The phenomenally popular Grand Theft Auto franchise debuted on the PSP last year with Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. The game was a technical achievement for the PSP and revisited Liberty City, which was first introduced in 3D in Grand Theft Auto III. For Vice City Stories, Rockstar has taken a familiar route, with the game serving as a prequel to GTA: Vice City, yet it's also a title that ups the ante again, with a much bigger game and some notable enhancements. Although Vice City Stories is not without its problems, it remains one of the best games on the PSP and dethrones its predecessor as the most technically impressive piece of work on Sony's handheld.
Vice City Stories is set in 1984. You assume the role of Vic Vance, the brother of Lance Vance, one of the more memorable characters from Vice City. Vance has just joined the army - originally with the intentions of supporting his sick brother and the rest of the family. However, Vic's commanding officer Jerry Martinez starts him off in the wrong foot - initially, you're picking up a parcels for Martinez, but after the first few missions you're involved in killing gang members and causing general chaos. Vic's a bit of a different character though; normally the central characters in Grand Theft Auto titles don't have a conscience and are just out for revenge. Vic on the other hand is just doing it all for the money to support his family.
You actually begin in the army base this time around, and certain parts of the map remain locked for a while, due to a "hurricane warning". If you're a diehard fan of the original Vice City then you'll be pleased to know that this game pays homage to its predecessor. The memorable characters like Phil Cassidy, Lance Vance and Ricardo Diaz all appear again. For the most part Vice City looks pretty similar to its console counterpart, though there are a few minor additions; for example, you'll notice there is now a Chunder Wheel near Vice Beach. If you played the original religiously, then certain locales will be instantly familiar.
It wouldn't be a Grand Theft Auto title without side missions and Vice City Stories serves up a bundle of them. The usual ambulance, firefighting and vigilante missions have made it into the game, and getting up to a certain level on each of them will give you a reward too, so you'll want to do them nice and early. The game also implements a gang system where you can try and takeover businesses in Vice City. Certain businesses can be taken over by causing an argument with fellow gang members. All you need to do is kill all the gang members around the business, then take a baseball bat to the business and buy the property. After you've done this you can earn cash off the business and it becomes a save point. You can also upgrade the businesses by doing missions.
There are also 99 red balloons scattered throughout the city, which you need to shoot down in order to achieve 100% completion. The unique jumps, which have always been a fun way to kill time have made a return, as have the rampages. There are lots of little things hidden throughout the city too; you can ride the ferris wheel, drive a beach buggy and save swimmers on Washington Beach or practice your shooting at Phil Cassidy's gun range.
The game also features all new forms of vehicular control. You can now take to the skies in a helicopter or to the seas in a boat. There are also unique jumps to be found for the boats, which handle really well. The helicopters take a little getting used too, although after a while it becomes second nature. The cars handle similarly to how they did in Liberty City Stories, which means you'll have a lot of fun sliding around the corners while evading the police.
Rockstar has tested the waters a little with the multiplayer in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories and have extended upon it for this game. Firstly, the bad news is that the game doesn't feature online play, which is something which would have been a massive asset for the game. However, the game does support up to six players via ad hoc. There are ten multiplayer modes to choose from, ranging from the usual (Deathmatch and Race) through to the unusual (Empire Takedown). In Empire Takedown, your entire gang has to try and plant a bomb at your rivals' area and defend the bomb for sixty seconds. There's also a multiplayer mode where you have to try and race to get to the famous hunter helicopter before your opponent. Multiplayer is a lot of fun if you can find people to play against and certainly feels less like an afterthought than it did in Liberty City Stories, with such a wide range of choices.
Gameplay-wise it's still just as enjoyable to fire a grenade launcher at nearby police officers or hop in a car and start a twenty-minute long pursuit. The game does have a few problems that are more to do with the limitations of the hardware, rather than poor development choices. The melee combat is average, you can block attacks but if there is more than one person coming at you then you're basically forced to retreat and use a weapon. When using a weapon the game has an auto-targeting system where it highlights the most threatening enemies for you to kill. Occasionally the game will highlight an innocent civilian if they're closer than the nearest enemy, but otherwise this mechanic is solid. Once you get the hang of cycling through targets using the left and right on the control pad it's easy to rack up multiple kills very quickly.
The camera is a little harder to control. You can reset the camera but occasionally you'll see an environmental hazard in front of you whilst you're trying to shoot at an enemy. Liberty City Stories also had draw distance issues which are still present in Vice City Stories, although not nearly as detrimental. Occasionally you'll drive into a picket fence or a wall that just popped up out of nowhere, but it isn't as frequent this time around. The game's frame rate can also slow down when there is a lot happening at once. However, from a technical perspective the level of detail visible at once is astounding.
Graphically the game has been upgraded from its predecessor, with everything just looking a little bit better than in Liberty City Stories, although this could be due to the fact that Vice City has a better setting. Rockstar has captured the look of the 80's perfectly with plenty of neon lights, terribly 80's clothing and gigantic pagers. The game really is a technical achievement, if only because Rockstar has managed to recreate a console experience on a handheld.
As with any Grand Theft Auto title, the audio in Vice City Stories is simply amazing and the soundtrack is easily one of the best soundtracks in any game. As Vice City Stories is a return to the 80's, so is the soundtrack. There are eight stations which play music (V Rock, Flash FM, Emotion 98.3, Fresh 105, Paradise FM, VCFL, Wave and Radio Esperanto) and a talkback radio station (VCPR) where you can tune in to some of the opinions of Vice City's wildest civilians. The radio stations don't just play music, but also treat you to hilarious advertisements and some brilliant DJs, with the marvellous Hector Hernandez returning as DJ for Radio Esperanto. There are over 100 fully licensed songs in the game, including many memorable ones, with I Want to Know What Love Is from Foreigner and In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins amongst the highlights. As long as you like 80's music you're bound to have something to sing along too most of the time. A few times I actually found myself driving around just so I didn't have to get out of the car and could continue listening to the music.
Occasionally there are some sound issues though. When you first hop into a car it takes a few seconds for the radio stations to load and every now and then the sound will cut out whilst the UMD loads the music. It's not a major concern, but it can be annoying. Even the voice acting is pretty stellar, with protaganist Vic voiced convincingly and the other characters in the game thoroughly realistic. Likewise, the weapon effects and car noises are also of a high quality. This really helps to bring together an immersive experience that is unparalleled by any other PSP title.
As with every other Grand Theft Auto title, if you finish the Story mode then there's still plenty to keep you going, with side missions, hidden packages and a decent multiplayer mode all available. You'll probably pull the game out occasionally to just drive around the city causing carnage. The only thing that would have made the game last longer is an online network, but we can imagine that this is much more easily said than done.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories is simply a superb title. The game is not without its faults but they are quickly overshadowed by the sheer enjoyment you will get out of the game. Rockstar have learnt a lot in a year and Vice City Stories is one of the most enjoyable titles on the PSP yet. If you're a Grand Theft Auto fan, or own a PSP then there should be no hesitation to picking this game up.