The most common bit of praise that will probably be heaped on Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is how well it has made the jump to a portable system. Where it stumbles is that it has brought every one of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series' faults along too, before adding a few new ones of its own—problems that are only magnified by the game's portability.
Liberty City Stories is well-worn territory for those familiar with the series: a third-person action/driving hybrid that allows the player to climb up a city's crime hierarchy by committing increasingly large acts of larceny, harassment and murder.
From a technical standpoint, there's no argument that Liberty City Stories is an achievement. It looks and feels much like its home console brethren, with an intricately detailed city which only requires loading between the three islands that make up the playing area. Very little has been spared graphically in the move to the PSP and in that regard, the console switch was a success. The radio stations that have been with the series since its inception are here too, and the hosts and commercials are as well-written and -performed as ever.
The characters (many of which will be familiar to fans of the series, including lead character Toni Cipriani, last seen as a secondary GTA 3 character) are also voiced well, though with none of the star power of previous GTA titles. It's a shame that the characters are placed in a story that never seems to go anywhere, with most of its few key plot points bungled. This is a problem that is new to the PSP GTA. A series hallmark is an overarching story with a momentum that propels the player from mission to mission. That's seriously lacking here, and not having good reason to play missions becomes more of an Achilles' heel when missions begin getting excessively frustrating.
A lackluster story and a lack of big name voice acting wouldn't condemn the title alone. What does it in, and what is just plain puzzling, is how control problems from previous titles have not only persisted, but grown on the portable system.
Vehicle control is predictably great, and vehicles still handle just as smoothly on the PSP, but on-foot travel is the sloppiest the series as seen. Perhaps series fans have gotten used to it, but why the main character must always come to a skidding stop while running (making quick turning impossible) is beyond me.
The gunplay (always a stumbling block for the GTA games) is similarly weak. Rockstar was close to getting it right in GTA: San Andreas, but it has actually regressed to the worst the series has ever seen. It's a far too common occurrence to pull the auto-targeting trigger while Toni is face-to-face with an enemy, only to have him turn the opposite direction to try to blast a civilian 50 feet away. Making only a few guns able to be shot during movement also makes for plenty of deaths while cycling through weapons and frustration.
When it's almost impossible to escape quickly on foot, and Toni seems to enjoy gunning down everyone except the guy filling him with lead, the end result is many cheap deaths, and heaps of unwelcome opportunities to repeat levels. As per usual in a GTA title, that means finding wheels, stocking up on ammo and returning to the mission point. While this legwork may be fine for home consoles, it's a horrid fit for bite-sized portable gaming where the entirety of a quick session can be eaten up by travel and five to six second loading times before and after cutscenes.
What would have made much more sense for a portable GTA would be an option upon death to try the mission again with no loading, no driving, no cutscenes, and all my guns and ammo intact, which would have made a lot of the gameplay issues more forgivable.
I'm aware that some of these issues have plagued the series for years, but this is its sixth major iteration—there's just no excuse anymore. Moreover, in the case of Liberty City Stories these problems have crippled the game on the PSP in a way they never have on home consoles.
That's not to say there's no fun to be had. Die-hard fans of the series (of which the cash registers would indicate there are many) will probably relish in being able to be Liberty City crime lords on the go. And admittedly, a lack of real quality titles in the PSP line-up right now might make the game's flaws more forgivable to those who have already sunk hundreds of bucks into Sony's portable system. But its hard to imagine that a steady stream of frustration won't eventually tire even the faithful … or the desperate.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of Liberty City Stories will be to serve as a cautionary tale. As the power of portables becomes more analogous to home consoles, developers will be well-served to remember that even though the screen may be smaller, it does a great job of magnifying flaws.