A shrinking violent.
Love 'em, hate 'em, or completely misunderstand them, just don't call the GTA games overrated. They are not. Since redefining free-form gaming with the revolutionary GTA 3 , the series has managed to not only win every major video game award in the book, but has glided through the typically inhospitable hallways of GR like that nerdy kid in the corner of your math class, acing each test without breaking a sweat or a pencil. We hate how much we like these games.
But time and again, we're floored by what Rockstar manages to pull off, and so once again we hit the deck in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. Though this marks the denouement of GTA's four-year dominion over the GR grading scale, it does what no other game has managed to do on Sony's handheld: almost entirely live up to the imposing pedigree of its console kin.
And it is, without question, the best action game yet for your PSP. That's not only because of the handheld's underwhelming lineup of late – it's because this game manages to smash every ounce of GTA's relentlessly entertaining gameplay into your pocket with nary a technical belch. What it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in delivery and scope, providing carpooling criminals with the gaming equivalent of a MAC-10.
As the title implies, the game is set in the same faux New York as the seminal GTA 3. You again play a mafia grunt - this time named Tony Cipriani - who gets in good with the Leone crime family and slowly works his way up the anti-corporate ladder. The plot is pure GTA, filled with brutality and humor as you run errands for your bosses, whack opposing mob types and absolutely terrorize civilians with your abhorrent shenanigans.
It's safe to say that no one plays GTA for its plot, and that trend doesn't change with Liberty City Stories. You always have a nice assortment of missions, but by and large, the story doesn't do anything wildly interesting. You kill people, you make your bosses happy, you kill more people, you get some new bosses, you kill people, etc. Some fun, witty humor shines through in the form of your mother (whose guilt-tripping drives you to perform unspeakable acts of violence), but most of the story is tepid, standard mafia video game fare, kapish?
Liberty City is reprised perfectly. It all feels quite homey now – the red light district, the docks, even landmarks like the old hideout from GTA 3 will be instantly familiar to vets. You'll know the map like the back of your hand before even turning on your PSP.
The same goes for the bulk of the gameplay. In addition to the story missions, all the classic side fare returns, including taxi rides, vigilante missions, pizza deliveries, hidden packages, rampages and a smattering of extra missions. Part of the joy in GTA is creating your own dramas by randomly getting into trouble and seeing what kind of damage you can do before your wanted meter becomes unmanageable; that makes it to Liberty City Stories entirely intact. Thank you, Satan.
The control transition isn't quite as smooth. The analog nub proves fine for driving, but going on a shooting spree is a little trickier due to the frisky aiming scheme. You can lock on to targets, but often this points you at some innocent shlub instead of the hitman you're trying to introduce to your glock. As is usually the case, the rigidity of the analog nub makes aiming much trickier than it was in the console versions. It takes some getting used to, and even then you'll prefer to handle your business from behind the wheel.
Or behind the handlebars. Motorcycles now cruise the streets of Liberty City and play just as well as they did in Vice City. Though you only get that game's four bike models (the rice rocket, the harley, the dirt bike and the scooter), they're a blast to drive and give a new feel to an old city.
There aren't many other new bits in Liberty City Stories, which takes something of a step back from San Andreas by not including any of the features that game offered. Working out, riding bicycles, eating fast food and waging turf wars are all things of the past, as Liberty City Stories sticks to the basic GTA 3 formula.
However, it does get sideswiped by some multiplayer. Using the PSP's ad-hoc wireless functionality, up to six thugs can trash each other in team and solo Deathmatches, basic King of the Hill affairs and a few Races. It's decent fun, and though the game doesn't support full online Infrastructure play, it's the first new-school GTA to have real multiplayer. That's a good thing.
It's also a pretty thing, mostly a result of Rockstar's terrific job seamlessly getting a 3D GTA game up and running on a handheld. Though the framerate can get a little wonky and the character models are just as blocky as they are in the console games, it's hard not to be impressed watching Liberty City Stories pull off its sheer size with few load times. The sense of speed is there as well, keeping the action tempo high and mighty. Thanks to a great use of the PSP's sleep mode, turning off the console and powering it back on drops you right back into the action without making you hop through load screens.
GTA is one of few game series as famous for its audio as its visuals, and Liberty City Stories takes this trend in new, minimalist directions. The voice-acting is again superb, perfectly matching the game's dichotomy of cartoonish realism. A collection of radio stations are here, and while the talk station is filled with plenty of good chatter, there's far less licensed music this time around. Rockstar recently added the ability to import custom soundtracks, which is good, even if that feature should have included in the first place. It should also be noted that such constantly running audio and streaming visuals means the disc spins like a non-stop top, leading to heavy battery drainage.
But you'll eagerly charge that puppy up again to jump back into Liberty City. Rockstar deserves props for miraculously cramming this much candy into such a small pouch without ripping a hole in the bottom, and while it doesn't favorably compare to its older kin, it far outshines other attempts at shrinking GTA. PSP owners with a taste for the bad life shouldn't hesitate to lift this one from their local dealer.