Despite its many technical problems I couldn’t help but be impressed with Rockstar’s first Grand Theft Auto game for the PSP, Liberty City Stories. It represented the first time a 3D version of the series had shown up on a portable game system, and lo and behold they managed to make it work surprisingly well. Here we are one year later and Rockstar is back with their second attempt at the franchise on Sony’s PlayStation Portable, and not only have they managed to improve on the original’s experience, but they’ve created one of the best portable games I have ever seen.
Welcome to Vice City … again. This is Vice City Stories, a prequel to 2002’s runaway PlayStation 2 hit, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Set in 1984, Vice City Stories is the beginning of the modern Grand Theft Auto tale. As you might expect from a prequel like this, Vice City Stories manages to introduce us to several popular characters and makes a lot of fun of things that eventually happen in future installments. The game still does offer a few PSP specific quirks, but ultimately this is a much smoother game than Liberty City Stories. The Grand Theft Auto series has never been known for its flawless technical prowess, so expecting such from a handheld game is unrealistic.
Vice City Stories tells the tale of Vic Vance, brother of Lance Vance (who you may remember from his turn in the original Vice City). After being drummed out of the Army, Vic finds himself running missions in order to make money to support your ailing brother. At first Vic seems completely against the idea of doing any kind of illegal activity, but it doesn’t take long before he gives in and spends the rest of the game delivering drugs, running from the police and killing hundreds of people.
Eventually Lance Vance shows up in Vice City to create some real problems. Together Vic and Lance piss off a bunch of drug lords and other gangster types and are forced to figure out a bunch of creative ways to keep the heat off of them. In your time in Vice City you will meet a number of memorable characters, including an abusive white trash husband, a pre-op transsexual, a whole lot of Cubans, and even Phil Collins. Yes, that Phil Collins.
The game’s progression is no different from that of any Grand Theft Auto title; you make your way from mission to mission in a semi-non linear fashion. That’s to say, you will occasionally have the choice of which mission you want to do first, ultimately leading you through several different story lines that eventually get wrapped up in a fairly satisfying way. If you’ve played any of Rockstar Games’ recent games you will no doubt recognize what’s going on here, this is all standard stuff by now and it’s clear that Vice City Stories is not trying to reinvent the franchise.
Rockstar Games is often hailed as one of the few game developers that really understands how to weave an interesting story. While that’s definitely true here, early on this game asks you to trust it. Although Vic starts the game as a new Army recruit, he’ll be asked to do some pretty questionable acts. Literally the first thing you do is secure some drugs, kill a bunch of Cubans and pick up a hooker for your superior officer, Sgt. Martinez. All of this seems a little out of place at first, but eventually the story calms down and turns into a traditional Grand Theft Auto plot.
The area of Vice City is largely unchanged from the version found in the 2002 Grand Theft Auto game. It’s an island city that is an homage to the fictional movie versions of Miami, Florida. If you loved Miami Vice or Scarface (the movie, not the terrible game) then you’ll feel right at home with this over-the-top location. Initially Vice City is split into two large sections connected by four bridges. At first you will only be able to access the western half of the city, but after completing a few missions you will be able to go wherever your heart desires.
Where Liberty City was a dark and depressing metropolis setting, Vice City brings a lot of vibrant colors to your PSP. There’s just something uplifting about motoring around the beach locale, full of women in bikinis and beautiful sunsets. It doesn’t matter that you’re being asked to do some of the most dastardly acts known to man; it just feels a lot more upbeat when you’re doing it in the gorgeous weather of Vice City.
One of the biggest problems I had with last year’s Grand Theft Auto game was that the missions were too short and simple. To make the game more accessible for the portable Rockstar decided to make it possible to beat all of the missions in only a few minutes, which really limited the types of things you could do in the game. Too much of that game was spent just driving people around and gunning people down, it just didn’t feel like the Grand Theft Auto games we are used to. Thankfully Rockstar got the memo, because Vice City Stories ditches the short missions and offers us lengthy tasks that have multiple parts. Now a mission may have three or four different things to do before you complete it, which certainly goes a long way to make this feel like a traditional Grand Theft Auto experience. This also makes the game a lot more difficult than before, but it’s no more difficult than what we saw in San Andreas.
While it’s true that most of Vice City Stories is the same old formula that worked in all of the other Grand Theft Auto games, there is at least one interesting piece of game play added to the mix. Well, “interesting” may be overselling it a bit. This time around you will be able to build up businesses and go on connected missions. There are a few dozen businesses scattered around Vice City, each requiring you to evict the current owners (generally by starting a big gang war) and starting anew. When the businesses are in your control you will be able to choose between several different types of jobs, including money laundering, drug dealing, prostitution and so on. As you take over these various businesses you will gain extra money which you can use to buy new weapons and land. There are missions associated with these businesses, but they are wholly uninteresting and certainly not worth talking about. While I like that Rockstar is trying something new, there’s something about this aspect of the game that doesn’t feel right when you’re going through the rest of the game.
