GTA: Liberty City Stories was released in October last year, and has since gone on to be the only clear killer app for Sony's handheld. A new GTA game was always going to be popular, and there could hardly have been a better way to spur PSP sales. Sadly for PlayStation 2 owners, that meant no new GTA game for their system in 2005. With GTA IV now set for October 2007, Rockstar's port of Liberty City stories to the PlayStation 2 is a timely release for the console, and while not up to San Andreas' impeccable standard, it's a game that GTA fans shouldn't be without.
Rockstar quite wisely returned to Liberty City for 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. Eventually you 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 previous 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. Being a straight port, nothing has changed in this area during the game's transition to the PlayStation 2, but the core GTA gameplay is still there and as solid as ever.
On the PSP Liberty City Stories looked remarkably good. In fact, along with Ridge Racer, it was a true showcase title for the system. Seeing the game on the PlayStation 2 is a rather different experience. The series as a whole has never been technically stunning, with rough textures, plenty of pop-up and a fairly dodgy frame rate, but 2004's GTA: San Andreas still looked impressive. Liberty City Stories on the PS2 is pretty much the PSP game, running on the PlayStation 2. The frame rate seems to be marginally improved (still not smooth), but textures are messy, character models are rather blocky and the series' trademark repeating cars and near pop-up rear their ugly heads.
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, control was the biggest issue I had with the PSP game, with the system's single analogue stick causing plenty of camera problems. Playing the game on the PlayStation 2 means camera control isn't an issue, but you'll still get the same twitchy controls (particularly when riding bikes) that you either love or hate.
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 that GTA fans will be used to, particularly if the last GTA game you played was San Andreas. 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.
Liberty City Stories on the PlayStation 2 has been released as a budget title, and as such is lacking the multiplayer modes seen in the PSP game. While this might be disappointing for GTA fans hoping to get their first taste of multiplayer GTA (bar unofficial mods for the PC games), the single-player campaign alone more than makes the game worth its cheap price tag.
Discerning GTA fans will notice that Rockstar's latest isn't quite up to the hugely high standard that the first three PlayStation 2 games have set, but Liberty City Stories is still a GTA game, and ticks most of the boxes. This isn't a follow-up to San Andreas, and as long as you go into the game knowing that you're playing a game originally designed for the PSP, you'll find it hard to spend £20 on a better purchase this summer.