Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City StoriesJohn Davison
Passing judgment on Liberty City Stories requires you to consider the game in two very different ways. The first, as a remarkable example of what can be done on the PSP when a developer really puts its mind to it, reveals a magnificent game that will no doubt long be a benchmark on the system. It is a fully blown, no-holds-barred Grand Theft Auto experience with all the trimmings nipped, tucked, and tweaked for a handheld. The second is to consider it as the sixth game in one of the biggest franchises of all time, and the fourth of this particular style. With that legacy in mind, and the fact that more gamers have an opinion on this thing than have an opinion on any other game aside from perhaps Mario or Final Fantasy, it’s hard to turn a blind eye to its flaws.
Like all of the GTAs before it, LCS has a number of problems; some of them are caused by the PSP itself, and therefore not strictly appropriate for factoring into the score, but some of them are the same damn problems that gamers have been waiting for Rockstar to fix for years. Since the game leans so heavily on its running-around-shooting-stuff mechanic, you’d think that mechanic would be refined to the point of perfection by now. Sure, LCS is somewhat hindered by the PSP’s single analog stick, but the guts driving the combat system are still basically the same as we got in GTA3 and Vice City before they were refined (a little) for San Andreas. It’s clear that some attention has been paid to the aiming system, but it’s in an area that seems irrelevant given the way the game has been designed. You can now fine-tune your aiming by tapping down on the D-pad and then holding down the L button. This allows you to move the reticle with much more precision, but it’s the type of feature that you tend to forget is there because it’s not essential. Many of the more challenging combat missions require you to wander into a crowded area and pick off specific targets while everyone around you opens fire. Tapping the R button locks on to a target, and if you’ve played any other game in the series, you know how reliable that can be. You often have to be more quick-witted than the mission design really requires because either you struggle to point your gun at the right thing or you waste ammo wiping out everything. An unusual side effect is that you try to work out ways to compensate or this problem. I’m sure the system isn’t intentionally weak to force you to explore the delights of the “digital sandbox” design ethos, but it certainly pushes you that way. Running people over, blowing stuff up, and blocking areas by piling up cars is often more effective than what the objective specifically calls for. If you know the series, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Lesser games would be utterly ruined by something like this, but as with the past three games in the series, there’s plenty to compensate for these weaknesses. As a value proposition, nothing on PSP comes close. It’s a gigantic game; the core gameplay will probably take you 40 or 50 hours to get through, and it has 33 additional “games” that have the potential to occupy you for another five or even 10 hours, if you really want to push it. Alongside the expected taxi driving, firefighting, and vigilante missions we’re familiar with, LCS has various races, shoot-outs, and package-collection and delivery-based games that draw influences from all of the past Grand Theft Autos. Then, on top of that, there’s the whole multiplayer thing, too, which is significantly more substantial than you would expect. The seven modes all borrow ideas from the tried-and-trusted school of multiplayer game design, but their distinctiveness comes from the way they use the entire environment and force players to learn the maps. If, like me, you don’t often spend time with five PSP-owning friends with the same taste in games as you, there are only a few modes that really work with smaller numbers. The deathmatch- and marked-for-death-style games don’t really work unless you max out with six players, but you’ll still find a few gems for two players. One variation on capture the flag, which has you stealing limos, works just great with a single opponent, and then there’s my personal favorite of the lot, “wedding list,” which is a free-for-all scramble to steal specific cars and return them to a designated shipping crate. It plays a little like some of the single-player stuff, but the added dimension of “real” competition makes it genuinely exciting.
As you can probably tell, LCS has plenty to distract you from the main story, but as we’ve come to expect from Rockstar, that core experience is extremely well written (although it’s subtly but spectacularly and hilariously puerile, especially when it comes to _character names) and well paced. Although it’s slow to start, once you pass the fifth or sixth hour, things really start to fall into place, and it reveals itself to be a complex story that’s somewhat more political than we’ve come to expect. The machinations of the different criminal factions and their impositions on the way the city is run make for an engaging tale that really begins to get interesting around hour 10 as you start to insert yourself into the mayoral election and the rivalries it inspires. Missions are usually much shorter than those in the PS2 games and rarely push you into the lengthy sequences of events we saw in San Andreas. Usually, there’s just a single objective, such as “go here and kill this guy,” and it rarely gets any more involved than a sequence of two, like “follow this guy, then blow this thing up.” The result is a much more PSP-friendly game that works very well for killing 10 or 15 minutes at a time.
Early on, protagonist Toni Cipriani is perhaps not as endearing at CJ is in San Andreas, but as the story unfolds, you learn to appreciate his more clichéd Mafioso charms. Initially, his abusive relationships with other characters are straight out of an episode of The Sopranos, but as you explore his loyalties and watch his relationship with his mother unfold in a bizarre series of episodes in the first act of the game, you learn to sympathize with him. By the time you move into the third act, you realize that he is, in fact, just like CJ, in that you feel quite a bond with the uncouth yob.
Despite some fundamental problems that will have you seething with anger at fairly regular intervals, it’s still an admirable achievement. Whereas so many other publishers have been pushing watered-down, feeble excuses for PSP versions of their megafranchises, this should be applauded for being a full-on sequel, and it’s certainly comparable to GTA3.
Verdict: It’s a full-on Grand Theft Auto experience, only portable.
Pub. Rockstar Dev. Rockstar Leeds ESRB M MSRP $49.99
Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine.