There are few franchises that have become as influential for the game industry as the Grand Theft Auto series. On the one hand, it’s expanded the scope of the 3D action title immeasurably, layering the main storyline with numerous side missions and hidden secrets in a persistent world. It’s also managed to fit in more fast-paced shooting, driving and other content on a single disc than seems physically possible on either the PS2 or the Xbox. Now the GTA franchise expands its turf much like your in-game character, leaping onto the PSP for a taste of crime wherever you might be. Prepare to write your own chapter of crime as we explore Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories.
For those of you who aren’t acquainted with the GTA ‘universe”, Liberty City Stories takes place in the eponymously named Liberty City, the setting for GTA III. The year is 1998, and players are cast as Toni Cipriani, an up and coming henchman of the Leone family. As the game starts, Toni’s just returned from conducting business out of town for Don Salvatore, the boss of the Leone family, who immediately puts him back to work. Knowing how effective Toni is at getting things done, Don Salvatore puts him underneath one of his captains Vincenzo Cilli, who starts handing him missions to take care of around Liberty City. Not on friendly terms with each other, Toni takes these missions to do the bidding of his leader and move up in the organization until he becomes indispensable to the family.
In the process of his “promotions,” Toni will wind up taking on a large number of rival gangs, crime families, minor thugs and other ne’er do wells trying to claim sections of Liberty City as their turf. Akin to its console brethren, Liberty City Stories allows players to pick and choose when they advance the story by going and talking to named characters with specific locations on the Liberty City map, who will dole out missions to you. Many of these are similar to some of the basic tasks given to you from GTA III, such as driving a car from point A to B without destroying it, blowing up buildings or eliminating specific targets. Successfully accomplishing these goals in the 10 to 15 hour main storyline (depending on your GTA experience) will also give you money that you can use to purchase firearms, pay for restoring your health at hospitals and other expenses.
Also similar to the previous GTA titles is the option to deviate from the plot into side missions and world exploration whenever you want. Liberty City Stories offers a large number of diverse tasks for you to take on, such as delivering pizzas to different locations or driving a taxi and picking up fares. You’ll be able to get into street races, drive an ambulance or go on shooting rampages and take out large numbers of people. In fact, this really is the only way that you’ll fully experience the Liberty City world.
Thankfully, you won’t have to remain on foot for the entire game; in fact, there are a huge number of vehicles that you’ll be able to “borrow” for different tasks. Ranging from sedans and trucks to motorcycles and boats, you’ll have plenty of options to speed around Liberty City in. Like the console versions of the series, every vehicles handles differently, and you’ll be able to gauge the difference between a crotch rocket and a huge big rig. Additionally, the trademark radio stations and commercials (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) that players have come to expect from the GTA series, so you can enjoy driving through the streets of Liberty City to the sound of classical, rap, pop or other sounds. Unfortunately, the track listings aren't nearly as deep or as licensed as other GTA games, which is disappointing. The rap station is probably the one that packs the most immediately recognizable tunes, and while Liberty City Stories does allow you to create customized soundtracks, you'll need a separate program that you have to download from Rockstar's website and actual CDs instead of saved mp3s on a memory stick to engage this feature.
Granted, there's a ton of depth involved in Liberty City Stories – much more than I could really go into without exposing every facet of the game. However, the one thing that I haven't spoken about is the sheer feat of technical wizardry involved in transferring the scale of GTA from a console to the PSP. With the exception of a few minor loads that arrive at the start of the game, loading a save or massive transitional moments between geographical locations, gameplay is streamed seamlessly. What's more, while the PSP seems to be constantly accessing the disc, it doesn't drain the battery like other disc heavy-PSP games out there. The fact that this is possible with a UMD disc is nothing short of amazing, and really adds to the pleasant shock you'll experience in having a fully fledged 3D version of GTA in your hands wherever you go. I still wish there was more save points for the game than the few safe houses scattered throughout the game, as it can be a serious pain to drag yourself halfway across the city to save your progress.
However, there is somewhat of a caveat that goes along with the transfer over to the PSP, particularly when it comes to some moments of frame rate. While the game is definitely going to slowdown, especially during massive gunfights, it's relatively noticeable for any players that constantly like getting in trouble with the law. Unlike the console versions where you're practically overrun with cops at higher threat levels, it's possible to have a shoot out with the law and actually get a breather before the next wave comes at you. You'll also find that while Liberty City Stories manages to recreate the visual flair of GTA III in everyway, including the cutscenes and environments, there are still noticeable instances of pop up for characters, objects and vehicles as the game streams the onscreen action.
Speaking of combat, the annoyance that some players may have felt with the fighting mechanics of previous GTA titles returns with a vengeance in Liberty City Stories. The tracking of threats has always been the weakest part of GTA games, and this title is no exception, often tracking far away threats or innocent bystanders instead of immediate threats. This not only results in tons of unnecessary deaths, but plenty of frustration. It's merely augmented by the fact that the PSP doesn't have an additional analog nub, so you're forced to employ a "run and bait tactic" to not only survive large firefights, but simply to track all of the combatants coming at you. More often than not, you'll resort to this simply to safeguard having the more high powered weapons, because one wrong move and Toni loses them when he dies. Since these wrong moves often come down to a camera getting stuck on a wall or choosing a horrible camera angle, you will curse at this control issue here and there, which is the largest issue that hampers the control scheme.
Many of the missions wind up also devolving to such a simplistic basis, which is somewhat shallow compared to the massive missions given to you in the console versions. Whether it's due to the limitations of the disc itself or a design decision, there's something that feels like a step backwards. It's not a horrible thing, but it can be a little odd to get a sense of "going back in time" to the older style of GTA gameplay.
What does wind up making a significant change is the addition of multiplayer, which let's you play a number of classic multiplayer match types with a GTA sensibility, such as Tanks For The Memories, where everyone, armed with a rocket launcher tries to get in the lone tank on the "map." (Think of it as King of the hill with high explosive ordinance.) Similarly, Protection Racket is much like Capture the Flag, but instead of a flag you're trying to blow up cars that the other team is trying to protect. The Ad Hoc mode is extremely stable and runs extremely well, which definitely extends the life of the game once you've mastered the single player experience.
Frame rate issues, targeting hiccups and other minor quibbles aside, this is a portable 3D version of the Grand Theft Auto series, which is phenomenal to behold and even better to play on the go. The fact that it's condensed for the PSP is spectacular, and players will have a blast exploring Liberty City with its side quests and multiplayer for hours once the single player storyline has been finished.