Reviewed: June 22, 2006
Released: June 6, 2006
Hereís a question for all you PS2 owners out there. Remember how ďspecialĒ we all felt when we were the only ones playing Grand Theft Auto games? Sony and Rockstar had some deal inked out where PlayStation gamers were the only ones allowed to play the most controversial series of games in console history. And even when Xbox managed to muscle their way in and start getting their own ports of those titles Sony still had the initial exclusive guaranteeing that if you wanted to play a new GTA game during itís initial first 6-9 months you had better own a PS2.
Last October PSP gamers got to taste a bit of that exclusivity and it was a very sweet experience. But now, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories has made the move to the PS2, stealing both the bragging rights of PSP owners and diluting the PS2 GTA gene pool with what is arguably a substandard port.
Iím sure there is some accountant at Rockstar madly punching on his adding machine and planning his next vacation to the Bahamas. After all, how can you miss? Simply take an already-proven game, port it over to a nearly-100%-compatible platform that millions of gamers already own, ďgiveĒ it away for $20 and watch the coffers fill up. Cha-ching!
And Rockstar has already proven that ports arenít a bad thing. Their Xbox and PC conversions of previous GTA titles have always risen to the capabilities of the more powerful systems, but from what I can tell, there was very little effort put into moving this game from PSP to PS2. Multiplayer modes were removed, graphics were not enhanced, and the entire package looks like it was simply rushed out the door to pad the traditionally slow summer months of game releases.
For me, the GTA series peaked with Vice City. I simply couldnít immerse myself into the thick urban culture of San Andreas, but Liberty City Stories returns us to the glory days of GTA III and organized crime, only this time with motorcycles. Everything we loved about that game is perfectly recreated on the handheld, and now we get to explore Liberty City with a new hero, new characters, and a few old favorites.
Playing Liberty City Stories was like moving away and then coming back home after four years. Youíll start driving around town and vaguely remember that strip club is two blocks ahead on the right, or youíll pull out of the driveway from the cliff-side estate and instinctively know that if you turn left, right, right, youíll be at 8-Balls Garage.
Of course having too much knowledge can work against you. I remember trying to lose the cops by driving down an alley I ďknewĒ had a bribe icon in it, but it was no longer there. And donít even think for a minute that any of those 100 Hidden Packages are still in their same spots.
The events of this game actually take place before those in GTA III, so not only are things notably different, youíll get to see several areas of the city in various states of construction; areas that were completely built in GTA III. All three islands are still recreated in intricate detail down to building interiors, back alleys, warehouses, docks, and crime lord mansions.
The PS2 admittedly offers slightly better control than the PSP (which was certainly no slouch). Driving was fluid and realistic enough in its traditional arcade-style, and even traction was taken into account for the frequent downpours. There are more than 70 vehicles in LCS ranging from trucks to bikes, and even speedboats. They all exhibit unique and somewhat realistic handling making them useful in their own certain situations.
The game world runs like a clock, or rather on an accelerated night and day cycle with minutes passing by like seconds. I had occasion to park along the beach around 4pm and watch as the sun slowly set behind the distant mountains. The sky turned various shades of orange and pink and a lens flare even popped out as the sun rested beyond the horizon. About 6pm the streetlights all turned on casting their own individual glows.
And donít be surprised to find that several places of business maintain realistic business hours and can only be visited at specific times. If you donít like the weather or the time of day, simply go to your safe house and save your game to advance the game clock several hours.
This trip through Liberty City puts you in the role of Toni Cipriani, a member of the Leone crime family under the cruel, yet fair rule of Don Salvatore. As always, the game is divided up into free time where you can explore the available parts of the map doing your own thing, or, at anytime, head to one of the markers on the map and take on an assignment.
Assignments run the gamut from collecting money from deadbeat hookers, to driving the getaway car for some fellow criminals and dozens of others. Missions come from a variety of sources including JD, the sleazy owner of the strip club in the red-light district, Vince, Salvatore himself, and even Toniís mom, with some of the funniest cutscenes in the game. Donald Love is also back for this game, and we get to see him in a time where he is even darker and more evil than we previously knew him.
