The Grand Theft Auto series and the PlayStation 2 have gone hand in hand, which each game debuting on the PS2 before it travels to other consoles. That all changed with the release of last year's side story, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. This game, designed to take advantage of the PSP's hardware, was an impressive technical feat, managing to pack in a lot of what made the "big" GTA games so memorable. But it fell short in a few key spots, most notably the story, the characters, and the series' biting sense of style and satire. That stuff was easy to overlook when you could carry Liberty City around in your back pocket. But on the PS2, where you can compare it directly to the three Grand Theft Auto games that have appeared there, the whole package is significantly less interesting, even considering the PS2 port's budget price.
Not much has changed, so if you've already played this on the PSP, there's not much reason to take on the PS2 version. The game's got a slightly longer draw distance on the PlayStation 2, and the streets look like they might have a few more people on them. But neither of these things dramatically changes the game, and they can't save the game's otherwise murky visuals and often poor frame rate. But it also controls a little better; with the right analog stick back in effect, you've got all the camera control and other buttons you're used to hitting on the PS2. It's neither elegant nor particularly noteworthy, but if you didn't play it on the PSP, Liberty City Stories' $20 price tag is just right. Just don't go in expecting anything approaching the grandiose nature of GTAIII, let alone the bigger, crazier Vice City or San Andreas. And if you've already played it on the PSP, well, there's little reason to play it again, because this is the same game, with the multiplayer modes stripped out.
As a return to Liberty City, the New York-themed locale first made famous back in Grand Theft Auto III, Liberty City Stories is all about retreading through well-worn territory. If you still remember the streets of Liberty City, you'll see plenty of the same spots here. But as a game that was designed for the less powerful PSP, you'll probably notice that Liberty City Stories is much smaller in scope than what we've seen in the series more recently. Missions, which grew to epic proportions in San Andreas, are much shorter and feel pretty meaningless in LCS. There are plenty of moments where you'll complete a mission and immediately think, "Well, at least I'll never have to do that again." The story, however, is the biggest casualty.
Liberty City Stories tells the tale of one Toni Cipriani, a regular-type mob guy who did a good deed for the head of the Leone crime family, Salvatore Leone. Toni had to go away for awhile, but the heat's died down, and he's back on the job in Liberty City, maintaining his loyalty to Sal while wiping out the family's enemies in droves along the way. As you ascend to become Salvatore's right-hand man, you'll start and finish gang wars with other mafia types, a few triads, the yakuza...pretty much all of the usual suspects are present.
If you're familiar with the various mafia presences over the course of the past three GTA games, you'll recognize a few of the names and faces here. But the story stands alone and doesn't require you to remember the various cast members. That's a good thing, because the mafia characters in the other GTA games have been largely forgettable. The game's storyline really isn't up to par with the console installments in the series, because very little actually happens. Even potential plot points are squandered, like when Toni finally becomes a made man but a bad cutscene doesn't actually show the ceremony. The game's mission path doesn't deviate into crazy territory, and most of the characters are fairly lifeless. There are no enigmatic weirdos like Truth, the crazy hippie from San Andreas, or Steve Scott, the porno director from Vice City, to break up the heavier-handed mafia tasks. This dulls the game's personality, preventing its characters and events from becoming as memorable as we've come to expect from GTA games and their excellent storylines.
If you stick to the missions and don't mess around too much, you can finish the game's story mode in 10 to 12 hours. But the deceptive game-progress counter will only report around 40 percent completion if you stick close to the missions and don't do much else. The game has some rampage side missions and the standard pizza delivery, vigilante, taxi service, and ambulance missions, too. You can seek out ringing pay phones to get into street races. You can report to car lots to sell cars or motorcycles by test-driving vehicles for prospective consumers. And, of course, there are 100 hidden packages to find. If you get into all this optional stuff, there's a lot more city to see, and plenty of different cars to see it in.
The weapons in Liberty City Stories are what you'd expect from a Grand Theft Auto game. You'll start out finding basic pistols, submachine guns, and shotguns, but over time, your enemies will start to drop higher-powered weaponry. You can carry only one weapon of each type at a time, but ammo for one weapon in a class will work for another, so running over weapons is handy for collecting bullets, even if you don't decide to switch out for a lower-powered weapon. The system works roughly the same way that it worked in GTA: Vice City. In fact, the whole game feels like it's the world of Grand Theft Auto III, with some (but not all) of the Vice City enhancements thrown in. The game has motorcycles, for example. You'll also be able to change your clothes, but this works on an entire-outfit level, not on a piece-by-piece level like in San Andreas. You'll occasionally fight alongside other Leone-friendly gangsters, but they're completely controlled by rudimentary artificial intelligence. You can't issue commands to them like you could in San Andreas. Considering how dopey the AI can be in some spots--we witnessed more than one occasion where our allies decided that the best way to get closer to their target was to run in place up against a wall--a simple "get over here" command would have been handy.
The audio end of Liberty City Stories is structured identically to how it's done in the "big" games, but again, on a slightly smaller scale. The cutscenes are given full speech, and for the most part, the characters are well-portrayed and voiced, even if you don't recognize most of the names in the credits. Whenever you're in a car, you can listen to a handful of different radio stations; as you'd expect, it's here where the game gets its jokes in. From commercials telling you that the Internet is clearly a tool of the devil that ruins lives (which is true) to ads for generic mascot-driven kart-racing games, there's a lot of funny stuff here. However, the radio stations loop more frequently than you'd probably like, presumably due to this being a port of a PSP game and the storage limitations of the original version's UMD format.
The music in the past two Grand Theft Auto games has been incredibly important in setting the game's tone. The '80s music in Vice City and the rap stations in San Andreas were key to both the tone and the pace of those two games. Liberty City Stories' soundtrack doesn't really serve as the same type of pop-culture touchstone. The rap station, hosted by DJ Clue, depicts a pretty accurate take on late-'90s East Coast mix tape and rap radio. A bunch of the music on the other stations, however, was custom-written for the game, with a focus on sounding sort of like various forms of pop music. While 1998 might be a little too recent to get nostalgic about, there's still a bunch of really awful boy-band pop music from 1997 and 1998 that would have made for perfect "driving around and running over cops" music, so it's disappointing that some higher-profile stuff didn't get licensed.
In the end, Liberty City Stories pales in comparison to the "real" Grand Theft Auto games developed by Rockstar North, and this port to PS2 feels suspiciously like a cash-in, something the megapopular series has been very careful about in the past. Without the benefit of running on a portable platform, all of this game's problems stick out in a much more noticeable fashion. The writing isn't up to par with the past games, the mission design is often dull, and overall, the game feels like the mechanics of GTA, without the attention to detail and care that was put into the previous console installments of the game. That said, since it's available for only $20, some of these things can be overlooked--but make sure to set your expectations accordingly.