Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Leeds
Release Date: October 31, 2006
The Grand Theft Auto series is officially losing steam.
Seriously, it is. We were all in denial about it when Liberty City Stories came out last year, because having a full-on GTA on a portable console truly was a technical achievement for the ages. The portable console on which it ended up proved to be far too unwieldly for controlling the game. Furthermore, after coming off of the technically superior San Andreas on PS2, going back to GTA3-style assets and game engine properties did not sit well with many people.
LCS's flaws were magnified all the more when it was ported to the PS2, and people realized that the Dual Shock made the game far more playable than it had ever been on the PSP. All right, then, lesson learned, yes? Rockstar would surely take steps to ensure that Vice City Stories didn't suffer the same fate as its predecessor.
Or perhaps they wouldn't.
Perhaps it was the insanely high sales (for a PSP title), or all of the praise LCS got simply due to its technical prowess, but Rockstar has seen fit to attempt to recreate history. Vice City Stories is here, and while it involves some cool new multiplayer games, as well as improved graphics, an all-new story and soundtrack, and even some "new" mechanics such as boats and swimming ... it's the same unwieldly mess all over again.
Vice City Stories is a prequel to the original Vice City, predating that game's timeline by two years. In 1984, a soldier by the name of Vic Vance (brother of Lance Vance) takes some "side assignments" from a crooked superior officer, against his better judgment. Turns out he should have listened to said judgment, as life as he knows it is eventually ruined once he gets in too deep. Stripped of his rank and status, he ends up on the wrong side of the law as a hired gunman, a wheelman, anything. It's the story of a clean person unwillingly being turned to a life of crime, and the story is told well, as is par for the course for GTA.
Vice City is back in all of its glory, and this time, you can swim its waters, or even ride a helicopter for a panoramic view if you can find it. Otherwise, you'll take on missions, listen to music, and watch a story unfold that's full of lies, betrayal, deceit, and gangsters. In short, it's classic GTA that doesn't deviate much from the norm. This includes the lumps that the series (especially on PSP) has always had. There's always some bad to go with the game's good. Vice City Stories has witty, amusing dialogue. In exchange, I got to drive around who knows how many "shuttle" missions – missions where I cart someone from one end of the city to the other for basically no reason. To break the monotony, I was invited to swerve around madly with said cars using the PSP's imprecise analog nub. Driving around with damaged cars that you never meant to damage in the first place is the wave of the future.
Want to engage in a close-quarters brawl or a firefight? Good luck! Unless you're at a distance, the lock-on targeting system just does not work (and even then, there are problems). Odds are you'll spend most of your time shuffling between who you want to hit, and giving them ample time to hit you. When you finally manage to highlight someone with your targeting cursor, trying to fire on them with a gun can have mixed results. You may actually hit them, or you may instead end up hitting the wall behind them, because bullets only begin to register from a certain distance. There are no point-blank headshots in this game, which will forever keep you from becoming the ultimate gangster that you need to be. Heck, sometimes you'll miss with your fists or a baseball bat for the ultimate humiliation.
The main gameplay draws of the GTA series have always been driving, shooting and fighting. Why, then, would you release a GTA installment where all three of your game's core aspects are broken in some way?
All isn't lost, though; the game does contain some classic moments. You know you're playing GTA when you find yourself barreling down the streets of a faux-Miami at top speed, involved in a shootout at the same time, with "Rock You Like A Hurricane" blaring on the radio. Unfortunately, this moment was canceled out by the frustration I'd felt just half an hour prior, when I attempted to navigate an unwieldly forklift around a narrow room on a strict time limit. After trying that mission 10 times in a row, I'd like to petition for the removal of all forklifts from this series from now on, thanks. Still, high-octane moments like the former are rife in VCS if you can find them, and can make the game worth playing by themselves.
At least the aesthetic touches of GTA are here in spades. Vice City Stories looks even better on the PSP than Liberty City Stories did. The voice-acting is top-notch, as usual, and the '80s soundtrack is killer. Based on these attributes, as before, Rockstar does get some credit for managing to put a game of Vice City Stories's magnitude on such a tiny disc, and having it come so close to the overall GTA experience besides. The thing is, this all brings us back to the concept of the series losing steam. Rockstar has been using the game engine (with tweaks and improvements) ever since GTA3, and it's showing its age like a sore. Having played technically superior games such as Saints Row or even Rockstar's own Bully and The Warriors, going back to an older GTA setup seems madness. Yet, here we are.
Want new GTA? This is pretty much your only choice until GTA IV comes out – and honestly, that can't happen fast enough by this point. Rockstar needs a new engine badly. It's hard to rate this game, as it is meaty, contains a gameplay formula that people are used to (despite its lumps), and contains just enough good to counter the bad. Still, it's your call as to whether or not you should buy, rent, or just wait for the inevitable PS2 port – I've got nothing here. I suppose it all comes down to one question: How badly do you need your GTA fix?