Rockstar's juggernaut Grand Theft Auto series debuted on the PlayStation Portable late last year in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, a side-story prequel to the events that took place in Grand Theft Auto III for the PlayStation 2. With Liberty City Stories, Rockstar successfully translated its open-ended world of crime to a handheld system, though not without a few missteps. Enter Vice City Stories, the newly released PSP GTA game that follows a similar side-story formula. Vice City Stories improves upon some of the flaws found in the first game, not the least of which is improved length and direction, as well as a great deal more personality. The story's still pretty subpar, though, and as much as this is very much Grand Theft Auto, certain conventions of the series are starting to feel a bit antiquated. Still, if you want to roam around a large city, shooting up the place and driving like a crazy person, few games on the PSP let you do that as well as this one does.
Vice City Stories returns to the pastel- and neon-colored excesses of the 1980s and Vice City. Modeled after '80s-era Miami, GTA: Vice City told a Scarface-inspired tale of Tommy Vercetti, a shunned mobster who found himself sifting through the aftermath of a cocaine deal gone wrong, and subsequently ended up building a major criminal empire throughout the city. It was a bizarre, convoluted, and completely entertaining tale, filled with ridiculous and profane characters, as well as lots of biting satire on the most superficial of decades. Vice City Stories is, again, a prequel, taking place a couple of years prior to the original game. You play as Vic Vance, the brother of central Vice City character Lance Vance. Vic's a strange fellow. When the game begins, he's just joined the army, and he gets off the transport truck at a military base in Vice City. Upon meeting his commanding officer--a borderline psychotic named Jerry Martinez--things start going wrong. We find out that Vic has joined the military to make some money to support his family, specifically his sick brother. But within the first few minutes of the game, you'll find yourself inexplicably picking up drugs for Martinez, killing Mexican gang members, and chauffeuring prostitutes.
Of course, any veteran of this series won't be shocked one bit by missions like these. The trouble here is that the setup for getting Vic into this mess is beyond flimsy. From the get-go, Vic talks about how uncomfortable he is with illegal activities, and yet he does every single illicit thing Martinez asks him to do. If you're someone who doesn't want to do anything illegal, and your boss starts asking you to pick up hookers and hide drugs for him, are you going to just gripe about it and then do it anyway? Not to mention that Vic seems completely willing to run into an apartment complex and start wasting Mexicans without even being ordered specifically to do so. He just says, "I'll go get it" (referring to owed money stashed inside one of the apartments) and goes in guns blazing. GTA heroes are never heroes, exactly, but the trick in the past has been that there's been no attempt to play those characters up as sympathetic. They weren't boy scouts--they were gangsters, killers, and dope dealers. Vice City Stories tries to present Vic as a guy who doesn't want to get into that stuff, yet he freely and frequently does throughout the entire game. He mostly comes off as a hypocritical idiot.
For what it's worth, though, once you get through about the first hour of the game, you'll probably be inclined to stop questioning why Vic is doing what he's doing and just go with it. As time passes, the game settles into the typical progression of GTA missions and oddball characters. While Liberty City Stories was almost devoid of memorable characters, Vice City Stories digs up a few favorites from the original Vice City, and introduces a couple of new ones as well. Vic's mildly crazy brother Lance, the alcoholic gun nut Phil Cassidy, the balls-obsessed Cuban gang leader Umberto Robina, and the foul-mouthed Ricardo Diaz (voiced by Phillip Michael Thomas, Gary Busey, Danny Trejo, and Luis Guzman, respectively) are all back. Lance plays a huge role in the story, but the others aren't quite as prominently featured as they were in the first game. Still, you get a good chunk of time with each of them.
Functionally, Vice City Stories plays very much as Liberty City Stories did. The same basic control adjustments made in the previous game to make up for the lack of a right analog stick on the PSP are made here. When running around and shooting people, you simply press the right trigger to lock onto an enemy. Occasionally the game will lock onto random civilians, as opposed to the guy with the submachine gun blowing a hole in your head, but usually it's pretty good about identifying exactly whom you should be killing. Camera control is mapped to the left trigger, and basically all you can do is whip it behind you if you get too turned around. This will lead to occasional scenarios where you're being shot from behind and have to take a couple of extra seconds to turn your character, and then the camera, to see where to shoot.
