Review by Evil Dave

"Definitely a Grand Theft Auto game, but feels like Grand Theft Auto Lite."

The Grand Theft Auto series. Mere mention of that name is likely to evoke an emotional response from those who hear it. Since its initial foray into the current generation of games machines, the GTA series has become an enormous force in the entertainment world. Love it or hate it, play it or avoid it, if you've heard of videogames, you've likely heard of GTA.

The current generation of consoles is now coming to a close, and with this ending comes the beginning of new possibilities for this groundbreaking series. The GTA3 trilogy has come to a close, completed by 2004's landmark San Andreas, and with the videogames industry about to begin its cyclical migration to new territory, Rockstar has had some decisions to face: Where will their paramount brand go from here? What can be done with it to keep it both fresh and profitable? The easy answer would be next-generation consoles. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the first of these has just barely begun its life, and as a whole the entire new fleet is filled with more questions than answers. So, rather than dive headfirst into the dangerous waters of console launches, Rockstar has decided to settle – for now – for something both safer and far more proven: portable gaming.

The new generation of consoles, you see, had actually begun about a year ago, although somewhat surreptitiously, with the inception of two new portable gaming platforms. While not the traditional TV gaming boxes, these machines were incredibly powerful, and capable of nearing the performance level of the current generation of games machines. Indeed, these mobile devices have become fairly popular, and with the installed user base of almost a year's worth of existence, they now had carved out a new gaming market. So, it seems that Rockstar did indeed have a platform to move the GTA brand to that would bring both the opportunity to move the series in a new direction and to test out its profitability in a new arena.

This review, however, is not about Rockstar's business practices, or the portable device that excited them enough to make a game for it. This review will assess only the result of that excitement: Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, the first portable, 3D GTA game, and the first title to be released in the series since that other pretty good one in October 2004. As usual, this game definitely has big shoes to fill, given its status as a prequel to the game that put the series on the map. It promises not only another crime story set in the sandbox-style game world of the first, but the major firsts for the brand of multiplayer content and portability. Unabashedly ambitious, fascinatingly innovative, and tantalizingly promising, a single question remains to be answered: is GTA:LCS any good?

Visuals:

As with all the previous current-gen GTA titles, LCS includes no start-up menus of any kind. The lack of menus has always been a positive for the series, and is again welcome here. The pause menu features the unmistakable style of the previous GTA titles, with each category of importance given its own page. The menu comes with an in-game map (a feature that was not present in GTA3), and the map is very detailed, and overall extremely helpful. The entire game benefits greatly from the convenience if the pause screen functions.

The graphics in GTA games have always been ambitious, and LCS represents the most elaborate attempt yet in the series to squeeze every pixel possible out of the game's host system. The entire scope of Liberty City has been meticulously recreated, and the result is nothing short of impressive. Gamers who spent any significant amount of time with GTA3 will be able to navigate the game's three islands with ease, as most of the geography has changed little. From the dark, grimy look of the buildings, to the different weather patterns that pass through during the course of gameplay, this is unmistakably a handheld version of one of that famous videogame locale.

The animation for everything looks as good as it has on the console versions of GTA. Cars and boats animate as you would expect from their real-world counterparts, and the same can be said of the newest additions to Liberty City, motorcycles. The pedestrian actions also all look just as good as you would anticipate, although the rudimentary rag-doll physics found in San Andreas have disappeared again. The game uses a noticeable motion-blur technique on objects that are in motion, and although it appears jarring at first, it adds to the somewhat dreamlike state of the game's world. The traditional HUD makes a return, and although it has been condensed, it is still as accommodating as ever.

The visual experience does come with its fair share of problems, though. Due to the PSP's limited power, the horizon seems to have crept a little bit closer than in GTA3, and it results in significant popup, especially when driving at high speeds. The frame rate also suffers a more substantial drop when lots of action crowds the screen, although the game is usually good at keeping new activity off-screen until the game can manage to display it. The downside of this management technique, of course, is that there will sometimes be a smaller police presence than you would expect while you are causing all manner of carnage. These problems don't hurt the game enough to detract from the gameplay, but they are a consistent enough annoyance that you can't help but observe them.

The world of Liberty City has survived the translation to PSP very well, and although the system sometimes strains to portray it, it is still every bit as vibrant and exciting as it was in GTA3.

Score: 9/10

Sound:

Another important aspect of the GTA series, from even before its explosion in popularity, has been the audio experience. From the beginning, the music was always outstanding; the recent 3D games have seen the voice acting and general character dialog reach the same plateau of quality. LCS certainly has a lot to live up to in this area, and for the most part, holds its own against such inevitable comparisons.

The sound effects in LCS are just as good as they have been in the other GTA games. All of the vehicles make appropriate crashing and bumping noises when they're thrown around, and they all sound just as accurate here as they did in the console games. Weapons and other usable objects also borrow effects from the console versions, and they fit in just fine.

