Tuesday, December 06, 2005

VG REVIEW: Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

Birthday celebrations (my own, thank you) kept me from posting yesterday, sorry. Here's this week's review:

Rockstar, for the PlayStation Portable
rated M for Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs)

You’d think in creating the latest edition of the ever-popular, ultraviolent "Grand Theft Auto" series for Sony’s PlayStation Portable, developer Rockstar would have to sacrifice some of the franchise’s size, presentation or general quality to fit the game on one of those tiny Universal Media Discs.

You’d be wrong.

Easily the most impressive thing about "Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories" is that Rockstar has managed to cram the full "GTA" experience into this tiny machine. Neither a port nor an oversimplified sequel, "Liberty City" is remarkably consistent with past games in the series, right down to the goofy radio stations.

Unfortunately, that stunning feat also is part of what holds the game back. Developing a game for a handheld system requires different rules than for a larger console. In other words, just because you can stuff an entire "GTA" universe into the PSP, does that mean you should?

A prequel of sorts to "Grand Theft Auto III," "Liberty City Stories" follows mobster Tony Cipriani (a supporting player in "Grand Theft Auto III") as he gets released from jail and finds his rank has fallen a few notches.

In order to get back into his don’s good graces (and his mom’s), Tony must shoot, steal, kill, race and do just about anything else illegal.

As with past "GTA" games, "Liberty City" is mission-based, with Tony doing favors with various criminals and other unsavory types, with the player picking and choosing which mission to take on and when. And, as before, there are tons of smaller mini-games, like driving a taxi, putting out fires or commandeering an ambulance, that you can try out.

Those who rail against "GTA’s" virtual lawlessness seem to ignore one of the most potent aspects of the game, namely that it’s a satire. A vicious, violent and black-hearted satire, yes, but a satire nevertheless.

That was confirmed for me while playing some of the missions involving Tony’s mom. At one point I found myself trying to win my ma’s love by taking pictures of a butcher who apparently had a penchant for dressing up like an infant (she wasn’t impressed). It’s that sort of absurdity that keeps the game’s high body count from becoming too grotesque or upsetting.

But if the game’s production values and sense of humor remain topnotch, interface is a source of complete frustration.

Just about every single problem that has plagued the "GTA" games since they went 3-D is amplified here.

Had trouble driving the cars before? Wait till you try using the PSP’s tiny thumbstick to steer. Camera got stuck in the past? Expect to be frequently staring at buildings instead of your enemy. Never cared for the game’s targeting controls? You’ll find new ways to loathe it in this iteration.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the game is its lack of a decent save feature. As with past games, you have to head all the way back to your house after each mission in order to save your game.

Considering that many of these missions are lengthy and spaced out all over the city, it’s not something you’ll want to do too often, which can be a problem when your battery starts running low. Forget to recharge, and you’ll find yourself missing a half-hour or more of gameplay.

These sorts of things can be forgivable on a TV console. On a handheld, which is specifically designed for on-the-go gaming however, it’s insufferable. You’ll be at your next bus stop before you even get halfway through a mission.

Rockstar deserves acclaim for being able to transfer its warped vision to a smaller screen without missing a beat. Certainly, hard-core "Grand Theft Auto" fans will be impressed enough to pick up the game regardless of its flaws.

The fact remains, however, that developing a title for a handheld console involves its own set of rules. Rockstar, for whatever reason, chose to ignore those rules and the result is a less-than-worthy game.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005


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