An hour into the latest entry in this revered line of open-ended, third-person crime actioners, we've got a problem. The Sindacco crime family is sending waves of enforcers to blow up a casino we've been charged with protecting. The trouble is, there are only three cars full of the pompous bastards, and we can't decide which way to ice them all.
The first group was easy - we just let them drive up, then ran over them one by one with the semi truck we'd jacked. When the second carload turned up, we got more creative, first chasing their car around, trying to run it into the wall. When they snaked out of that jam and ran up to the casino, we unloaded with our Uzi.
That'll do the job, but still doesn't net you many style points. For the third group, we'd had time to steal and wreck so many cars that we'd blocked off the nearby streets and created a traffic jam. The Sindaccos had to park farther away and approach the casino through the one narrow crack we left them - which brought them right into range of our flamethrower (which can also blow up entire vehicles if you torch them well enough) and when it ran out of juice, our chainsaw. Ewww.
That, in a nutshell, is what the GTA games do so very, very well, and what no other game has even come close to matching. They give you a huge, living city and tell you, "It's yours. Go tear it apart any way you want. Steal cars. Drive them. Jump them. Wreck them. Steal boats, cop cars, fire trucks, taxis and other stuff, too, and play with them. Blow stuff up. Or not. Do whatever."
That would be enough for most games, but the GTA titles wrap a decent, adult-themed gangster story around the mayhem - though you can also ignore the story if you feel like it - toss in some black-hearted, dead-on parody, and voila! You've got a modern masterpiece.
Liberty City Stories is no exception. Originally a PSP exclusive (see our review of that version here), the game casts the player as Toni Cipriani, a back-in-town mobster working his way up through the ranks of a crime family. The setting is the same city that you set aflame back in 2001's original PS2 bombshell Grand Theft Auto III, but the action takes place a few years earlier.
The game's PSP origins are almost invisible in this PS2 version. You might not notice it if you don't put them side-by-side, but there are countless small graphical upgrades from the PSP version. It's smoother, too, with very little of the blurriness from the portable predecessor. It also supports widescreen displays, though that isn't written on the box. And though this isn't as pretty as the latest full-sized console GTA game (San Andreas) was, Liberty City still looks miles better here than it did in GTA III.
Gameplay, too, is big improvement on GTA III, though admittedly not as ambitious as San Andreas. You can't swim or work out to change your physique. But you can change outfits (sometimes you have to get a certain job), and there are boats and motorcycles, which weren't around before. Plus, you can move the camera with your controller's right analog stick now, a huge advantage over the PSP version.
The missions themselves often seem shorter, tailored more toward the portable experience. But many players will consider this a boon, and the game still contains dozens, if not hundreds of hours of gameplay.
Multiplayer is gone - which is a bummer. Rockstar's explanation is that it wants the first GTA multiplayer on consoles to be a bigger, bolder, badder thing than the PSP game's diversions, and we get that. It would have been a nice appetizer, though.
However, there is one last detail that made us forgive and forget all about the lack of multiplayer modes: Liberty City Stories is arriving on store shelves with a sticker price of $20. That's right - $20. So yeah; there's no multiplayer, and other GTA games are bigger or have more famous voice actors and more well-known soundtracks. But $20 for a fairly fresh GTA game on PS2 seems amazingly fair to us. You might not need this if you've played the PSP LCS - though the clearer graphics and better controls easily make this the preferred version - but everyone else should already be on the way to the store.