Once upon a time, there were no games that could justify the purchase of a PSP. The system had everything that appealed to the tech geek in us all; the music, the portable movies, and some of the best graphics ever seen on a handheld. Despite such features, the PSP lacked a library of truly awesome games, relying instead on ports and watered down rehashes. All the handheld needed was a truly impressive and spectacular title that could make all those doubtful gamers and PSP naysayers (myself included) eat their words and actually consider giving the highly priced gizmo a chance. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories accomplished such a feat; I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one who thought they were missing out on yet another installment of the Grand Theft Auto series. But now that Liberty City Stories has been ported to the PS2, non-PSP gamers finally get a bittersweet taste of the handheld’s most promising title.
As a new day begins in Liberty City, Toni Cipriani is ready to return to work. After killing a ‘made man’ for his boss Salvatore Leone, Toni had to keep a low profile out of the city. Now that things have cooled down in the Mafia-dominated underworld, this fiercely loyal enforcer is finally coming back to cohorts in organized crime. Unfortunately, he’s been out of the loop for too long; the hierarchy of the mob has changed drastically since his extended leave. Despite all of his hard work for the Leone family, Toni is now nothing more than a lowly thug sitting at the bottom of the command chain. In order to reclaim his hard-earned job title, he’ll have to work odd jobs under the new management, eventually gaining the power and respect that he deserves.
So, how do you regain the favor of the most dangerous mafia families in Liberty City? By doing everything they tell you to do. Toni Cipriani is a very loyal man, and not even spending years in exile has shaken his respect for his employers. The game will start with our hero working under some new hot shot, picking up cars and people, delivering items, etc. The missions and odd jobs vary in difficulty, sometimes involving shootouts with the police, saving some of Leone’s more inept thugs, or brutally murdering a desired target. Also, fans of Grand Theft Auto III may take great delight in seeing interaction between Toni and his overbearing mother. Completing missions not only nets you some spare cash, but also progresses the story and unlocks new areas. Though the game initially revolves around a small portion of Liberty City, you’ll eventually expand to other sections as Toni ascends to power.
In case you get tired of dealing with your crappy boss, there are plenty of other ways to earn money and kill some time in between jobs. Instead of going on to the next mission, you can simply walk down the street, bop a pedestrian in the face, and steal all of his or her cash. If hand-to-hand combat isn’t your thing, there are also a wide variety of weapons that can be wielded, ranging from simple handguns to semiautomatics to staple classics like Molotovs, sniper rifles, the katana, and missile launcher. Just like the previous Grand Theft Auto games, you’ll be able to terrorize any civilians at will. Should the rampant bloodshed of innocent bystanders get to you, there are a wide variety of cars to steal and used to get around. If you feel like doing something constructive and beneficial for your community, ambulances, police vehicles, and taxis can be carjacked and used for their respective minigames. Delivering patients to the hospital, picking up fares, and hunting down criminals may not be as glorious as working for a prominent crime family, they can still prove to be challenging alternatives to the main storyline.
All of this should sound very familiar to veterans of the PS2 games of Grand Theft Auto series; the core gameplay of Liberty City Stories is essentially unchanged from the previous installments. Such a game would have been impressive…on the PSP. While this game pushed the envelope as a handheld game, it doesn’t quite measure up to the likes of Vice City or San Andreas. Liberty City is fairly small with an uncomplicated layout; fans that went nuts over the gigantic sprawl of San Andreas won’t find this seemingly bland place very impressive. The fact that the celebrated multiplayer of the PSP version was removed doesn’t make things much better. Even Toni, who was one of the most formidable characters in Grand Theft Auto III, has the fighting ability of a crippled pizza delivery boy. He can’t crouch or grab onto ledges, essentially cutting off quick escapes or better terrain cover. Maybe previous Grand Theft Auto heroes were overpowered, but this guy can barely knock down a cop without getting clubbed a few times. His gunplay isn’t that much better, either; the targeting system is a horrible mess of glitches that either doesn’t lock on to anything at all, or it simply overlooks the correct target (aka the policeman beating Toni’s face in with a nightstick) in favor of some random bystander or something equally unimportant. Fun.
Considering that Liberty City Stories is a direct port of a handheld game, it’s little wonder how bland it looks on PS2. Fans that ogled over the glossy graphics and great details of San Andreas will likely scoff at this game’s less than stellar visuals. Liberty City looks like a dark and gritty urban landscape, complete with sharply angled hills, dark alleys, and plenty of snooty citizens to boot. There are even a few weather changes to indicate the time of day, including a foggy morning and light rain showers. Though the cars come in a wide variety of designs and makes, there’s nothing eye-catching or fancy about most of them. Gamers will probably enjoy seeing Toni exchange words (blended with tons of foul language) with his young boss, as well as him get verbally abused by his irritatingly opinionated mother. Toni isn’t a raging psychopath like Tommy Vercetti or a young upstart like CJ, but his irritable attitude ought to win him a few fans. Too bad the same can’t be said about the game’s incredibly limited soundtrack; the game boasts a fraction of playable songs compared to the tracks of the previous titles. With the notable exception of the Double Cleff radio station, most of the music is bland and generic tripe.
It’s not that Liberty City Stories is a bad game. As a flagship title for a handheld system, it must have been a very impressive addition to the PSP gaming library. Unfortunately, seasoned PS2 owners and Grand Theft Auto enthusiasts have come to expect more from their favorite series. This game retains the core gameplay of the previous titles while taking out most of the extra stuff, leaving you with a decent character embarking on the adventure that will define his career. It really boils down to what you want from your Grand Theft Auto games; fans of San Andreas will likely despise this game for its simplistic style, while others will appreciate this game for what it offers. Don’t buy this game expecting it to be something revolutionary or amazing. Liberty City Stories will never live up to its console-based brethren, but exist in its own little handheld-ported niche.