The voiceover work in LCS, it should be immediately mentioned, is done not by the big-name actors that have acted out the parts of characters in the last few GTA games. This cast is made up almost entirely of lesser-known voice actors, including some unknowns taking the spots of recognizable names in the series. This ultimately doesn't hurt the game, though, as the actors play their roles well. The line readings are usually spot-on, and there's nothing here that would make you grit your teeth. With that said, it's disappointing that almost none of the recurring characters share voice actors with GTA3, since so many players are likely to remember them by how they sounded in that game.

The GTA series has always meant impressive music, and the recent games have been one of the best excellent examples of the use of licensed music to improve the game's atmosphere. LCS uses some licensed music, mostly on its rap station, but several of the other radio stations return to the format from GTA3, where the songs are semi-satirical emulations of the time period's popular music. The combination of licensed and non-licensed music works well, and the overall feel of the radio presentation is more similar to GTA3's radio effort than the more recent ones. While this setup certainly may appeal to those who get nostalgic for their first time in Liberty City, it can be galling to not be able to find real music to listen to in the genre that interests you. The radio banter and commercials are also back, and they're as witty as ever, this time sending up everything from theme restaurants to Y2K paranoia. The overall length of the radio station loops is shorter than it has been in other GTA games, but this is likely only due to memory constraints on the UMD discs.

It should be mentioned that the PSP's custom soundtrack feature is somewhat ignored by LCS, which is disappointing, given the system's secondary function as an MP3 player. True, you can in fact listen to your own music while driving the streets of Liberty, but you need to run your music through a special conversion program offered by Rockstar before it can be recognized by the game – and only music from commercial CDs will work with the program. This lack of support for one of the system's features is strongly disheartening, especially given the fact that the radio isn't as impressive as it has been in past GTA games.

LCS delivers an acoustic experience that tries desperately to live up to its predecessors. It succeeds in some ways, but it feels overall like an approximation of the GTA audio experience, rather than an extension of it.

Score: 7/10

Gameplay:

GTA's ‘big, violent sandbox' design is what has made it so appealing to gamers since it moved onto current-gen consoles. LCS attempts to give those gamers the same feel, only in a portable version. The limitations of the hardware affect the gameplay to a significant extent, but in the end, it's still GTA to go.

The GTA series has maintained an intuitive control scheme on the PlayStation 2, although it has always been reviled for the significant flaws in its targeting system. LCS does an impressive job of translating these controls to the portable system, but the smaller number of buttons on the hardware hurts them greatly. On foot, movement is achieved with either the analog nub or (alternately) the D-pad; you are allowed to choose which you prefer in the pause menu. Whichever you select, the other is used to cycle through weapons (or targets when locked on with the R trigger), or free look when down is held in conjunction with the L trigger. The R trigger is used to target enemies, while the circle button attacks. Square causes your character to jump, X has him sprint, and triangle will make him commandeer the nearest vehicle. In vehicles, X serves as the accelerator, with square as a brake/reverse gear, and the R trigger being the handbrake. You can steer and lean forward/backwards in your seat with the analog nub or the D-pad, and aim left and right by holding the L trigger and the corresponding direction whichever you chose to not control movement; when aiming left or right, you can shoot your weapon by pressing circle. Up on the analog nub or D-pad starts special missions in some vehicle types, while down activates sirens or the horn. Triangle will cause you to exit your vehicle. The start button brings up the pause menu, and the select button cycles through camera angles, both on foot and in a vehicle.

From the start, the controls are somewhat difficult to get accustomed to. The lack of precise movement with either the D-pad or the analog nub negatively affects driving, and this means that missions seem to proceed at a lower speed than you may be accustomed to for a GTA game. The targeting system is still a mess as well, and is even worse off now that you must use one of the devices meant for movement to cycle through targets. Once you've acquired a good level of comfort with the controls, though, they become manageable enough to complete the game. Just don't expect any acrobatics along the way.

The actual gameplay in the game suffers much the same as the other areas from the conversion to PSP. Even without the wonky controls, the missions in general feel like dull, listless versions of those seen in the recent GTA games. You'll be doing a lot of ‘drive to point A, kill person B, and escape to point C' type tasks, and while a few of the later missions get more interesting, overall they just seem to be lifeless.

Of course, the GTA series is known for its open-ended nature, and it's important to note that this has made the transformation very successfully. You can, should you so choose, just drive around the city, causing all manner of havoc, and just like in the console games you will be dealing with the law when you do. Of course, the technical limitations on the PSP, like the lack of an overwhelming police presence, make this somewhat easier than it had been in other GTA games, but it is still here to be enjoyed.

The side missions that have become a staple of this series also return, with plenty of new additions to the spectrum to play with. You'll still be able to play policeman, fireman, or EMS, but you can now also drive a garbage truck, sell cars, or deliver pizzas to earn a little cash on the side. Hidden packages also make a return, and you will be able to race in plenty of competitions as well.

The weapons and vehicles are where the real fun is found in the GTA games, and LCS does an excellent job of making this the case again on the PSP. Driving around at high speeds, when you can control it, is as enjoyable as it has been in the console games, and the guns and other weapons all are all easy and exciting to use. Not all of the weapons from the series have made it into LCS, but a good number of them have. Of course, with the control scheme as difficult as it is, you may want to pick a sniper rifle up, so that you can avoid targeting problems altogether.