Vice City Stories manages to upgrade the Liberty City Stories engine in a number of substantial ways, many of which you will immediately notice. For one thing the graphics are significantly better than they were in last year’s PSP Grand Theft Auto. Everything runs a lot smoother and there’s not nearly as much pop-in as we saw in last year’s model. Better yet, this time around you will actually be able to swim … which makes a whole lot of sense with all that pesky water everywhere. Since Tommy Vercetti never took swimming lessons as a kid, this is the first time you will be able to adventure into the Vice City water without a boat of some kind.
One of the biggest improvements over Liberty City Stories comes in the way of helicopters. Just like in the original Vice City, players will have a chance to take to the skies and explore the tops of buildings. The helicopter controls feel pretty good on the PSP; I ended up having a lot of fun just flying around the city while playing it on the go. There are a few pop-in problems associated with the helicopters, but they are kept to a minimum and aren’t very distracting.
Along with the helicopters you will also notice that the speed boats and jet skis have been completely overhauled. No longer are the water crafts something to avoid, now it’s actually a lot of fun to speed through the clear Vice City waterways. As I piloted by jet ski from one island to the other I couldn’t help but be reminded of Nintendo’s classic Wave Race series, which is certainly an improvement over what we’ve seen in past Grand Theft Auto outings. There are still a few water vehicles that will drive you crazy (I’m looking at you, hovercraft), but you will be able to avoid most of those in the course of the game.
Although it doesn’t play a major role in the game, it’s worth mentioning that Rockstar decided to add the bicycle made famous in San Andreas. I didn’t notice it until late into the game, but after I located my first bike I ended up ripping through the town in a way that seemed more personal than before.
But the vehicles and graphics aren’t the only things improved in this second Grand Theft Auto game for the PSP. This time around we actually get a radio that’s worth listening to. If you’re one of the two million gamers who played Liberty City Stories last year then chances are you noticed that the soundtrack was not up to snuff. It’s not that the music was bad, but given its 1990s setting most people were hoping for some big name bands, perhaps a Nirvana, Metallica, Pearl Jam or something. Instead we got a bunch of no-name artists cluttering up the airwaves.
This time around Rockstar decided to go all out and give us some real 1980s tunes to listen to. Despite the fact that it is running on a small UMD disc, Vice City Stories manages to pack in 105 songs from the decade that brought us big hair, tight fitting pants and sexually confused men. The music is split up into nine different radio stations, from your rock to your new wave to your rap. You’ll be driving around the city listening to selections from Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, INSX, Hall & Oates, 10CC, Eddie Money, Run DMC, Rick James, Barry White, Blondie, New Order, Human League and dozens more. If you get sick of all that music, there’s even a way to insert your own custom soundtrack. And if that’s not enough, Vice City Stories even continues the tradition of including a hilarious talk radio station full of jokes about the era.
The great audio doesn’t end with the music; you will also find that the voice acting is top notch. While last year’s game didn’t feature a lot of recognizable names, this time around we actually have a few voices you might know. The most obvious character would be Phillip Michael Thomas (Miami Vice) who reprises his Lance Vance role. Also included are Gary Busey (The Buddy Holly Story), Luis Guzman (Boogie Nights) and Phil Collins as himself.
Phil Collins may seem like a strange choice at first, but given the context of the story it makes complete sense. While he won’t be giving out orders, you will have to drive and protect Phil Collins as he attempts to play a sold out concert in Vice City. These moments with Phil Collins are among the most inspired in the entire game. There’s a moment towards the end of the game where you actually get to help Phil put on a show that is easily one of the greatest moments in Grand Theft Auto history. The moments with the ex-Genesis leader are almost worth the price of admission alone. You can tell he had a lot of fun playing a fictional version of himself from 22 years ago, and Rockstar even managed to get three different Phil Collins songs on the soundtrack.
The game does suffer from some of the same game play quirks that plagued last year’s PSP title. The lack of the second analog stick is just as noticeable this year as it was last, and some of the vehicles are a bit on the floaty side. For the most part this isn’t that big of a deal, but there are a few times in the game where it can really get in the way (and even make it hard to play). For example, it’s almost impossible to do a drive-by shooting, since you can’t look over and steer at the same time. This is only complicated by the fact that Rockstar insists on creating missions where you have to do drive-by shootings. Either way, these problems aren’t enough to keep you from having a good time with the game, and they give you something to blame when you die for no reason.
Just like Liberty City Stories, Vice City Stories gives you several different multiplayer games that you can play with up to six different players. These modes aren’t all that different from what we’ve seen in other multiplayer games, but they can be a lot of fun given the Vice City surroundings. There’s a traditional deathmatch mode, a fun variation on the capture the flag game type, a team mode and more. These modes are a nice addition to the lengthy single-player experience, but you can only play them with people that are in the same room (there is no online support in Vice City Stories).
Vice City Stories doesn’t attempt to reinvent the Grand Theft Auto formula, it’s very much more of the same. Thankfully the same can still be a whole lot of fun. You’ll have a blast going through the colorful streets of Vice City, no matter if you’re on foot, on a motorcycle, in a helicopter, in a boat or on a bicycle. Along with great graphics and voice acting, Vice City Stories also features one of the best video game soundtracks you will ever hear. If you’re not sick of the traditional Grand Theft Auto experience then this is one game you won’t want to miss out on this year.