, LCS is a comfortable game, but where it diverges it's satisfying and comedic. The hidden packages and rampages, the new talkshow content, lead-man Tony Cipriani's brash voicework, running bikes at familiar jumps. You unlock new outfits constantly and generally ignore them, but it's worth the notifications for the first perfect insane stunt - which advises you that you can access a change of underwear at your safehouse.
There's a definite risk of over-celebrating this, and it's a bit of a shame more time wasn't spent imagining new modes of transport, and pouring as much supplemental humour into the nooks and crannies of the world. My all-time favourite GTA III sight-gag has to be the "GAS!" sign that sits on a wall adjacent to Staunton's multi-storey, where the level-of-detail effect gave you a "PETROL!" notice when you pulled back about 50 feet. LCS isn't devoid of those moments, but it's nowhere near as rich a game as some of its predecessors. Likewise, the limits placed on the game's audio content by the use of UMD shouldn't be a factor here, yet there's nothing to separate the soundtrack from its PSP counterpart - and it'll easily run dry through repetition by about the ten-hour mark, if that.
That said, I've spent an unnatural amount of time clawing away at LCS over the past three days, and if Liberty City's the star then the pass-the-parcel approach to game design is the man behind the curtain. The vehicles, for example, grow from a simple affection for Stallions, Sentinels and PCJ-600 bikes with a craving for roadsters to a bedrock of Humvees and sports cars, with greater treats teased by missions and familiar fare five hours later. Weapons are the same - with a delight for uzis soon replaced by a lust for rocket launchers and sniper rifles. The pattern of revelation is a familiar one, but as hooks go it's resilient - it's already snared tens of millions of sales, after all.
As was the case on PSP then, LCS is thoroughly familiar. The point is that you don't mind. We're not sick of the formula, and what's here is a fine distillation of the series' high points to date. A lack of flourish and invention, along with a tired set of on-foot mechanics, rob it of a higher mark - but too much stands in its favour not to recommend it.