As with the weapons, LCS doesn't feature many of the improvements to the GTA world that have been seen in Vice City and San Andreas. You will be able to change clothes, but only in the Vice City manner of suits, not the wardrobe method of San Andreas. The game also has motorcycles, tires that can pop with gunfire, and the occasional A.I.- controlled teammate, but none of these features are as advanced as they were in San Andreas. The lack of helicopters or planes hurts the most, since some of Liberty City's skyscrapers would seem like the perfect places for a couple airborne missions.

Of course, since trying to put the GTA world onto the PSP is an extremely ambitious endeavor, it's bound to have some technical issues that cause problems during the gameplay. Beyond the frame-rate and control issues that occasionally pop up, the issue of load times for some features affects the way the game flows to a conspicuous degree. The radio tracks must be difficult to stream off of a UMD disc, because whenever your character enters or exits a radio-equipped vehicle, the game seizes up for a moment to load the station. This becomes an annoyance during the course of gameplay, especially when you're in the middle of a particularly chaotic sequence, and need to get in or out of a vehicle fast. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the load times in the game, which are all quite manageable.

Ultimately, LCS' gameplay experience does indeed live up to the GTA series' pedigree. It has some very obvious technical warts, and at times it's difficult to stay interested in some of the missions, but the basic GTA gameplay is still there, and that's what really counts.

Score: 7/10

Story:

The storylines in the three current-gen GTA games have been somewhat of an added bonus. Those games sold as well as they did because of the unrestricted gameplay style and the high production values, not the storylines that accompanied them. Some developers might be tempted, with such strong selling points already in the bag, to skimp on the story in future releases, but Rockstar made sure that the plots of both Vice City and San Andreas featured the same vibrant storytelling as GTA3. Unfortunately, for the first time in this generation of GTA games, this is not the case with the story in LCS.

The storyline of LCS focuses on Tony Cipriani, a member of Salvatore Leone's mafia family from GTA3, who has just returned to Liberty after a forced sabbatical for killing a made man. The opening sequence – of Tony silently getting off a bus, and going to a payphone – really sets the lackluster tone for the rest of the plot. The storyline is told through bland in-engine cutscenes that consist of only basic mission details, and the plot never really goes anywhere, despite Tony's interactions with many of the city's important players. In addition, the characters are very dull, despite the solid performances by the actors who voice them.

Of course, the game does have the saving grace of being set in the modern GTA universe. Some gamers who have followed the series will likely play the game just to see Liberty City again, and these players will not be disappointed. As one-dimensional as the plot may be, it does do a decent job of setting up the events of GTA3 through the events it portrays.

The plot in LCS is without a doubt the most disappointing aspect of the game. It's sad that a GTA game – and one with the word ‘stories' in its name, no less – has this level of a poorly written plot, especially when it has such a rich history to draw from.

Score: 4/10

Features/Modes:

For the first time in any of the current-gen GTA games, LCS includes multiplayer modes that are separate from the main gameplay mode. Utilizing the PSP's WLAN ad-hoc mode, up to six gamers can play seven different game types against each other competitively.

The seven multiplayer modes borrow from some of the best features of the single-player game, although all have been done in some manner before in other multiplayer games. The modes available to choose from are: Liberty City Survivor, a basic deathmatch with a kill limit; Street Rage, a checkpoint race; Get Stretch, a capture the flag mode with limos in lieu of flags; Protection Racket, where one team defends several limos for a set time, and then the sides switch; Tanks for the Memories, in which players must either drive around in tank, or blow up the tank to replace the other person inside it; The Hit List, basically tag to the death; and The Wedding List, in which players race to obtain cars scattered throughout the city.

The multiplayer is clearly not where the focus of development was, as some of the modes are a bit unbalanced, and others are over too soon. They all are enjoyable to play, though, so long as you have enough people around you who have the game and a PSP. These multiplayer modes serve more as an added incentive to play LCS than as a primary motivator, but if you get the chance to try them out, they can be an enjoyable way to pass some time.

The multiplayer component of LCS feels largely tacked-on, and as a result it isn't going to appeal to everyone. It does, though, add to the replay value of the game, and it is well worth spending some time with once you've completed the main adventure.

Score: 7/10

Total Score:

Grand Theft Auto's ambitious foray onto the PSP system is not going to make anyone forget the console titles in the series. Liberty City Stories' lack of an interesting storyline, simple mission structure, and serious control flaws will definitely turn fans of the games off – and with good reason. This game is not in any way meant to be a portable substitute for the GTA series; rather, it is meant to serve as a supplement to them, one that shows that these games can expand beyond their tethered console and PC world into a more freeform portable environment. In this, it succeeds. It has its failings, and these cannot be ignored, but in the end, the simple fact that developer Rockstar Leeds has managed to cram a piece of the GTA world onto a UMD disc is enough to make this game commendable.

If you own a PSP, and have been a fan of the GTA series in the past, then you owe it to yourself to try this game out. Otherwise, if you are interested in seeing what all the hype of the GTA world is about, then you should look to one of the amazing console games for your first impression.

Score: 7/10 (not an average)

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Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 12/12/05


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