Returning to the gritty streets of Liberty City, the latest GTA title takes players back for a prequel of sorts to GTA III. While you'd expect the game to be scaled back somewhat, the biggest surprise is that this has the depth, expansiveness and free-form play you've come to expect from the series without compromising the excellent production that are the series trademarks. There are also several innovative online multiplayer modes that bring the action to an entirely new level. GTA: Liberty City's graphics are remarkably close to its console brothers, with the same depth, expansiveness and open-ended play that made the previous games so appealing. This is definitely one of the most impressive PSP titles to date, from a number of standpoint, making it an essential purchase for anyone with the console.
Developed by Rockstar Leeds in conjunction with Rockstar North, this PSP edition of the GTA franchise allows players to further explore the backstories and back alleys of characters they first met several years earlier in GTA3. Taking place several years before the events of Grand Theft Auto III, Liberty City Stories follows Toni Capriani as he retuns to Liberty City after several years of exile. After killing a made man several years earlier, he has come back to the Leone family fold and is trying to make things right. When he arrives, he finds the streets of Liberty City in chaos as the Leones find themselves fighting other Mafiosi for control of drug traffic and other underworld pursuits while corrupt politicians and unions battle above ground. These events transpire under the nose of the police and other law enforcement agencies, who Toni needs to avoid, as well as under the ever-watchful eye of his mother. Along the way, you'll encounter many other characters and events, and need to keep your eyes and ears alert, since everyone has their own motivations, and no one can be trusted. While the plot builds up momentum slowly at first, things pick up after you've completed the first few basic missions and go deeper into the Leone hierarchy, where you find out what's really been going on. While the game's format may be a bit smaller, the plot remains as expansive as players have come to expect, with a high degree of character development occurring throughout the game. The multiple branching paths and mission structures remain, but the overall arching storyline quickly emerges as you play through Liberty City Stories, making for a completely immersive experience.
GTA: Liberty City Stories' missions range from simple grab and run missions, to all out battles and much more. The variety is what keeps the games so addictive, and this installment is no exception. Missions don't need to played in a specific order, which adds to the player's sense of freedom. Most missions can also be attacked in a variety of ways, giving you the flexibility to do things your own way. Even failures can be built on, by using a different vehicle or weapon for example. While the structure is non-linear, completing missions from the same boss sequentially makes the storyline emerge much faster. Most of the missions are traditional GTA fare, and follow the traditional formula, though there are obviously, tons of mini-games and side-quests you can play as well, with the usual racing and melee modes included as well. Its structure follows GTA's conventions as you gradually work your way up through the ranks, you'll be given more complex and dangerous missions. Completing these earns the trust of the family and you are given additional rewards as well. As in previous titles, there are many different paths to choose from, and this emergent gameplay gives you a great sense that you're in control of the character's destiny, which helps you to identify you with the protagonist on a tangible level. As for the other characters, some are sympathetic while others don't instill much loyalty or trust. You'll see some familiar faces here and its interesting to see where they were previous to their appearances later on in the series.
Taking a walk through Liberty City should create a strong sense of déjà vu for GTA veterans, with many of the familiar locations and neighborhoods from GTA 3 returning as well, though some have different names and some stores and items are in different locations. Liberty City itself consists of several distinct areas, which can be traveled either on foot or in vehicles. Each area has its own cast of characters and gangs to worry about. Initially, you'll be assigned missions fairly close to the Leone's headquarters, but will gradually find yourself going to other areas of the city. As you travel, you can obviously take over other vehicles, but one switch is that the new game allows you to take control of motorcycles, which weren't in GTA3, which adds a new driving element to the game. Players can also find a number of stores throughout the city, including AmmoNation, where you can purchase firearms and bullets and the spray shops where you can repaint a stolen vehicle. This is particularly helpful if you find yourself pressured by the cops. You'll also find the usual health and star icons, which can restore your health and reduce your wanted level. Players will also find sub-missions and mini-games by driving around the city, along with vehicle based missions, which you can perform by taking over an ambulance or a taxi and hitting a special key. Liberty City Stories' non-linear structure means you can choose to forsake the missions altogether and explore the streets looking for trouble. Players can drive around for hours since the city itself is massive in scope yet remarkably detailed, and has many secret locations to explore, giving you a great deal of leeway in how you play the game.
