Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Leeds
Release Date: June 6, 2006
There's a tried-and-true formula to gaming: Originality brings success, and success brings repetition. As a result, even the most unique ideas can become hackneyed and trite within a few years of the initial idea's success on the video game market. Some companies have refined their exploitation of this rule to an art form, coming out with game after game, rehash after rehash until the consumers finally get sick of it and stop buying the series. This will take a long time to happen if the series has become truly popular, due to how many gamers purchase based on loyalty to a specific game franchise.
Unless GTA 4 brings around something to the table that gamers didn't expect, Rockstar's flagship series may be limping its way to an early grave. Ironically, its demise wouldn't be on the hands of the right-wing Conservatives who want the game to be publicly burned, nor would it be at the hands of patches full of Hot Coffee. No, the death knell for the Grand Theft Auto series is Liberty City Stories, a game that saw phenomenal success on the PSP.
For those who don't have Sony's portable multimedia whatsit, Liberty City Stories is the tale of Tony Cipriani, a Mafioso who's recently been released from the big house after killing a "made man." Since that's how the incident is referred to in the manual, the game itself, and all the promotional media, what exactly he was made of is left a mystery. (I personally think it helps to think of him being made of mashed potatoes.) Regardless of the composition of this ex-man, Tony got a nice, long stay in the slammer for offing him. As such, he's been knocked down from a lofty position in "the family" to doing the dirty jobs of a nobody goon.
This, naturally, makes the game play out exactly like every other Grand Theft Auto game. You accept missions from your superiors, run around town, shoot people, and then repeat. There's really very little to the GTA games aside from stealing cars, driving them as fast and recklessly as possible, and being as much of a psychopathic bleep as you're humanly capable. There are, of course, the occasional extras – special races, bloodbaths, and other fun side-games to occupy your time in the game's world.
The similarities aren't just in the system – Liberty City Stories takes place in, naturally, Liberty City. For those not into the series, that means that it's the exact same city in Oregon as Grand Theft Auto III, the progenitor of the third-person 3D roam-and-shoot run-and-gun. It's not just the same setting, either; the city is set up virtually identical to how it was in GTA3, with only minor differences, if any, to the layout of the town. Unfortunately, the game also looks exactly like GTA3, with plenty of jaggy polygons, clumsy hit detection, and occasionally fuzzy textures. While it looks fine on the PSP, porting the graphic engine directly to the PS2 makes the game look archaic and dated.
The graphics aren't the only thing to get ported, either. The entire game, from audio to minorly loose controls, is all here straight from PSP, for better or worse. Well, I shouldn't say the entire game. Sadly, the two best features from the PSP version of Liberty City Stories – the multiplayer modes and the ability to provide custom soundtracks – are understandably absent due to technical limitations. The lack of custom soundtracks leaves you with only the in-game radio stations to occupy you, none of which are particularly spectacular. There's rap, house, hip-hop, Mexican musica and the obligatory talk radio, but disturbingly enough, not a single rock sampling to be found, which puts the game's soundtrack a good two steps behind even Vice City.
The rest of the audio shines, however, as is to be expected with Rockstar Games and its sound crew. The voice acting lacks any big names, which sets it behind the likes of Vice City and San Andreas, but the actors who have been cast for all the roles do a superb job. Never once are you given a feeling of "reading from a script like an emotionless zombie," as in so many video game voice samples, even if the actors have the tendency to ham things up a bit. Heck, it's Grand Theft Auto – where would it be without cheesy, overacted dialogue?
As mentioned, the controls are slightly loose, but that's how they've swung in pretty much every game of the series. Bikes are supposed to be tricky to control, and cars are supposed to lose some steering capacity after taking a few hefty impacts. The most noticeable flaw in the control scheme this time is in the out-of-vehicle roaming, though. Quite a few times in gameplay, I'd notice that, while on the run from the cops, the odd hit detection of the game had me pinned against people, cars, and light posts. Sure, the first two actually add a degree of realism (if you ignore the fact that they're just standing there and not aiming to stop me), but the third is a reach even for the most imaginative minds. What, have the machines risen up to destroy humanity, starting with some lowly felon on the streets of Liberty City?
Games aren't to be judged solely on how they are as standalone titles any more; these days, a game can't get a score without being put on trial against its peers. Liberty City Stories is entirely playable and excelled in its initial format on the PSP, where it was uncontested. As a first romp into the world of 3D Grand Theft Auto games, it's still worth taking a look at, too. However, both Vice City and San Andreas are better games, and GTA3, if you can find it, will provide almost identical play for a good $5 to $10 less. Even at its bargain bin price of a single Jackson, Liberty City Stories is outclassed by every single one of its competitors on the PlayStation 2.