Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories PSP Review

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories PSP Review

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1/18/2007 2:09:36 AM
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories PSP Review

By Rich Dixon

Every now and then you can catch a glimpse of what might have been for the PSP. By now we've all pretty much given up on our original fever dreams of what might have been possible for the PSP. We know that the PSP will likely never have a deep library of exclusive titles, since most developers seem content to think of it as nothing more than a target for cheap ports and half-assed upgrades of ancient titles from their vaults. The original promise that the PSP would be a multi-function device has failed in the face of bad user experience (the text-input scheme on the web browser), peripherals that are overpriced, underutilized, or generally unavailable in the U.S. (as is the case with the digital camera and GPS accessories), or mysterious Sony reticence to release something that a lot of us would like to have (namely, an external keyboard). Those still hopeful for the PSP as a platform have mostly set their sights on the PSP2, but every now and then a game comes along that makes you remember what the PSP could and should have been.

Usually, that game is a product of Rockstar Studios, and the latest example is "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories."

If this game had been produced by any other studio, it would have been completely different. First, it would not have been a brand-new, exclusive title for the PSP; instead, it would have been a port of the original "GTA: Vice City." Like most ports, it would have involved serious compromises, since nearly every other studio is under the impression that programming for the PSP's chip and control scheme is so difficult that it's OK to release seriously flawed games on the market (or maybe they just know that we're all so hungry for new games that we're willing to overlook those flaws). It likely would have been a stripped-back version of the original. And it probably wouldn't have sold many copies, thereby confirming the designers' preconceptions that the PSP just isn't worth the bother.

Rockstar goes another way. As was the case with their earlier PSP exclusive, "Liberty City Stories," they took the high road, and it's a very profitable road: "Liberty City Stories" has sold more than a million copies. "Vice City Stories" is a prequel to "GTA: Vice City," set two years before the events in that game. You play as Vic Vance, the brother of a character who meets a grisly end at the beginning of "Vice City." At the outset Vic just wants to make an honest living in the military so he can send some money home to his family, but his commanding officer sends him off on some errands of dubious legality and soon Vic finds himself thrown out of the Marines and in need of quick cash. From there, in standard GTA fashion, you complete one short mission after another as you and your brother try to make money and built a little crime empire for yourselves on the streets of Vice City.

If you've ever played a GTA game before, you know how it works: the game is a big sandbox, and you're encouraged to explore it at whatever pace you choose. The story is advanced by certain missions you need to complete in a certain order, but Vice City is large and you'll find lots of minigames to play as you explore the city's streets. Some of these games are just for fun, like the dirtbike race you'll find down on the beach, but others boost your character's stats or increase the amount of armor he's able to deploy. If you just play "Vice City Stories" for the missions, you'll miss a good part of the game. This is the sort of game that you need to settle into and explore. While you're poking around, you'll be able to listen to several radio stations programmed with different music formats, pre-recorded DJ babble, and commercials that are often nothing less than laugh-out-loud funny.

When you're done with just driving around looking at stuff, you can get down to building your empire. Empire building is a new feature to the GTA universe. Throughout the city are buildings that are associated with one of your rival gangs, with a gang car parked out front. Destroying the car and damaging the building forces your rivals out and puts the building up for sale; you can then buy the building and set up a business there (with enough seed cash, of course), with businesses ranging from smuggling to robbery to prostitution. Different businesses thrive in different parts of the city. Your businesses can also come under attack from rival gangs, so you might want to invest in some extra muscle to keep your investments safe.

The programming is, of course, impeccable. With another studio you'd expect long load times as your character traveled between areas in the city, but now we've grown to expect every GTA title to be as smooth as butter and "Vice City Stories" is no exception. Everything about the game is first-rate, from the graphics to the voice work, and I have no doubt that "Vice City Stories" will sell just as well as "Liberty City Stories." Maybe someday another studio will notice the piles of money that Rockstar is making on the PSP and start taking Sony's handheld a little more seriously. Or maybe we'll have to wait for the PSP2 for that.

Ratings (1-10):

Graphics: 9. Character animations are sweet, the vehicles look just right, and you can roll throughout the city without a single load screen.

Sound: 9. For my money the radio stations are still the best part of the game. Voice work is of the highest quality.

Gameplay: 8. Lots of variety, many things to do.

Story: 8. I found myself caring more about Vic than I did about previous GTA protagonists.

Replayability: 7. A number of ad-hoc multiplayer modes extends the game's value, provided you have enough PSP-owning friends.

Overall: 8.5. “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories” proves again how good gaming on the PSP can be.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories PSP Review

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