The PSP has had many good games (Ridge Racer, Burnout Legends, Virtua Tennis, Hot Shots Golf) but nothing that could be considered a "killer app." In other words, there hasn't been a game that has been so good that people have had to go out and buy the system just to play that game. Sony and Rockstar hope that Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories will do for the PSP what the GTA franchise did for the PS2. There's no question that GTA: LCS is a remarkable achievement from a technical standpoint. The size of the game, number of songs, impressive visuals, and quick load times are truly impressive. Less impressive, however, is that actual game; which is very good, but has a sort of "been there, done that" feel to it. If you're a fan of the series, you'll want to pick this one up, but it's not quite the "must-have" title that many were expecting.
GTA: Liberty City Stories takes place in – you guessed it, Liberty City which is loosely based on New York City. This is the same setting as Grand Theft Auto III, but it takes place a few years earlier, so things aren't exactly as you remembered them. Bridges have yet to be built, so you'll actually take a ferry from one part of the city to the next. There's actually quite a bit of political turmoil over the ferry system being put out of business by the bridge. It's cool how things like this are woven into the story. You'll even hear on the radio how there is a group of citizens that wants to ban motorcycles from the city because they are so dangerous – a nod to those people that are wondering why there are motorcycles here and not in the PS2 game that took place a few years later in the GTA timeline.
The story follows the exploits of Tony Cipriani a member of the Leone crime family, who has recently come back to Liberty City after being forced to lay low for a few years after whacking a made man. After coming back he's unhappy about being forced to be the errand boy for Vincenzo, who Tony has no respect for. Eventually Tony works himself back into the good graces of Salvatore Leone, becoming his most trusted ally. The embattled leader of the Leone family is not only fighting other gangs for turf, but also taking heat from politicians, including the mayor. Needless to say, neither Tony nor Salvatore is going to take things lying down, and it's up to you to get the city under Leone control.
The story is entertaining; far better than what you'd expect from a handheld game, but there's nothing terribly original. In fact, if you've played any of the previous games, it's quite predictable in parts. Anyone who has watched the Sopranos will immediately draw parallels between Tony Cipriani's relationship with his mother and Tony Soprano's love/hate dealings with his mom. The story isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, but you'll usually know who is going to cause you trouble and who is going to end up dead before it happens.
As you would expect from a Grand Theft Auto game, you can pick and choose what missions you want to tackle, and for the most part, how you are going to accomplish them. Rockstar took into account the fact that people would be playing the game in shorter sessions on the PSP, so most of the missions aren't as involved as previous games, though there still are plenty of jobs that have multiple steps. Along the way you'll have to assassinate rivals, steal cars, pick-up drugs, blow up buildings, escort hookers, collect money, intimidate rivals, and a variety of other tasks. In addition to the main objectives you can race cars and bikes, become a car salesman, drive a taxi, ambulance, fire truck and police car. It's easy to spend hours driving around looking for hidden packages, weapons, and hot cars, or just tooling around getting to know the city. In fact, just driving around causing mayhem for no particular reason is one of the best parts of the game.
Since you're a mobster, it goes without saying that the police aren't big fans of your handiwork. They seem to be quite aggressive this time around and they love to put down spikes to pop your tires, making the cars even tougher to handle than usual. The fuzz are tough to shake, so it almost becomes habit to get your car re-painted after drawing the attention of the man. Of course if you want to fight back you've got access to a variety of weapons such as: swords, explosives, pistols, rocket launchers, chainsaws, bats, and assorted other automatic weapons. There are tons of vehicles in the game including, sports cars, SUV's, pick-up trucks, station wagons, jeeps, motorcycles, and everyone's favorite – tanks.
In each part of town you'll have a safe house, where you can store vehicles, recoup health, change clothes, and save your game. Changing your clothes is tedious and a waste of time. It's very frustrating to drive across town for a job, find out you can't do it wearing the clothes your in, drive back to your safe house, change, and then drive all the way back to the job. It's also incredibly inconvenient to not be able to save anywhere. Sure you can put the PSP in sleep mode, but this does nothing for you if you want to save just before starting a mission so it's easier to restart. If you were able to instantly restart a mission after failing, this would be less of an issue, but you can't.
