Last year, when Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories onto eager PSP-owning fans of the series, they not only showed that it was possible to have a GTA game of roughly the same complexity as a PS2 one on a portable system, but they also set a high watermark for handheld gaming in general.
Whether the impact that Liberty City Stories had was lessened by its PS2 re-release is arguable. However, the fact remains - as a handheld title, it was pure gold and easily the best game on the system. Vice City Stories, therefore, had big shoes to fill and was automatically standing in the shadow of an entire series of games that has never failed to please.
Taking place in the spandex-clad year of 1984, you fill the role of Victor Vance - brother and all-around nice guy of Lance Vance, whom you'll recall was your ally in the PS2's Vice City. After being thrown out of the Military while running some off-colour errands for your corrupt overseer, you start out at the base of a tree that will lead you, for good and ill, to the position of crime lord of Vice City.
It's a derivative story that you've honestly played in just about every GTA game released so far - 'the humble thug makes good' tale. However, the characters are brilliantly crafted with so much personality injected into the motion-captured animation and fine voice-acting that you honestly won't care that you're essentially playing towards the same goal as the last games.
Production values are truly second-to-none for a handheld game, with a hilarious and filthy script that surely should raise far more eyebrows than a certain Rockstar Private School Simulator.
The necessary dash of fresh gameplay comes in the form of a The Godfather-style territory and business capturing system. It is here that Vice City comes into its own and breaks away from being just another GTA game - perhaps almost falling prey to GTA clones that do some things even better than the core series.
After you wipe out the factional struggles from an area, you can take control of local business and begin to watch the dollars roll in. In a similar way to purchasing businesses in the PS2's Vice City, you can buy a building and choose from one of six different business models, including prostitution, loansharking and drug-running. You can establish up to 30 businesses throughout the city, and funds accrued will be automatically delivered to your safe house. There is a lot of depth here - you can run through a diverse range of profile-raising tasks too, including receiving stolen goods for later 'offloading'.
New vehicles, such as the off-road ATV and a peppy jet-ski, as well as swimming and awesomely fun aeronautical craft compliment the core missions-based gameplay that remains structurally unchanged. If you have endless tolerance for fetch-missions and some very steep difficulty later in the game, then you'll feel right at home.
Multiplayer, oft-overlooked in the original Liberty City Stories, is tremendous fun. Rockstar has crafted scenarios and modes worthy of a full-console release (GTA IV, anyone?) and are absolutely worth investigating.
There are 10 different multiplayer modes to choose from - including Vice City Survivor, the infamous reality TV show mentioned on the airwaves in previous instalments. The so-called Grand Theft Auto mode is a unique car-stealing proposition, where players aim to steal as many cars as possible in exchange for cash - a pleasant distraction from maiming and chaos.
However, the real meat comes in the form of modes like Might of the Hunter, where it's a race to the Hunter attack helicopter and everyone is equipped with rocket launchers. The only way to score a kill is in the helicopter, and staying airborne is a tricky task. Pleasingly, the 'copter actually controls far easier on the PSP, with left and right turns set to the L and R shoulder buttons, and the angle of tilt set to the joynub.
Empire Takedown is a capture-the-flag-style mode where each team must try to capture an explosive briefcase and plant it in the opposing team's base. With a playground the size of most of Vice City to traverse, there's no shortage of tactical movements and coordination with mates to be had.
Wi-Fi with as many other players as possible is the key to having a blast with Vice City Stories' multiplayer. The city is almost too large, and without dedicated levels for having a shootout, it can take a while trying to find an opponent in anything less than a four-player encounter.
That said, although the GTA series has never been known for its looks, Vice City Stories has some niggling presentation issues. Although the draw distance has been improved, it is clearly at the expense of the framerate, which never seems as stable as it was in Liberty City Stories. There are fewer pedestrians and vehicles now, too - apparently there was an issue with 'clumping' of NPCs in the previous game, but now the world seems to err on the sparsely populated side.
Combat in the game is still a hassle. The lack of a reliable lock-on (we say reliable, since the hold-down lock-on tends to be very twitchy and often targets random bystanders instead of crazed gunmen) is still an issue, but the inclusion of better hand-to-hand combat and takedowns is a welcome addition. A lot of these woes could be addressed if the PSP had a second joynub - it would also fix the camera woes - but this is not to be. As it stands, the controls are about as adequate as past GTA titles have been - if you can deal with those, you'll be fine with this. It's just a bit of an antiquated approach.
Vice City Stories succeeds on almost all levels. In terms of what the PSP is capable of, almost no other games outside of the 'Stories' series come close. It isn't without fault, but the faults lie with the series' trademark rough-edged aiming, camera control and graphics.
It's way too easy, in this age of pint-sized technological wonders, to look a gift horse in the mouth. Sure, it's derivative. Sure, the PSP's buttons and joynub are a tale of pleasure and pain. Maybe Vice City Stories overextends itself a little bit, too. But to compare the title to its PS2 brethren in any negative way neglects how damned cool it is to play a game of this depth, quality and heritage while on a bus or on the go. Like Liberty City Stories before it, Rockstar have shown us once again that they know what they are doing with this series, and they know how to get the most out of their chosen platform.
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