Genre: Action / Adventure
Length: ~25 Hours
Extras: Memory Card, Analog Control, Vibration
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Leeds / Rockstar North
ESRB Rating: M
The latest PS2 chapter of the Grand Theft Auto legacy arrived amidst startlingly slim fanfare this summer in the form of Liberty City Stories, a PSP original ported over to its immediate predecessor. Rockstar didn't make any bones about this release - they knew it had been available for the portable a good six months, that fans might feel burnt by the exclusivity of the original delivery, but that they also might have been turned off by a full-priced release on the PS2 six months after the fact. The developer had been down that road before with GTA: San Andreas, releasing the Xbox port of the title at full price several months after the PS2 release, and I'll readily admit to feeling a little shortchanged by that. Especially considering the lack of any real difference, both in the form of graphics and load times, between the two. Realizing that not only were they releasing an old game on a new system, but that they were actually taking away functionality, rather than adding to it, LCS was introduced at an original price point of $19.99 amidst much rejoicing from the general public. Speaking personally, that move alone changed my "wait and see" attitude about the title into an immediate purchase on launch day. Due credit to Rockstar - you probably could've gotten away with releasing this thing at full price, no doubt to great profits considering the completely recycled gameplay engine, maps and vehicles contained within, but you took the more honorable route and delivered a midsummer gift to your hardcore fan base.
Yep, aside from the storyline, the audio selections and a few very minor gameplay tweaks (the inclusion of motorcycles, for instance) this is an entirely recycled game. Top to bottom, it's the sights, streets and sensations of Grand Theft Auto III wrapped around a new set of missions, newly distributed hidden packages and a strangely familiar new protagonist. Toni Cipriani should be familiar to anyone who played through GTA3: he's the momma's boy who handed out odd jobs from his family restaurant midway through the first section of the game, and Liberty City Stories is the tale of his short, deliberate rise to that small semblance of power. Seeing as how this is meant to be a direct prequel to GTAIII, you'll find dozens of little hints, nods and foreshadowing to the events that transpire in the series' first PS2 jaunt, which really made me ache to go back and play chapter three again.
However, aside from a few recurring characters and (obviously) locations, the direct links to the activities in III are few and far between. In my eyes, that's a big missed opportunity - I would've loved to have seen not only the backstory and events leading up to that epic first story, but also some of the things that went on elsewhere in the city during the course of the game. How cool would it have been to bump into the nameless lead character from GTAIII, exchange a few words, and then hear about his successes elsewhere in the city while your own fortunes turned for the worse? LCS was in the unique position to not only deliver a solid standalone tale, but to also expand upon an earlier yarn, perhaps even casting it in a new light. Instead, the storytelling of Liberty City Stories wraps up several years before the explosive arrival of the nameless one, serving as only a traditional prequel with absolutely no overlap. Hopefully this is an area they can address in the future, as the teasers for Vice City Stories have already begun to circulate and one can only imagine that San Andreas Stories won't be far behind.
As the latest member of the GTA legacy, Liberty City Stories continues the family tradition of taking its hints from a big, influential motion picture. Where Vice City was obviously a Scarface homage, and San Andreas took its inspiration from Boyz N Tha Hood, LCS draws its lifeblood from Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. This is an extremely romanticized view of organized crime and its leaders, emphasizing the familial tendencies of such a large organization, recognizing a few key players and highlighting their brotherly relationships with one another. Toni is like the little brother that everybody picks on, all grown up and sick of being taken advantage of, but deep down at heart content with his position within the family. He talks big, and never hesitates to verbally berate someone that he perceives to be further down the ladder from himself, but always gives in to an authority figure. Whether it's mob boss Salvatore Leone or his own mother, Toni seems to constantly entrench himself in the kind of situation where he'll be told what to do, outshouted and overruled. In that sense, he's far from the typical GTA hero and presents a real change of pace for the series. Even in his moment of victory, after outshooting the big boss and helping the Leone family conquer the city, he's pushed around by his superior, given less of a cut than he was promised, and scolded for even asking why he's getting less cash than he's due. Just like Ray Liotta's character in Goodfellas, Toni is a weak personality at heart, easily dominated by an authority figure and led into conflict by an adept puppetmaster.
