Review by grasu

"Liberty City Stories goes to prove that killing hookers and shooting pedestrians aren't enough to make a great GTA game."

In recent years the GTA brand has risen to extreme popularity heights. GTA games are gripping crime dramas that play out like overly violent farces of the real world. In addition to being one of the most controversial game properties of all time the GTA name is also virtually synonymous with "killer app" and "system seller". As such, it's not surprising that PSP fans were very excited when GTA: Liberty City Stories was announced for the PSP: For the first time ever, a fully 3D GTA would be playable out of the palm of your hand. Unfortunately, something was lost in the translation.

The story of GTA:LCS unfolds from the perspective of wanna-be mobster Toni Capriani. At the beginning of the game, Toni returns from God-knows-where to rejoin the Salvatore clan and fight for the right to pimp whores, smuggle drugs and to control the labor unions of Liberty City. Throughout the game Toni meets a series of characters, which are all severely delusional or just simply insane. Professional actors who turn out top-notch performances voice all of the characters: The sarcastic comments of Toni or the nagging criticism of Toni's mother are brought to life masterfully by these excellent voice actors. The dialogue is also smart, funny and satirical; chock-full of self-referential humor or off-color jokes, much like the tone of the game itself. On the other hand, the actual story leaves much to be desired. The typical GTA-esque twists are completely absent from LCS and the missions are almost always what they seem. The story is almost palpably inadequate; it never offers enough background on characters, events, or motivations and the core narrative is way to short to fit anyone's play style. A complete absence of any sort of major plot turns or situational changes furthers the idea that the story was almost tagged on as an afterthought, which badly hurts the game's image.

Unfortunately, LCS' missions are about as gripping as the story. Probably the worst thing that LCS does is to make the missions very blase - most of them are very short and generally involve either massive killing or driving someone around. While those have been the staples of GTA games for a while, the whole concept is getting very stale, especially with the haphazard aiming mechanics. The lock-on system in GTA:LCS is just as bad as in the previous console entries of the series, regularly locking on to nearby pedestrians when armed men are mowing you down with assault rifles. But don't get me wrong, the gun mechanics are far from being the main problem here: It seems that Rockstar has simply run out of ideas as far as missions are concerned. Aside from the fact that most missions are "portable gaming optimized", which actually should read "3-5 minutes long", nearly all of them lack innovation. Due to this lack of innovation within the first 3 hours of gameplay most players will have seen just about everything there is to see in terms of missions: Escort Person A to point B, collect hookers and drive them to place X, collect money from person X, follow person Y and then find out you have to kill a battalion of other thugs before you can kill them, etc. Most of these missions have appeared in other GTA games and in the various clones the series have inspired. The few new mission types that appear in LCS are generally of the non-violent variety and are so short and simple that they mostly serve as asides after a more challenging mission.

Lacking any sort of new tile sets or cars certainly doesn't help GTA:LCS' case much. While Liberty City has been given a face lift with more shiny stuff and a bunch of nice lighting, this is still the same tile set that was used in the 5-year old GTA III. What's more, the game makes the stupid decision of employing in the service of the SAME people that you worked for in the first half of the original GTA III. This means that you get to see the same, nearly unchanged, faces and locales you've already seen in GTA III yet again. LCS' vehicles are almost unchanged from the original game with the addition of a few new skins and a few new gang vehicles. The problem here is that LCS severely reduces the amount of vehicles that was present in San Andreas which means that, aside from motorbikes, the vehicles that appear in GTA:LCS are nearly the same ones that also appeared in the original. Unfortunately, vehicles aren't the only things downgraded since San Andreas: Guns share the same fate as the cars. While LCS isn't lacking in the gun department, the paltry gun selection can barely be compared to Vice City's, much less so to the newer version of the game. Thankfully however, the controls are as tight as ever on the PSP. Driving is second nature within minutes of turning on the handheld and everything is mapped to the PSP's buttons very well. There's even a first person view which is used in some missions or when using scoped weapons.

Out of a technical viewpoint GTA:LCS fares very well, making this one of the best-looking games on the PSP as of yet. The graphics are crisp and clean and the lighting is top notch: The dusky after glow of the evening, or the massive sprawling districts of Liberty City are marvelously rendered in the PSP version. At the more personal level cars get broken to pieces, doors and windows fly everywhere when cars explode, blood sprays all over the pavement when characters are shot and the animation is as good as in previous games. The dynamic lighting is a marvel to see on the PSP as helicopters beam a translucent yellow ray, which reflects and refracts off your car's many shiny parts. But alas, not everything is perfect. While not a major issue, slowdown rears its ugly head in one too many instances. Truthfully however, slowdown never gets into the way of the gameplay. But it's a noticeable graphical hiccup, which should've been solved before the game shipped. In addition to this, many indoor settings seem to be woefully under detailed and the textures are bland here and there, but those issues aren't really that noticeable considering what a graphical achievement this game is.

The sound component is a mixed bag. LCS is the first PSP game to feature fully voiced characters and the quality of their voices is crisp and clear throughout, but the music and sound effects leave much to be desired. The lesser of the two evils, the sound effects, suffer from a serious deja vu. Every sound, queue and even some of the voices, have been recycled from previous games in the series. The situation isn't helped by the fact that all these sounds are poorly encoded and generally tend to be very weak and muffled: Car screeches seem artificial, engines sound like quiet farts and gun fire is severely underpowered. The music on the other hand is the biggest disappointment in LCS. GTA games are fabled for having a fully licensed soundtrack filled with a great selection of songs fit for all groups. Not only does LCS do away with nearly all the licensed music but the selection isn't nearly as varied as in other GTA games. Thankfully, the talk channels are still as funny as ever and some of the new styles of music (such as Punjabi on Radio Del Mundo) fix things up a bit.

Minor quibbles aside, the problem with LCS stems from the fact that there' s little holding the game together. Every GTA game has tried to add incremental improvements to the formula while LCS merely translates it to the PSP. LCS keeps the entire array of zany mini games, while the violence is still fully uncut and the cop chases are still as insane as ever, but something is missing. That required “something” to keep you going through the 25 hours of the game is simply not there. Perhaps the paltry, cliched and woefully inadequate story is to blame or maybe the simplistic missions and lack of new tile sets have something to do with it but simply put, GTA:LCS isn't as enthralling an experience as its forbearers.

In an attempt to remedy these deficiencies Rockstar has added a multiplayer mode in GTA:LCS which can be played via the PSP's WiFi connection. The few modes of play for up to six gamers are about as enthralling as you'd think. You can either kill your friends in deathmatch mode or in a king-of-the-hill type game setting but it doesn't much make a difference since, for 6 players, the city is so big you'll hardly ever see another human. Needless to say that if someone camps somewhere you have a good chance of being permanently screwed since you'll probably never be able to find and take him out. Of course, this actually assumes you can find a decent number of players to play with, which is another problem entirely.

GTA:LCS isn't a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it's the PSP's best story driven game. LCS also works fairly well as a portable title in general, without painfully long load times or a woefully short battery life, but that something that made the GTA games a success is simply missing. Nevertheless, if you have a PSP and you're reading this review sometime before 2007, GTA:LCS is a good title that game-starved PSP fans might want to check out.

Gameplay: 6/10
Graphics: 8/10
Sound: 6/10
Overall: 7/10

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 02/27/06

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