You generally have two or three options for assignments, and some require you to dress for the job, so you might have to go home and change into a suit (or out of one) depending on who your employer is that day. Of course itís a good idea to save between missions since you cannot save while a mission is in progress, but itís also impossible to lose this game.
Death puts you at the front door of the hospital minus medical fees, and getting busted puts you at the front door of the police station minus bail money and all your weapons. A helpful taxi is always standing by to take you back to the start of the previously failed mission, so the game is very ďloser-friendlyĒ.
One thing I did notice about this particular installment in the GTA franchise is that the story has gotten a lot darker, and Rockstar seems to be intentionally pushing a lot of buttons. Perhaps, itís in retaliation to all the heat they took over Hot Coffee, but there was just a lot of gratuitous sex and violence in this game.
Not that Iím complaining. Maybe things were just more barbaric in the pre-GTA III timeline, but I canít ever recall hacking up a deli owner and selling his body parts back to his own deli as ďfresh meatĒ in any of the other games, or watching (or rather hearing) Vince get a blowjob while talking to his ma on the phone, then watch the girl climb out from under his desk. LCS earns its M rating and probably pushes it to the limits.
In addition to being much darker, the missions in LCS are a lot more creative this time around. Sure, you have dozens of repetitive driving and shooting missions, but mixed in are some excellent and challenging designs including one of my favorites, a political campaign for Donald Love where you basically acquire votes/territory by driving around in a van while his political rival is trying to take back that same territory. Then you have missions with boats, helicopters, and all sorts of weapons and creative strategy.
When you arenít working for the mob you are free to explore the city and perform the various odd jobs like driving an ambulance, delivering food, stealing cars to sell or to crunch at the junkyard for salvage, or the classic taxi cab missions. As always, you can hop into a fire truck and play fireman or steal a police car and do some vigilante work, and now you can even get into a trash truck and collect garbage.
LCS is all about freedom to do what you want, when you want, and how you want. Smart gamers can probably think up a few ways to complete missions that even Rockstar might not have counted on. The difficulty is not entirely balanced. Some of the more difficult missions actually take place during the first half of the game, only because you donít have access to the huge arsenal youíll have at the end.
There was one mission where I was fighting off what seemed to be an endless stream of assassins that were swarming my momís apartment. They would arrive two at a time in black sedans, taxis, trucks, and even solo on motorcycles. The mission starts by putting you in a courtyard with a shotgun and only one entrance to cover, but the killers are smart and will wait for you to come out. And while it is entirely possible to complete this mission with gunfire, most players will find it infinitely easier to blast their way to a car and drive over the 10-15 men in black. In fact, after failing the mission the first few times I ended up parking a truck near the exit for easy access.
There is a disturbing lack of bribe icons in Liberty City and youíll find yourself visiting the Paint-n-Spray a lot more now. Most of the earlier missions require you to ďlose the copsĒ, which always means a trip to the garage for fresh paint. Amazingly enough, the cops can follow you right up to the closing garage door and not put two and two together when your once-red car backs out seconds later dent-free and baby blue.
The PSP version of LCS looked stunning, better than the Xbox versions of previous GTA titles, but in going from 5 to 50 inches the game starts to fall apart. Sure, the draw distance has been improved, there is more traffic and pedestrians, and the framerate also gets a boost, but only because the game engine is having to push PSP quality models and textures. Models are extremely low in polygons and textures are flat, dull, and lifeless. They looked good on the small screen but like most small images, if enough data isnít packed in there you just can blow it up that much.
Itís certainly more noticeable on the PS2 since you have so many other high-quality games to compare Ė even games within the GTA franchise. Vice City and San Andreas blow this game away, both in scale and visuals. The PSP had the luxury of exclusivity and surpassed anything else on that system at the time, especially in scale.
The load screens continue to be vibrant works of art that you can appreciate while your next mission is loading. The interface is slick and remains consistent with previous console GTA titles including the scale map of the city, transcript of past conversations, and a scrolling list of statistics that is longer than the game itself. This game tracks everything.
There are more than 70 cars, trucks, and bikes and each has a distinct model and an impressive damage system that allows metal to bend and twist before hoods and doors fly off and bounce down the road. Engine will smoke, then flame up before the inevitable fiery conclusion. While dazzling on the PSP, itís a bit primitive by PS2 standards.
