It'd be very easy to saddle up on my gigantic building-straddling horse and fire rockets down at Rockstar for the bloodless cash-in exercise that is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories. Five and a half years (and five games) down the line, and barely a technical improvement worth a damn. This is a game that's not only showing its age, but begging for loose change.
It's also quite reasonable to take a more forgiving view of the return of an old friend. This is, after all, a reworking of one of our all-time favourite games, released at a tempting price. Sure, it unapologetically recycles the Vice City environments, but spruces it up with 59 new missions, a fresh storyline to work through, new characters to meet, and includes probably the finest soundtrack ever to grace a videogame. What's not to like?
I guess the answer to that is simple: Rockstar has been stubbornly resistant to change. Back in 2001 and 2002 when free-roaming sandbox games were revolutionary, we could forgive slightly dodgy combat, an unhelpful camera system and downright annoying inability to checkpoint progress or autosave after a successful mission. The rest of the game was so breathtakingly fresh and ambitious compared to what was out there that such issues were somewhat glossed over.
Few games can claim as much trickle-down impact as Grand Theft Auto. A cult game at a time when gamers themselves were a cult, the PC original spawned numerous spin-offs, expansions and clones, and has given birth to enormous, perhaps even deciding influence in two separate console generations. It's also responsible for me! I didn't decide to be a games journalist; I decided to make a Grand Theft Auto fansite. It was the interminable wait for the second PC game that drove me to write about other stuff. DMA Design has a lot to answer for.
Obviously then GTA is a very important game for PSP. The DS may have a bigger share (and the public heart) of the handheld market, but GTA is something it simply cannot do. Vice City Stories underscores this. The entire city is here, the draw distance is miles better than Liberty City Stories', the frame rate rarely drops into dangerous territory, and Rockstar Leeds' greater exposure to the hardware has given birth to greater feats: realistic water physics, for one, but most notably helicopters. You can now swoop over the city taking in huge vistas, land on rooftops and enjoy almost as much freedom as any "proper" GTA game has ever offered. Very few companies have found as much blood in the stones that pockmark the wasteland of PSP development.
For me though, GTA's biggest draw is the driving - the slidey Hollywood handling with which we're all now intimately familiar. There's a unique thrill to cruising down Ocean Drive listening to Marvin Gaye, handbrake-turning into a side street as you make for the next objective. It feels like gaming home. Even if you've grown tired of the usual zero-to-criminal-hero storylines and the fetch-quest nature of the missions, the journey's still the worthier part - and there's lots of journeying to be done, with numerous ramps to launch yourself from and secrets to uncover. As you go, there's the range of radio stations to enjoy - the talk radio bit, presumably written by that Lazlow chap again, still the highlight. It starts repeating eventually, but takes longer than you'd imagine, despite the UMD format's limits. What's more, even though the original Vice City used up a lot of the real '80s classics, the rest of the radio channels manage to hold their own with licensed content. Aptly, Rockstar still knows its music.