For a variety of reasons, portable games have long lagged behind their home console counterparts in terms of depth. Certainly technical constraints have been part of the issue here. Also, portable games have traditionally been played, for lack of a better term, portably. Although I have known people to sit on their couch, clutching a handheld, this did not become normal for me until the advent of the PSP and Nintendo DS.
That said, outside of the realm of role-playing games, I feel that we’ve yet to see the degree of complexity present in some home console games on a handheld. Traditionally, handheld games have been designed to play in spurts, and as such the means (and potentially the interest) for deep, action-oriented gameplay has been absent. Nintendo, with the DS, has little reason to alter the portable gaming landscape in such a way. Instead, Nintendo has chosen to redefine the mechanisms by which games are played from an interaction standpoint. The PSP, then, as a portable powerhouse with technical capabilities almost on par with the PS2, offers the best opportunity for a portable game with home console levels of depth.
As the king of the “go anywhere, do anything” genre, the PS2 (and later Xbox) Grand Theft Auto games are inherently quite complex, and we’ve never seen anything of their scope on a handheld. Given Rockstar’s lackluster first attempt at a portable iteration in the venerable franchise, namely Grand Theft Auto Advance, I was somewhat wary of the quality of another portable GTA. As it turns out, those concerns were completely unfounded. While Grand Theft Auto Advance was clearly a derivation of the original top-down PC entries in the franchise, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories clings closely to its console brethren from the PS2, to amazing effect.
The first thing I noticed upon playing the game was a feeling of returning to a familiar place. Liberty City Stories takes place in Liberty City, the grimy version of New York presented in Grand Theft Auto III. Occurring three years prior to the events of that game, and following the rise to criminal power of Tony Cipriani, a character fans will recognize as a prominent mafia figure in Grand Theft Auto III, Liberty City Stories gives players the same sort of criminal storyline and felonious side missions of other GTA games, complete with a near-PS2 level of audio and graphical detail.
In some sense, Liberty City Stories is a difficult game to discuss outside of the context of the PS2 iterations of the GTA franchise. Certainly it’s not a remake of a PS2 game which, given the glut of such titles in the PSP lineup, is to its credit. It also clearly stands on its own merit as an entry to the franchise, not requiring any previous familiarity with the GTA universe. That said, part of what makes the game so impressive requires a comparison to Grand Theft Auto III, and some consideration as to how the game fits into the overall phenomenon of Grand Theft Auto in general. Grand Theft Auto III is the most chronologically recent entry in the overall GTA narrative. Liberty City Stories occurs before it, and after Vice City, San Andreas, and Advance. In what has become a hallmark of the franchise since Vice City, chronological in-jokes abound, to the benefit of fans of the entire series. More importantly, it feels as though it fits into the narrative. From a creative standpoint, this is due to the same writing and dark sense of humor that have defined the series for some time. Technologically speaking, the game also nails the GTA feel in no small part because it would be right at home on the PS2.
Certainly, some sacrifices have been made in order to make the game feasible on a handheld. While Liberty City Stories doesn’t look quite as sharp as Vice City or San Andreas, it is easily as accomplished as Grand Theft Auto III, and, in some ways, this version of Liberty City is the most technically accomplished we’ve seen to date. The addition of some enhancements to the post-GTA III entries in the franchise, motorcycles for example, are welcome to Liberty City. And although the entire stock of radio material present is noticeably smaller than on the PS2 GTA games, the variety present on a PSP UMD is impressive. The lack of a second analog stick necessarily alters gameplay, particularly with respect to camera controls. But critiquing the control changes seems somewhat unfair, given that they simply operate within the constraints of the hardware. After a nominal portion of time with the game, the controls will seem second nature.
Multiplayer is a commodity that many Grand Theft Auto players have been craving for some time. Although there exists community-driven software enabling online co-op play for the PC versions of Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and San Andreas, Liberty City Stories represents the first effort from Rockstar to make multiplayer possible. Unfortunately, this is limited to ad-hoc wireless play, as opposed to playing over the Internet.
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories succeeds not only as another enjoyable entry in a franchise that’s inspired countless imitators and ostensibly ushered console gaming to new heights, but also as one of the first portable action titles to display a level of depth traditionally reserved for home consoles. Given the leaps and bounds by which console capabilities have grown in the last few generations, this is one of the only instances that comes to mind of a completely original (in content, if not setting) game based on an existing franchise on a portable system that feels fully realized. From that perspective alone, Liberty City Stories is an extraordinary achievement.