Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories

This is exactly the problem with the PSP.

Here you have Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, another entry in the nigh-unstoppable Rockstar franchise, and it’s been a hot seller for the PlayStation Portable, but what is it really? More of the same thing.

Worse, it’s more of the same thing that was better in the home version.

Don’t get me wrong, Vice City Stories is a fun game. It’s great to cruise around the Miami-esque corruption-filled Vice City again, and the story –- involving a down-on-his-luck soldier -– is well-written, but what separates it from the last Grand Theft Auto game on the PSP?

The gameplay is nearly identical to 2005’s Liberty City Stories, and as of March of ’07, both titles will be able to be purchased for the Playstation 2 (the port for Liberty City Stories was released last June), where most gamers are used to playing car thief anyway. Luckily, the gameplay doesn’t suffer too much from the change in system. Sure, it’d be nice to blast away at innocent pedestrians with a DualShock, but the developers showed with Liberty City Stories that they could easily adapt their winning controls to the more limited button choices of the PSP. Plus, being a driving and action game first and shooter second, the game doesn’t suffer from the need to have the amazing first-person shooter engine that, sadly, the PSP hasn’t really supported as of yet.

The primary problem is that PSP developers don’t understand the merits of the system they’re creating games for. The PSP is a handheld platform, meaning gamers are more likely to play games for short periods while away from home (making long and complicated missions and long trips to save points annoying) and the screen is tiny compared to most TVs, meaning the amazing visuals will be lost on gamers.

The game itself follows the tried and true formula of the past several Grand Theft Auto games. Taking place at a non-specific mid-80s time in a generic-yet-familiar city, random acts of mayhem are set to the best music the game’s producers could pay for. With the promise of Quiet Riot, Ted Nugent and Pat Benatar to look forward to, changing stations with each new ride was worth it. Still, funny DJ banter and classic tunes do not a great game make.

If the PSP is to present a real challenge to Nintendo’s current domination of the handheld games market -– movies and extras aside -– Sony’s partners need to change the way they make games. As much fun as I had with Vice City Stories (and its Liberty City predecessor), I’d rather have the option of shorter missions, instant saves and a new style of gameplay. Remember the classic top-down Grand Theft Auto games that kicked this franchise off the ground? Those games seemed outmoded on the 3D-heavy original Playstation, but they would be perfect for the smaller screen and limited memory of the PSP.

Sony, I’m talking to you here. Different systems need different games. Nintendo knows this. That’s why The Minish Cap is the perfect Game Boy Advance app and Twilight Princess can sell so many Wiis. Dark and gritty 3D just wouldn’t be right for a handheld Zelda game and there’s no way the top-down incarnation of Zelda would feel right on the motion-sensitive next gen system. If Nintendo can do this, why can’t the self-proclaimed industry leader?

How about changing the Grand Theft Auto formula again? They did it when going from II to III and from III to Vice City, why not do it again? With so much controversy around violent games that glorify murder, theft, prostitution, drug use and other pastimes of our nation’s youth, it’s a wonder the industry’s poster boys for violence don’t try something new. Anyone who’s seen the Coca-Cola parody can see the virtue of free will in gaming. Why not give players the option of not breaking the law for a change, and give them exciting rewards for doing so? I know, I know, that sounds insane, but anything would be nice for a change of pace –- even being nice.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories is a blast to play, but if you’ve played any other Grand Theft Auto game in the past five years, you’ve already played this one. Here’s hoping Rockstar can come up with something a bit more specifically for the PSP next time.

RATING 6 / 10