Reviewed: November 22, 2006
Released: October 24, 2005
Despite all the political and parental controversy I love Grand Theft Auto. Itís one of those sandbox type of games where the designers create a virtual playground, stock it with cars, guns, people, and things to do, then gives you the freedom to live out a fantasy life of crime. And despite what senators and soccer moms would have you believe, GTA is no more a recruitment tool for the mob than Americaís Army is for the military.
GTA has been around for years on numerous systems getting its start as a 2D top-down driving and pedestrian shooter. The franchise really took off when GTA III appeared on the PS2 back in 2001, which was followed by Vice City in 2002 and most recently, San Andreas.
The game even managed to make its way to the GBA in late 2004 proving that the franchise could return to itís 2D roots and still entertain a whole new generation of gamers. But what happens when Sony creates a handheld system that is just as powerful as a console? The answer is quite simply, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories.
For me, GTA 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. 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 full and stunning detail down to building interiors, back alleys, warehouses, docks, and crime lord mansions.
I was sure there were going to be some compromises with this title but the wizards at Rockstar have managed to pack in, from what I can tell, the entire city, and stream it in such a way that the only load screens you will see are going in and out of missions and a slight 3-5 second hiccup when moving between the three islands.
Even the limited controls of the PSP were surprisingly intuitive and I didnít even miss the lack of the second analog stick. 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.
Iíve always said that if the PSP had a 30Ē screen Iíd probably give up my other consoles. LCS easily outclasses any of the other GTA titles on whichever format you would care to compare. The framerate hovers in the 24-30 FPS range, which is totally acceptable for a game of this magnitude and a city of this complexity.
The load screens are vibrant works of art that you will proudly show to anyone nearby while your next mission is loading. The interface is slick and taken right from the console with 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.
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. I actually jack in my PSP to my car, and even my stereo at home or work and listen to the radio stations of Liberty City more than I do the real radio now. Iím listening to Flashback right now while I type this review.
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 (after waking up my PSP screen) 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 PSP speakers simply do not do justice to. You either need some good headphones or jack your PSP into a home theater or even your PC speaker system and enjoy what is easily a sound experience to rival a major console.
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.
LCS is easily the best sounding game in the PSP library at this time, and itís the first game that I have had running just so I could experience the sound (radio) even while I wasnít playing it. What other game can you say that about on any system?
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. 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.
Liberty City Stories packs in a whole lot of multiplayer goodness for you and up to five friends who have their own copy of the game. In fact, with 60 unlockable characters, full arsenal of weapons, and seven totally engaging game modes, Iím pretty sure this just might be the best multiplayer game on the PSP at this time.
Multiplayer games make use of the full three-island map and add a few changes like weapon pick-ups and some other specialty power-ups like a radar cloak and damage boosters to make the game more entertaining. One game mode has players searching for a tank somewhere in the city then driving it around for as long as they can while your opponents try to stop you with rocket launchers.
Another mode has you trying to steal all your opponentsí limos and drive them back to your hideout, while another mode has you trying to protect your own fleet of limos from enemy attack. Or, if you like, there are eight tracks on each island giving you a total of 24 racing circuits for some straightforward racing action that rivals any of the standalone racing games already available on the PSP.
If you want to get up close and personal you can try out the Liberty City Survivor mode which is basically a deathmatch in either solo or team mode, or even more fun is the Hit List mode where one player is marked for death and everybody else hunts him down. This is insanely fun since the Mark has several restrictions placed on him as far as using the radar and hiding in vehicles, etc.
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories has PSP Game of the Year written all over it. Itís not often that a console title can make the successful leap to a handheld, but when that handheld version actually surpasses the console in many key factors, you know you have something special.
Is LCS reason alone to buy a PSP? I say yes! This game was like coming back home, and GTA is still one of the best ways to blow off steam, rebel against authority, drive fast, and kill indiscriminately, all without really going to jail. Best of all; what happens in Liberty City stays in Liberty City.