Despite garnering a ton of interest from fans when it hit in late 2006, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories didn't sell quite as well as other GTA titles. It could be that gamers are getting sick of the same recycled gameplay, but what's more likely is that they were just waiting for the game to arrive on PS2, instead of the notoriously hard-to-control PSP. If you're in that latter camp, then here's your chance to pick up the best GTA since San Andreas.
If you already caught it on the PSP, though, don't expect anything new. The multiplayer modes and custom-soundtrack feature have been stripped out and replaced by the smoother, rumble-enabled PS2 controls and a budgetastic price, but otherwise this is the same adventure that hit in October. Which, so long as you're not looking for multiplayer, isn't a bad thing at all.
Set in 1984 (two years before Vice City), Vice City Stories stars straight-laced Victor Vance, who - despite starting out as GTA's most boring protagonist - eventually becomes the series' most conflicted and most tragic anti-hero. He's also the big brother of Vice City sidekick Lance Vance, a walking disaster who shows up to comically ruin things and drag Vic deep into Florida's drug-smuggling underworld.
VCS is more than just a new story, however. Aside from serving up a sprawling, colorful, freely explorable city filled with jackable cars, boats, helicopters and even Jet Skis, it brings a few new features to the table. One of these is empire-building, which enables you to attack, take over and manage illegal rackets run by rival gangs, with the eventual goal of wiping your enemies off the map and owning Vice City's underworld.
Aside from making you feel like a big man, these businesses have a very tangible benefit: cash. As each day goes by, you'll automatically rake in cash from your holdings, starting with a few hundred and ramping up to tens of thousands of dollars. Complete the simple missions that come with each of the six racket types (protection, drugs, prostitution, etc.), and you'll earn even more.
There's a catch, though: your rivals won't appreciate your muscling in, and so you'll have to defend your businesses against random, seemingly constant attacks. This gets really tedious, especially when a racket on the other side of town suddenly gets attacked while you're in the middle of something else. The good news is that you can usually ignore it - a business can take one or two raids before it's repaired or lost - but it's still a huge pain.
Rivals aside, there are a few silver linings; not only do your rackets enable you to recruit a few armed underlings to follow you around and watch your back, but all that money will make it easier to take advantage of the new "bribe" feature. If you're killed or arrested, you'll now have the option of paying $2,000 to get all your cool, expensive weapons back. Whether you think this is cheating or long overdue, it takes away a lot of the frustration that comes with failure in GTA. Which is great, because you'll feel that frustration a lot over the course of the game.
Don't let the free money and bribes fool you into thinking VCS is a cakewalk. If anything, you'll need them to get through the missions, which are multi-stage affairs with difficulty levels that bounce between startlingly easy and seemingly impossible. On the upside, the action is the same fast-paced, addictive craziness that GTA has always delivered, and being able to tackle it with a Dual Shock pad instead of wrestling with the PSP's controls makes it even more fun. In addition to being able to swim, Vic can bust out throws, low blows and enemy-straddling beatdowns when he's empty-handed. And when he's not, the auto-aiming feels better than usual; long an inaccurate pain in the ass, it's now far more likely to latch onto bad guys with guns than it is to target harmless old ladies.
The game does have a couple of major flaws, though - the computer intelligence is even dumber than usual. Your enemies usually can't shoot for shit at long range, and we spent countless battles just standing around in the open, gunning them down in quick succession while one, maybe two of their bullets connected.
Also, nobody's ever accused the GTA series of being particularly pretty, but it's painfully obvious that Vice City Stories is a PSP game stretched out to fit your TV. The textures are muddy, the lines are blurry and although everything animates beautifully, a game built for the limitations of Sony's handheld comes with inevitable problems - like buildings that suddenly pop up on the near horizon. Granted, Liberty City Stories did the same thing, but that doesn't make this any easier to look at.