Mostly, though, the combat is quite fun. Running around causing mayhem and blasting away at the masses is just as enjoyable as it's ever been, and there's a good variety of guns and other instruments of destruction to play with. The one part that isn't so good, unfortunately, is the melee combat. Basic fisticuffs and blunt-object beatings are merely a bit clunky, but if you try to get yourself into a fight while holding a gun at close range to someone punching you in the face, you'll lose every time, unless you run a good distance away, turn back, and start firing. For some reason, the game just can't deal with aiming mechanics while you're face-to-face with an enemy; you're basically hosed.
Vice City is a sizable open-world environment, and driving around it can be a bit overwhelming at first. Odds are that unless you've had Vice City regularly inserted in your PS2 for the last couple of years, you won't remember too much of the city's layout. But even though it'll take a while to figure out all the roads and side streets, there's plenty of familiar scenery and landmarks that appear just about where you remember them. The game's minimap is about as useful as it's ever been in depicting where you are, and there is a larger map to check on in the pause menu. Still, it feels a bit antiquated, especially considering evolutions we've seen in recent games of this type, where the best possible paths for a mission are highlighted on the map. Heck, even an arrow pointer telling you where to turn would be nice.
Driving in the game is pretty much as it's been for years now. The vehicle physics are perhaps a bit more exaggerated than they were in Liberty City Stories, and that's both a blessing and a curse. It's extremely easy to spin out while taking turns in many of the game's cars, trucks, and motorcycles, but at the same time, some of the jumps and ridiculous crashes you can have make those wacked-out physics worthwhile. You will run into weird physics glitches from time to time, and you'll sometimes get stuck in pieces of the scenery. These issues aren't exactly new to the series, but they're as annoying as ever. In addition to cars and bikes, helicopters make their return in Vice City Stories, and they're among some of the most enjoyable vehicles in the game. The flying controls are surprisingly easy to handle, even with the lack of a right analog stick, and flying around the city is often much quicker than trying to drive it.
Liberty City Stories may have had all the usual GTA mission types, but it shortened nearly all of them to the point where it barely felt like you were doing anything of consequence. Vice City Stories corrects this by extending out the majority of its missions a great deal. You'll run into plenty of multitiered missions, with several objectives that appear over time. Of course, that does limit the appeal of the game as a handheld game, since it's tougher to play in quick bursts. But the tradeoff is that the missions are just better this time around. Yes, you're still killing rival gang members, stealing contraband, chasing down crooks in cars, and the like, but these missions are much more satisfying than anything found in LCS, and it'll take you a decent bit longer to complete the main story than the 10 hours or so that it did in last year's game.
Of course, story missions aren't the only thing to do in Vice City Stories. Along with the usual types of firefighting and vigilante missions, there's a whole empire system to contend with. The premise here is that each of the city's gangs holds a number of businesses around the city. These properties can house any number of illegal activities, ranging from prostitution and loan sharking to smuggling and drug dealing. As it happens, you can take over these businesses by sparking a fight with the gang members inside. Once you do, all you have to do is kill all the nearby gang members, walk inside the business, and smash up the place. After that's done, you can buy the property and install whatever type of illegal venture you please. Doing this earns you a nice chunk of cash each day, and each business you open acts as a save point. Making these business save points seems like Rockstar's way of trying to circumvent the limited save-point issue with the game design, but not being able to just save anywhere in a handheld game is still extremely annoying.
The game gives you the option to upgrade each of these businesses over time, both by simply sinking more cash into them, or by doing missions to up each business' reputation. Unfortunately, the missions are woefully uninspired. Each mission tasks you with 15 objectives done consecutively, though in reality, it's more like two. For a prostitution business, for example, you will pick up a hooker, drive her to a client, then pick up another hooker, drive her to another client, go pick up the first hooker, drive her to a new client, go grab the second hooker, chase down the client who ran off without paying, drive that second hooker to a new client, go back and rescue the first hooker from a client trying to beat her up, and so on, and so on, and so on. Calling these missions repetitive would be the understatement of a lifetime. In truth, the amount of cash you get just by leaving businesses at their default reputation is plenty, especially after you take over several of them, so there's no real reason to ever want to bother with the missions.