Despite the outstanding source material and superb pre-existing characters it had to work with, the actual storytelling of Stories does stumble from time to time, which is something that had never been a problem for the series beforehand. Both the pacing and the personality of the story don't quite match up with what had come before, which isn't to say it's an especially bad tale, just that it's not quite up to the level of the preceding stories. That trademarked unforgiving, sarcastic GTA world view seems tamer this time around, and I'm not sure if that's because I've grown used to the approach or because the plot is actually much thinner than those that came before, but something is certainly missing here. Every once in a while I'll catch a glimpse of something outstanding, but it'll vanish just as quickly and leave me hungry for something closer to what the series had delivered before.
Those same comments could apply to the gameplay system in use with LCS. At its heart, it's the same old GTA - same free-roaming capabilities, same methods of transportation, same theme - but there's something missing that I can't really put my finger on. It's still a hell of a lot of fun to sit down and play, just not quite as much so as Vice City was. Sure, it's cool to drive around the streets of Liberty City on a souped up motorcycle for the very first time, but that doesn't match the kind of excitement I felt when I first boarded a Moped (sorry, "Faggio") in Vice City. The mini-games and side quests have been expanded and improved upon, to the point that climbing into almost any non-standard vehicle will give you the option to try something different, but the feeling isn't the same. When I stole my first police car in GTAIII, hit R3 and went on my first vigilante search-and-destroy, it was an almost magical moment. The sky had truly become the limit. I didn't get that same sensation when I boarded a garbage truck and started collecting specially marked dumpsters.
A few of the innovations and new gameplay mechanics from San Andreas are put to use here, specifically the non-numeric health indicator (it's been replaced by a standard life bar) and the ability to change your wardrobe. I was glad to see that some of the more ambitious mechanics had been removed, mostly because I wasn't a fan of the dance levels, long afternoons in the gym to build endurance, or dating levels of GTA:SA, but sorely missed the ability to swim and the inclusion of functional aircraft. Driving your car into a pond of knee-deep water and watching Toni slowly drown is twice as bitter now as it was in Vice City or GTAIII, because you know that the capability was there and it merely didn't make the cut for the handheld release. The lack of a means to traverse the water was a big problem with previous chapters of the Grand Theft Auto legacy, and taking that step back after finally solving it in San Andreas is a major issue here. The same can be said for the complete lack of an above-ground alternative to standard transportation. Flight has been an option, however limited, since chapter three of this series... hell, you got an honest-to-god jetpack in San Andreas, and it's actually painful to go without in Liberty City.
At this stage in its lifespan, the GTA engine has really been stretched, tweaked and exploited to its fullest potential, which makes me wonder why a few all new bugs have snuck into the system. Most notably is Toni's occasional hesitance to re-enter a vehicle after exiting, which is especially common when you've parked near a wall or fence. You can punch the car, you can push the car, you can stand on the car, but you can't enter it. Toni won't even try, he'll just stare at it like it's an empty box. If you've grown particularly attached to the vehicle, sometimes you can force him to acknowledge it by shoving it around a little bit, but the bottom line is that's something that should've been caught in testing.
After I finished Liberty City Stories, I popped in Vice City for a few minutes, just for comparison's sake, and the one thing that immediately struck me was how much faster GTA: VC moved, especially while on-foot. Playing one of the previous chapters and then jumping right into LCS is like pressing the slow motion button in the middle of a DVD. You'd think Toni was wandering around in a pool of molasses, his reactions are so different. Once you're on-board a moving vehicle, the speed issue becomes much less prevalent. Truthfully, driving the fastest cars in Liberty City is much more thrilling than it was in Vice City, but because you do wind up spending so much time on your feet, it becomes a big problem.
The controls are standard issue this time around, following the same guidelines and restrictions of the previous chapters. I've always liked the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule, and that's something Rockstar seems to respect as well. The only real change is the continuation of the right-analog camera control from San Andreas, a welcome tweak. The rest of the game controls exactly the same as its forefathers, which were themselves specifically geared for the PS2 audience. After giving the series a try on the Xbox in San Andreas, I can confidently say that GTA is twice as easy to control on Sony's console. How that will carry over to the next generation and GTAIV, set for a simultaneous launch on both platforms, is anyone's guess. In the present, you can't go wrong with the dual shock. They've got that setup down to a science.
