Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories PSP Review

To read other reviews that are polluting the Internet's very digital fabric, it's quite obvious that most journalists have a warped sense of reality, because to them, Rockstar's latest gangster adventure, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories was forged by a god that just so happened to let us mere mortals delight in its sheer brilliance. But as I played this game (and thoroughly enjoyed it), I just didn't see this apparent immortal craftsmanship. Therefore, I'm not going to BS you and use this review as a vehicle to gush like an open wound. Liberty City Stories is a solid game and a great addition to the PSP's growing library. Period.

I don't think I need to remind you that human beings did in fact develop this title, especially since that's evident by the imperfect camera that sometimes obscures one's vision, the imprecise analog control that makes driving sloppier than a pizza burger, and the ho hum visuals that, despite being impressive for a hand held, represent aged technology.

That's another important thing to note about this game, the graphics. Yes, Rockstar's essentially managed to take GTA III's visuals and transfer them to the PSP, and for the most part it was a successful operation, but let's not be stupid. The fact that Rockstar was able to bring an engine that's already more than three years old to a fairly new piece of sexy technology is about as impressive as Nintendo shoving Super Mario 64 onto a cartridge no bigger than my largest toenail. Fan boys delight in such easily understood concepts, and if you're one of those people, this is how technology works. Get over it.

Taking all of this into account, I approached this GTA as just that, another GTA, which it most certainly is. Taking place in Liberty City before GTA III (which takes place in the same...err...place), there's plenty of recognizable territory, yet that's not necessarily a wonderful thing since the familiarity makes it feel like a rehash. With that being said, even though this GTA revolves around Tony Cipriani (who was introduced in the third installment) and it features a new story, this excursion into Liberty City's seedy depths looks and feels like a rerun.

The same goes for the game's go anywhere/do anything atmosphere, which isn't as cool as it was several years ago. I've lost most of the desire to hop into a car, run lots of people over, then engage the police in a high speed chase, at least using this engine. Therefore, and I found this strange, it was the actual story that drew me into this title, and it and it alone is the reason why I actually recommend purchasing this game.

Rockstar is one of those publishers that's games aren't necessarily good looking, but there's no debate about the heart it puts into a title's presentation, and the same can be said of Liberty City Stories. The art work that adorns the intro is just as stylish as it's always been, the opening music is superb, and the radio stations (there's less licensed music this time around) are still hysterical and therefore worth listening to.

The actual story is about as stereotypical as cookie cutter narratives come but it's engrossing nonetheless. The missions are, for the most part, the same old and now dry crap that they've been flinging at us for years (pick up that person, assassinate that guy), but right from the get go the developers establish intrigue. Toni comes back home, the mob boss doesn't treat him with the respect he thinks he's entitled to, and now he's running errands for one of his lackeys. I was driven, not by senseless killing, but by the razor sharp desire to discover how it all played out, an uncommon occurrence because I normally treat the actual story as something to be experienced at my leisure and in very small doses. But with this game, I just wanted to view all of the cut scenes and examine how Toni interacted with the world around him. It also helps that, as usual, the actors have contributed high caliber performances. The main characters are all larger than life, just as they are in GTA: San Andreas.

While the missions are nothing more than filler between points A and B, that doesn't mean that they aren't entertaining, because just as Mario stomping on a goomba hasn't gotten old after 20 years, the same can be said of mowing down some ass head with an automatic rifle. And I'm certainly not above dragging people from their cars and then using those vehicles to smash into things. I mean, this is Grand Theft Auto and there aren't any significant gameplay innovations. Therefore, and whether you realize it or not, you already know what to expect, so you either like this style of game or you don't.

Aside from the story, the other reason why I still enjoy Liberty City Stories is because of its wealth of content. In addition to the 30 plus hour main quest there are side missions as well as numerous multiplayer modes that can be played via ad hoc. They're far from being sophisticated (death match, team death match, death race, survive in a tank for as long as you possibly can), but I'll be damned if they aren't fun to play. And it all works, which is the most important thing. It would have been a lot better if there was online play, but as a glimpse into the future of what console GTA's will likely offer, it's a good start.

Unfortunately, and just like in some of the other GTA titles, Liberty City Stories' missions are difficult for two reasons: they can be quite hard, and the game's problems make them more stressful than they should be. But what's particularly frustrating is the PSP itself, which only magnifies these nagging issues because of its design. The camera, for example, can only be controlled by pressing and holding L and then using the analog nub to move around, which is fine for when I'm taking a relaxing stroll down the street, but not when several police cars are converging on my hairy ass. It's also not cool that the vehicles can only be controlled using the analog stick. Unlike in some of the other PSP racers, such control isn't precise, making it very difficult running from the law.

What you first need to realize when playing this game is the targeting system is your friend, because without it it's nearly impossible to effectively kill anyone. Going to punch someone without it results in numerous missed jabs, so learn to always press and hold the right analog stick and then just go to town. The camera will still obscure your vision when characters get to close to the screen (and the actual targeting system isn't perfect because it defaults to whichever target it damn well pleases), but it's still a decent system.

Even with the targeting system, I think Liberty City Stories is a lot more troublesome than it should be. Again, everything works well when I'm just screwing around, but the game becomes quite irritating during the more intense moments. It's then when the controls really screw me, especially during the driving segments. The cars just slide across the road, and this isn't helpful when police are ramming into me or I'm smacking into things. It's a 60-40 system where the AI has the advantage, because it only takes a few brief moments before flames erupt from underneath the hood and I explode, thus failing the mission. And don't even think about making any high speed getaways in a boat, because you're one lucky son-of-gun if you do.

I'm actually conflicted with this game, because the more and more the controls piss me off the less I want to play. When this happened in previous GTA's I would blow off some steam by murdering random pedestrians and pissing off the law, but since this no longer appeals to me I just become angry and shut off the PSP and that's bad, because if I lose interest in the story, the game has almost no appeal to me other than for its multiplayer kicks.

True to form, this is a typical GTA from Rockstar, a game that is visually unimpressive and that's gameplay is about as polished as a dusty spoon, but the product is rich in character, overall presentation, and its addictive quality winds up being the epitome of the term guilty pleasure. I originally wanted to slap it with a seemingly deserved three out of five, but every time that I'd come close I would blaze through the city on a bike, run over someone with a fire truck, or laugh at one of the excellent radio commercials or talk show sequences. Unlike the rabid fans I'm not sleeping with Liberty City Stories but I am enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would, and for that reason alone, I'm awarding it with a four.

What's Hot: The overall presentation and the game's intriguing story.

What's Not: The inconsistent camera and the slippery vehicle controls.

4/5