Multiplayer content returns to Vice City Stories as well, and it's a bit more fleshed out than in the last game. Up to six players can play via ad hoc, though unfortunately, there's still no online play. Apart from basic deathmatches and races, there's a variety of modes, including empire takedown, in which your gang must plant a bomb at the rival gang's base and defend it for 60 seconds to win; might of the hunter, which has you and your opponents racing for a hunter helicopter, with the successful player trying to kill the other players with it, and the other players trying to shoot it down; and taken for a ride, which tasks your team with stealing the rival gang's cars and transporting them back to your base without getting them destroyed or getting your own cars jacked. There are 10 modes in all, and for the most part, these modes seem better thought-out than in LCS. Still, your ability to have fun with them is entirely reliant on how many people you're able to get together to play with. Playing in these exceptionally large maps with just two, or even four, players makes it feel vacant and dull.
One aspect that Vice City did better than anything before it (including Grand Theft Auto III) was atmosphere, and Vice City Stories is just about as good in this regard. Everything about the cheeseball decade of the 1980s is on display here. Neon lights, slick sports cars, awful fashion, and fantastic music all permeate the experience. This game nails the same look that Vice City had, and the basic graphics engine looks a good bit better than it did in Liberty City Stories, especially regarding the frame rate, which stays largely consistent throughout the game. A few technical limitations do tend to still get in the way. The game's lighting is sometimes a bit off-putting, especially around sunset. It just makes everything look rather dark, and sometimes the glare from the sun will totally obscure your ability to see anything on the screen other than bright light. The biggest issue with Liberty City Stories was the fact that the environmental streaming would sometimes lag behind as you drove around, forcing you to watch big texture chunks pop in and even run into walls you simply didn't know were there. This is still an issue in Vice City Stories, though it's not quite as bad. You'll still run into fences you didn't know were there, and roads and buildings will regularly go from fully textured to crappy looking and back.
The game's audio is easily the high point. Vic, annoying as he is, is voiced well, as are the other characters voiced by celebrities and unfamiliar actors alike. The writing is still sharp, even if the overall storyline isn't. Of course, no GTA game is worth much without great radio stations, and much the way that Vice City set the standard for how music in games ought to be handled, Vice City Stories delivers another fantastic soundtrack. The same selection of radio stations from the PS2 game is on hand here, letting you enjoy the best of '80s rock, pop, dance, and hip-hop, among other genres. There are too many songs to list, but particularly atmospheric highlights include Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," Quiet Riot's "Metal Health (Bang Your Head)," and Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield." Of course, the mix goes much deeper and more eclectic than this, but it'd take forever to list all the fantastic songs included in the game.
The radio DJ chatter was another huge highlight of Vice City, and Vice City Stories brings back all the best DJs and their parodic banter. The best one of all is Fresh FM DJ Luke "Skywalker" Campbell, whom hip-hop aficionados will recognize as the foul-mouthed, sex-crazed mastermind of 2 Live Crew. You'll also hear plenty of bizarre, hysterically funny radio commercials that take plenty of jabs at the cinema, TV, music, fashion, and politics of the '80s. If there's any specific difference between the comedy in Vice City and that found in Vice City Stories, is that Vice City Stories is a bit meaner, a bit darker in its edge. Vice City certainly had its dark moments, but VCS seems a little more bent on taking angry jabs at aspects of American culture than the first game. This is less a flaw and more a stylistic choice, really. In fact, the only flaw with the audio at all is that it has a bad tendency to skip as you're driving around. You'll hear the UMD thrashing as it tries to keep up with the audio streaming, and you'll get occasional chunks of silence while it does this. This never seems to happen during cutscenes or when you're just walking around, but the radio will skip around a fair bit.
Vice City Stories is certainly an enjoyable follow-up to what Liberty City Stories offered last year. It's unfortunate that Rockstar wasn't able to craft a story as compelling as that of the console GTA games, and some of the technical limitations of the game engine are really beginning to stick out. Still, Vice City Stories does Grand Theft Auto in portable fashion quite well. It may not take the series into any kind of new territory, but it does the things it needs to in order to be an enjoyable GTA game more than well enough.