One area that I had a hard time coming to grips with was the graphics. I'm not sure if it's the limitations of the engine, the hardware or the original target console, but the visuals of Liberty City Stories really don't look all that hot. It suffers from what I'd call Final Fantasy: Origins syndrome, in that they've delivered a precise translation of a game that was developed for a less visually intensive system. Origins would've been right at home on the SNES, but fell a little flat on the PSone. Likewise, I'm sure LCS looks outstanding on the PSP, but on the PS2 it's lacking. With that drawback, however, is something of a blessing: load times are significantly smaller in this chapter than they have been in the past. Where a three minute wait after loading a saved game wasn't a big deal for Vice City, you won't wait more than a minute to get into the action with Liberty City Stories. That's a nice tradeoff if you're looking to sit down and goof off for half an hour in between classes or on a lunch break, but if you're a serious player, I'd imagine you'd trade a longer initial load time for a better picture any day of the week.
It's also tough to regard the city as the living, breathing entity it's been in previous GTAs, as its textures, storefronts and citizens aren't quite as visually or audibly distinct as they had been in the past. I still giggle when I think of the guys from GTAIII who would proudly announce "I'm gonna start joggin' soon..." while hauling their heavy asses around the crowded city sidewalks. The GTA image of a decaying city, of a people so completely oblivious to their own degradations, hasn't aged well to begin with. It's due a major league face lift, and all indications say that's in the very near future. In the visually-challenged world of Liberty City Stories, however, the actual need for that revamp has never been so obvious. This is the rare instance of a game environment that actually looked better the first time I visited it.
Hand in hand with the disappointing delivery of the graphics in LCS is the strikingly downgraded quality of its audio selections and radio stations. Liberty City's airwaves feature a substantially smaller selection of recognizable artists and tracks, which may or may not speak to the need to get it out onto store shelves shortly after the PSP's release. Where Vice City and San Andreas were watershed moments for the integration of great music and pop culture references within the confines of an elaborate video game, Liberty City Stories feels like a pale impersonation. Of the in-game radio's selections, only the rap and classical tunes seem to have been given any kind of real attention, and even those broadcasts seem much more shallow than in previous installments. You'll hear DMX on the rap station and the usual suspects on classical radio, (I particularly liked the use of "Anvil Chorus" from Il Trovatore, which seems to have been written exclusively in anticipation of the kind of carnage GTA revels in) but the entirety of the other stations are filled with underheard and / or originally concocted tunes that can't match the power of the last two PS2 soundtracks. I did get a big kick out of Radio Del Mundo, however, featuring entirely Arabic / Indian tunes... some really good stuff there that only served to further my curiosity about the genre, even if it seems to have been included only as an in-game joke. Every taxi driver in the city is foreign, so naturally they needed a station to have pre-set in every cab throughout the town.
The voice acting in this chapter of the saga continues in the sound footsteps of San Andreas, albeit missing the significant star power of its immediate predecessor. The vocal cast of this most recent chapter could possibly be the best to date, which makes the second-rate delivery of many of the game's other elements even more distinct by comparison. When Toni and Salvatore are having a long conversation, you don't even need to listen to what they're saying to get an understanding of who they are and how things are going to turn out. Great stuff, I've got no qualms whatsoever about it.
Probably my biggest gripe about Liberty City Stories is the lack of multiplayer functionality that was built into the game's PSP release. Upon reading reviews of the title, I couldn't wait to try out these first forays into online play within the GTA universe. It sounded like Rockstar had covered all their bases, introduced a little something for everybody and, more importantly, hinted at what might be coming in GTAIV. One would think that continuing this functionality into the PS2 release, maybe even including cross-platform play between PSP owners and PS2 owners, would be a boon for both the portable system and for the in-home console's meager online offering. Instead, any kind of multiplayer functionality was completely removed from the game's PS2 delivery, as developers claimed it "wasn't in keeping with the spirit and story of Liberty City." Why it was included in the PSP version, then, is still a mystery... and the end result is a disappointment for gamers who know the functionality is there, but commented out of the PS2 translation.
It's that kind of "wow" factor that I think is missing from this entire package. It's a solid game, a continuation of a proven formula, but lacking in that one big punch, one big moment to push it over the top. This felt like a much more shallow, shorter game than Vice City or GTAIII did, when in actuality it took me exactly as long to finish 70% of Liberty City Stories as it did to break 90% on Vice City. I've got to attribute that perceived shortness and incompletion to the lack of "wow." Even the ending seems anticlimactic and lacking in punch, which was one area that I distinctly remember as being wholly satisfying and exhilarating last time out, with San Andreas. This is a really fun game, sufficiently lengthy, with plenty of replay value and some outstanding voice acting work. What it isn't, however, is great. And, considering the lineage that came before, that's a disappointment. It would appear that ongoing greatness, like all other things, is not eternal.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.7