The city is massive with a good variety of buildings and unique locations so you can quickly learn your way around town by using landmarks. It helps to know where that alley shortcut is during a heated pursuit without having to consult the map.
Special effects include some wonderful lighting, especially at sunrise and sunset, as well as great weather effects including shimmering reflective streets. Pick-ups all have that special color-coded glow about them so you can spot that wad of cash or the stray Uzi lying in the gutter.
Character animation is decent in the game, but you really get to appreciate the excellent character models, costumes, and textures during the game cinematics that actually use the game engine. Impressive stuff.
Any reviewer that doesnít give this gameís soundtrack a perfect 10 hasnít listened to it all. Iím not even sure I have heard 100% of what this game has to offer, but not for lack of trying. There are 10 radio stations to choose from every time you get into a car (or even a motorcycle). The game even goes as far as to preset the radio dial based on the ethnicity of the previous owner. Jack a sedan from a businessman and youíll likely hear classical or opera as you speed away; jack a ride from a brother and jam to some reggae or hip-hop.
Iím not entirely sure how much content there is per station but I know I have listened to LCFR (Liberty City Free Radio) for at least an hour before I heard a repeat. The talk radio is the absolute best with Dr Phil parody, Nurse Bob, as well as a demented cooking show where a cow births a calf directly into a sizzling frying pan (ďitís so tenderĒ), and my ultimate favorite, the Electron Zone, a technology show with two techno-geeks who rattle off chat room abbreviations like itís everyday street slang. Even Lazlow returns to host his Chatter Box show to answer prying questions like, ďHey LazlowÖWhat does fuck me harder mean? I couldnít remember if I learned it from you or my mommyís tennis instructor.Ē
These radio shows are so well produced youíll forget you are playing a game. I was totally caught up in Nurse Bob giving out some great advise, ďyou NEVER hit a womanÖin public!Ē that when the radio suddenly cut off and I heard a car door slam it took me a moment to realize that some guy had just yanked Toni from the van that I had parked on a secluded beach to get away from the city noise. Two barrels in the chest and a dead punk later, I was back to listening to more talk radio.
Of course the radio is only 95% of the sound experience and for that other 5% of the game where you arenít in a car, you can enjoy some fantastic city sounds that the PS2 does a much better job of reproducing than the PSP. But again, there was no effort gone into enhancing this aspect of the game so we have no Dolby Digital or DTS sound mix like previous GTA titles.
As good as the voice acting is on the radio shows and commercials (and itís phenomenal) it only gets better for the frequent in-game cutscenes. I laugh hysterically every time I listen to Toni and his mom yell back and forth and the twisted conversations between Toni and JD (who is often covered in KY jelly) are priceless.
But the radio isnít just for entertainment. Your actions directly affect the city and the more serious events are mentioned on the radio, which really help to immerse you in the world and make you and what you are doing a real part of Liberty City.
There are three large islands, each with four or five sources of employment, and each of those will have numerous assignments of various lengths and difficulty. The story is easily 20-30 hours and each island also has 5-9 pastimes ranging from the assorted odd job to RC races, or real car and bike races. And donít forget about all those Unique Stunt Jumps, Rampages, and Hidden Packages. Letís just say that you wonít be putting this game down anytime soon.
What was a shining example of multiplayer mayhem on the PSP has been neutered back into a single-player experience on the PS2. Itís seems odd to me since Rockstar claims they only added the multiplayer to the PSP because of itís wireless capabilities. For me, those multiplayer modes offered nearly as much gaming potential as the story mode. If you want to see what you are missing go read my PSP review, but suffice to say, I think we would all have a much easier time finding five players online than trying to find five PSP owners, all with copies of LCS within wireless range.
Rockstar has wisely chosen to launch this game at $20, which is an extremely attractive and fair price considering itís only about half the game of other GTA titles and you are losing all the multiplayer modes.
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories remains as one of the best PSP games available on that system, and while the PS2 version sneaks in a few technical improvements, it fails miserably in overall visuals, and the removal of the multiplayer modes is unforgivable.
LCS is still an enjoyable game and one that every GTA fan needs to play. Hopefully you have a PSP so you can play it the way it was intended. If not, the PS2 version will offer a suitable replacement as long as you donít know what you are missing.