An offer you might refuse.
Before hot coffee scalded the stock price of Rockstar and ailing parent Take 2, it seemed Grand Theft Auto could do no wrong. Every entry in the series expanded the scope of an already unrivaled world, doling out great new ways to do bad old things.
But we finally saw a crack in the, well, crack when the series shifted to the PSP in the original Liberty City Stories. With gameplay stuck somewhere between GTA III and Vice City, it was the first game that didn’t do anything new, instead offering a nice, safe tour through a familiar locale. We marveled at the technological effort and excused the lack of innovation since, hot damn, this was a full-fledged GTA running on a little PSP.
Unfortunately, any Photoshop nerd will tell you that resizing only looks good when you shrink things. The first PSP to PS2 port, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories looks far less impressive under the relentless light of its native console. It’s smaller than its kin in every sense, and while that includes its price, it turns this one-time don into just another hit and run thug.
As this is a note for note port of the PSP version, the story is identical. Taking place in the same faux New York as the seminal GTA III, Liberty City Stories casts you in the role of a mafia grunt named Tony Cipriani. It seems you just got released from the pen after serving time for whacking a made man, and now must start anew as a bottom feeder in the Leone crime family.
The plot is pure GTA, filled with brutality and humor as you run errands for your bosses, waste opposing mob types and absolutely terrorize civilians with your abhorrent shenanigans. But while you always have a nice assortment of missions, 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?
The sprawl of Liberty City is just as it’s always been. It all feels quite homey now – the red light district, the docks, even landmarks like the old hideout from GTA III will be instantly familiar to vets – but while that was something of a flashback treat on the PSP, it’s a little awkward on the PS2. After playing through Vice City and San Andreas, going back to wee Liberty City is more nostalgic than exciting, kind of like playing Madden 2001 after Madden 2004.
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’s all here and it’s still as fun as ever.
It’s not, however, as complete. We were cool with the gameplay concessions when this first appeared on the PSP because we were flabbergasted they got the whole thing portable, but now that it’s on the PS2, the missing innovations from Vice City and San Andreas become more apparent and less forgivable. Bicycles? Nope. Property acquisition? Nope. Gang wars? Nope. Working out? You gotta be kidding. Really the only thing that makes Liberty City Stories different from GTA III is the presence of motorcycles, the one holdover from Vice City.
The only area in which this game trumps the PSP version is its control. Going back to the standard dual-shock after struggling with that awkward PSP nub-stick is like eating mama’s homemade cannolis after a rough night at the Olive Garden. Given, GTA’s control was never its finest point; the aiming is still a little wonky.
The graphics, unfortunately, are even wonkier. Though the draw distance is better here than on the PSP, the textures are too simple and the framerate has inexplicably taken a hit. These are presumably side-effects of scaling up from the PSP, but that doesn’t make them any more pleasant. GTA has never been a real looker, but the fact remains that Liberty City Stories is the ugliest of all the PS2 entries.
Its sound, however, fares better. The voice-acting is terrific, just as good as any other GTA, and the various radio stations play a pretty hefty range of tracks. As the game is set in 1998 it’s a bit of a stylistic smorgasbord, but chances are you’ll find something worth listening to.
While we’re on the subject of worth, the $20 price tag definitely makes this package more compelling. Liberty City Stories is unequivocally the lamest GTA to appear on the PS2, the first real blemish on its hitherto clean record, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. All the criminal insanity you’ve come to know and love from this series is here, warts and all, and considering the low cost, that’s nothing to scoff at. Then again, the lack of new content and rough graphics make this the first GTA not worth breaking a kneecap over.