I don't know when the PSP first emerged as anything more than a scribble on a beer mat, or how popular the now infamous Grand Theft Auto series was at the time, but you can bet your life that part of the reason for all that power was so games like GTA could run on the handheld; a fully fledged GTA with a huge 3D world and everything that goes with it. It's taken a while to arrive, but it's here now and Sony couldn't have asked for a better system seller.
Rockstar have quite wisely returned to Liberty City in their first GTA game on the PSP. Last seen in Grand Theft Auto III, the location has been burnt into the memory of millions of gamers and going back feels like visiting the place you grew up in. You play as Toni Cipriani, Salvatore Leone's right-hand man. You eventually become a Made man and get involved in all the usual mafia business found in the GTA series, with gang wars aplenty.
Story wise, Liberty City stories isn't as great as the home console games, with few truly memorable characters and moments. It still has a comedic edge to it - something that has run through the series - but it's not the well rounded experience that you might be expecting. Cut scenes are often quite poor and key events are underplayed, making most of the story rather forgettable. This is a little disappointing, but given the limitations of the handheld it's acceptable, and the core GTA gameplay is still there and as solid as ever.
The first thing you'll notice is just how great the game looks. Liberty City Stories looks remarkably similar to the games that have appeared on the PlayStation 2 over the last few years. In fact, it's the first PSP game to wow me since I got hold of the handheld ten months ago. I was sceptical when GTA was announced for the PSP, but I've been put in my place; textures are sharp, player and vehicle models are good and the frame rate is about on par with the PlayStation 2 games. It really is quite a technical achievement for Rockstar.
'There are camera issues now and again, but it's nowhere near as cumbersome as I'd imagined it would be.'
I'm prepared for all the hate mail, but in my opinion tight controls have never been the series' strong point, on consoles anyway. I've got used to them over the years and the overall quality of the games more than made up for this. Still, this was an area of the PSP game that I was very concerned about. Rockstar have done well though, delivering a game with minimal control issues. Driving is as fun as ever, with a great sense of speed and responsive controls. Unlike GTA III, you can even hop on a bike for some dangerous high speed getaways. On foot, things are more troublesome, but good use of the targeting system and some dexterous fingers should ensure a pretty painless experience. There are camera issues now and again, but it's nowhere near as cumbersome as I'd imagined it would be.
Missions tend to be pretty simple, with most involving only one task, with the usual 'return car' and 'take out gang' missions taking up a fair share of your time. Not that these aren't entertaining - they are. They're just not as diverse or as challenging as those in the console games - San Andreas in particular. Fans of mindless violence and general carnage can still take to the streets and cause mayhem, with the inevitable police chases that follow. Cop cars are pretty brutal in their pursuits, but they tend to be limited in number. The frame rate also tends to bog down a fair bit during the most intense chases - when you've got cop cars and a chopper on your tail - but it never drops into unplayable territory.
Many of the GTA staples are present, with the obligatory radio stations, paint shops, clothing changes, stat tracking and more. Your look can't be totally customised as it could in San Andreas, but you can pick between complete outfits. The radio stations don't feature an awful lot of licensed music, meaning the game lacks the nostalgia factor of previous GTA games, but Voice work is generally excellent and the funny radio ads that have appeared in every GTA game make an appearance. You can add your own custom soundtrack, but you must use some specially developed software that requires you to rip music from CDs. Not being able to use music already on the PSP or your existing music collection on your PC makes using this feature a hassle.
Every effort has been made to make this as close to a home console game as possible, and that should be commended, but it doesn't quite do everything a handheld game should. The biggest gripe most people will have is with game saves. While many missions are short, a few do take longer than you'd expect, and with no mid-mission saves anyone who plays the game in short bursts (while travelling for example) might have to rely on the PSP's standby function. It would also have been nice to have an auto save after completing a mission, rather than having to trek to a save point. While this was acceptable on the home console games, it doesn't lend itself well to portable gaming. Battery life is about the same as with other demanding PSP titles, so a full charge will give you approximately four hours of play time.
A great addition to the PSP game is the Wi-Fi multiplayer. The game offers various modes where up to six players can take each other on in the game's huge environment. Game modes are hugely varied and immense fun if you can get together with a few mates. One mode has you trying to protect a number of limousines, while another places a tank in the city which players must control for as long as possible. To keep the games fast you'll find plenty of weapons scattered around the environment and power-ups that give you an advantage over the competition. Internet play would have been great, but it wasn't to be.
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is a landmark PSP game. It's by far the most technically accomplished title on the system and proves, without doubt, what the handheld is capable of. It's not the perfect handheld game though, with some design issues that make true handheld play somewhat troublesome, but it's still the best version of GTA you can get on a handheld. Liberty City Stories is an absolute must for mature PSP owners and GTA fans still sitting on the fence over a PSP purchase.