One of the most amazing things about Liberty City Stories are the load times, or more appropriately, the lack of load times. Other than some brief loading going into and coming out of cut-scenes, there's no loading whatsoever. After dealing with the terrible load times in Rockstar's previous effort, Midnight Club 3, it's astonishing that there are so few interruptions for loading.
It seems like Rockstar did their best to pare down the controls for the PSP, but there are still lots of problems. The biggest issue is aiming, which has long been a problem for the series. You can lock onto the nearest target by pressing the right shoulder button, but this often times will target a pedestrian in the middle of a shootout, or worse, someone behind you, which is quite disorienting. You can fine tune your aim by holding the right shoulder button, pressing down on the d-pad and then aiming via the analog stick. This is incredibly cumbersome and doesn't work well in the heat of battle. For some reason, most of the vehicles don't handle very well. Even veterans of the series will find the cars unresponsive and easy to flip over. Motorcycles are far too easy to spin out, and boats…they're a mess.
One of the biggest additions to the series is a fully realized multi-player mode that's a blast to play – provided you can get enough people. There's "Hit List", where you try to last as long as you can while everyone tries to kill you; "Street Rage", which is a race where killing your opponents is encouraged; "LC Survivor", where you want to get the most kills; "Protection Racket", is an attack and defend team game, and "Get Stretch" is like capture the flag, but with limousines. Most of the games are best when played with six people, but there are a few options for head to head play. The best of these is the "wedding list", where you and your opponent are given a list of cars to steal and ship.
From an artistic standpoint, Liberty City Stories isn't a whole lot to look at. The characters aren't very detailed and the city is a bit bland, but that's not news to anyone who spent time playing GTA: III. From a technical standpoint, however, GTA: LCS is a crowning achievement for the PSP. The city is just as big as it was in GTA: III, the draw distance, while not great, is impressive, and the framerate is surprisingly good. There are plenty of times when it will slow down when the action gets hectic, but for the most part, it exceeds expectations. City streets are filled with traffic, and of course, plenty of pedestrians. The cut-scenes are all real-time, and are well done. Character design is par for the course, but that's a good thing, as the main characters each have their own unique look that fits the game perfectly; their names are often hilarious as well.
Previous GTA games have been voiced by a number of Hollywood stars, which started an industry-wide trend of getting competent voice actors instead of bored sounding programmers to record dialog. Liberty City Stories doesn't have any big-name talent, but the performances are very good, and on the same level as the previous games.
One of the more impressive feats that Rockstar was able to pull of on the PSP was somehow getting a full compliment of radio stations into the game. Rather than using licensed music, like the last two games, Liberty City Stories uses original music in a variety of genres – Rap, rock, pop, and even classical music. There are DJ's for every station, and as usual, they have tons of insane and hilarious things to say. The commercials are top-notch; one of the best being the one that pokes fun at licensed kart racing videogames – it's priceless.
The ability to use a custom soundtrack is included, but getting it to work is such a convoluted process it's hardly worth the effort. You can't use the MP3 files that are already on your memory stick, nor can you use MP3 files off of your computer. You'll need to download a program from Rockstar and use it to rip songs. It only works on commercial CD's and won't convert burned discs, nor will it convert existing MP3 files. Why Rockstar made this so difficult is anyone's guess.
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories isn't perfect by any means, but it is a must-own game for anyone that considers themselves a fan of the series. There's an amazing amount of stuff to do in the game, and it truly is a full-fledged Grand Theft Auto title, though you shouldn't expect any ground breaking features. The load times are impressive, and even the battery life isn't all that bad (I got around 3 hours of play on a charge). It would have been nice to see a few more concessions made in the transition to the handheld, such as the ability to save anywhere and restart missions immediately, but minor quibbles aside, it's a heck of an effort from Rockstar.