While the single player mode is as robust and elaborate as the previous GTA titles, Liberty City Stories implements several multiplayer modes - a first for the series. Implementing the Wi-Fi connections, players can set up a number of online parameters. There are seven distinct multiplayer modes including Liberty City Survivor, where you have to reach a kill target against other players before they reach their number. In the Protection Racket, both teams of players alternate between attacking and defending one of their gang's four limos, this mode is also timed and the team that destroys their opponents' limos the fastest wins. This makes for some intense, competitive action. Get Stretch is somewhat similar to the Protection Racket except here you are battling one against the other to steal an opponents' limo from their base and bring it to your own. In Tanks for the Memories, on player controls a tank and must survive in the tank as long as possible while the others attempt to destroy it. The Hit List is a straightforward yet addictive mode where one player is the marked man, and the others try to kill him. Once a player has been killed, another player is chosen as the marked man. The player who survives the longest in this mode is the winner. Street Rage is a traditional racing mode where you can to race through checkpoints in order to win the race, though you can switch vehicles and shoot rival players along the way. In the Wedding Present mode, the object is to recover and deliver cars to crates in good condition, the better shape they are in, the more cash you earn and the player with the most money is victor.
The single and multiplayer modes are impressive, but Liberty City Stories also makes a strong showing in its solid production values. The size and scope of your environment is impressive, offering an incredible amount of freedom in realistic urban locations, that feel alive with realistic traffic and pedestrians. The game's storyline unfolds in a series of cinematic sequences which feature excellent voice acting, believable characters and in interesting plot that ties the missions together perfectly. As you'd expect from a GTA title, the game also offers an array of radio stations to listen to while driving. These offer an array of music ranging from rock, to hip-hop and classical stations, which gives the player plenty of variety to choose from. While the game is violent and dark, it's also quite humorous, which the mindless satirical banter of Radio DJ's offering a perfect compliment to the sometimes brutal action. From a technical standpoint, the game impresses with a smooth appearance throughout, with a consistent frame-rate and little slowdown to impede your progress. Additionally, the game includes excellent light sourcing and weather effects, which add to the realism. While many other PSP titles suffer from long, tedious load screens, GTA: Liberty City Stories seems to have solved many of these problems. While the initial loading cinema takes a while to get through, the action only pauses briefly before mission briefings during the gameplay itself. Given GTA: Liberty City Stories' expansive scope and ambitious cinematic direction, these brief pauses aren't that much of a problem. This is probably the most technically impressive PSP title to date, allowing players to fully immerse themselves into a robust, evocative game world with console-quality production values on a handheld system.
There's little doubt that Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is probably the most-anticipated title on the PSP to date. While there have been a few adjustments made, such as slightly less complicated missions, the most striking thing is just how close Rockstar has come to recreating a full-bodied GTA title on a handheld. The world of Liberty City seems just a large and open as it did in GTA3, with a brilliantly realized mission structure that keeps players constantly challenged while never making the game feel like you're playing on rails. To the contrary, you can spend many hours exploring the city, searching for the many secrets, side-quests, and mini-games that have been hidden inside. The single player mode engages the player with an interesting plot that keeps your interest level high throughout, while the addition of several new online modes will definitely extend the game's replay value indefinitely. These minor tweaks mean you can play a quick mission on the road, or sit down at home and get involved with the storyline, so the game unfolds at your own pace. With its strong production values, realistic aesthetics and engaging characters, this definitely delivers on its promise. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories exceeds expectations by creating a technically advanced game with the depth and nuance previously seen only on console, yet its non-linear structure and open-ended play mechanics make it an excellent portable title as well. GTA: Liberty City Stories is a solid GTA title that succeeds on all fronts. It delivers a full-fledged, uncompromising experience that makes it by far, the best PSP title to date.