To the consternation of its critics and the delight of its many more fans, "Grand Theft Auto" returns next week with "Liberty City Stories," a new 1998-set adventure through the Manhattan-style city of 2001's landmark "GTA III."
The new game comes smaller than its predecessors, launching not on PS2 but PSP. That makes it the second handheld "GTA" in little over a year. While few gamers even took note of the graphically primitive 2004 Game Boy Advance "GTA," the power of the PSP has raised hopes that this new car-stealing adventure can more faithfully reproduce the grand scale of "Vice City" and "San Andreas."
To demonstrate how close the new game might be to a full-fledged "GTA" title, the game's publisher, Rockstar, gave MTV News a one-hour test drive with the game earlier this week. At the downtown offices of the bad-boy game publisher, two blocks from a soaring Houston Street billboard housing a giant PSP with a screen big enough to project a feature film, a Rockstar representative showed just how "GTA" this new "GTA" is.
Much of the series' character has made it to the new platform. Like its predecessors, it pushes the envelope with trademark social satire popping up in everything from Y2K-panic alerts on an in-game radio station to the handful of missions triggered not by the usual mob bosses and sketchy friends but by a shadowy figure who makes requests from a church confessional, tasking you to atone — at least in one case — by perpetrating a rocket-launcher hit of some visiting celebrities. (Without giving too much away, that plot twists enough to wind up skewering the media far more than any member of the clergy).
But it wasn't the game's character that fans have worried about. "GTA" acolytes have been concerned that a PSP "GTA" might not stack up simply because of the technical limitations of going portable. Some worried that the need to keep the PSP's battery from draining prematurely would force the developers to hem in the series' usual expansiveness, shrinking territory, limiting in-game music and polluting the usually seamless experience of driving from one end of a "GTA" city to another with distracting load times.
But the hour-long session provided plenty of evidence that should assuage many of those concerns. Though the publisher's claim that the game will last a good four hours on a fresh battery can't be confirmed until next week, it looks and sounds, when it is running, nearly as good as its console counterparts. In fact, Liberty City itself looks more detailed and colorfully crisp than it did in "GTA III."
The game was developed primarily by Rockstar Leeds, the team that previously worked on the PSP edition of the "Midnight Club" racing series. "Midnight Club" for PSP lost marks because of its lengthy load time, which ran counter to the quickened play schedule of gamers using a hand-held device. But a Rockstar rep said the team learned its lesson. After waiting through an initial load, players of "GTA" on the PSP need only wait for further loading when moving between the game's three city islands, and even then the load on the build shown this week lasted about 10 tolerable seconds.
So from a technical standpoint the game runs better than gamers might have expected. It also sounds better than most hand-held games, and may even have the deepest soundtrack ever heard in a portable game — which would be in keeping with the "GTA" pedigree, of course. Since the breakthrough third installment, the series has featured a flourish of radio stations programmed for wildly different tastes and peppered with bitingly satirical commercials.
This "PSP" edition will feature 10 radio stations, including the return of the hip-hop Playback FM, featuring '90s stalwarts such as Mobb Deep and N.O.R.E. spun by New York's DJ Clue. Also on the dial are the franchise-familiar reggae-fest KJAH, stations for world music, classical and drum and bass, along with one devoted to the works of Giorgio Moroder, an influential electronic-music producer who also composed the soundtrack to 1984's "Flashdance." Two stations feature music entirely composed by Rockstar North, the developer of the console "GTA" titles. Another frequency is all talk, which will likely be the game's funniest.
What remains to compare this PSP version to other "GTA" titles are story and action. While Rockstar's demonstration of the game largely skipped on overall story, we do know that it stars Toni Cipriani, a mob enforcer with mom stress caught in a power struggle among organized-crime families in Liberty City. Whether the game's narrative will carry the same charge as the lackey-to-don rise of "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" or the conflicted path to crime of the family-minded Carl Johnson in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas"' powder-keg version of Rodney King-era Los Angeles remains for players to discover on their own.
What was apparent in the preview is that one developer shortcut seemingly taken because the game is on PSP may pull the experience back from the violence that excites so many players. In all "GTA" titles, random acts of violence against pedestrians and motorists provoke sudden retribution from the police, eliciting wild car chases and generally crowd-pleasing chaos. That system of mayhem, crackdown and chase is the source of much of the games' fun — and keeps many a player from even bothering to advance the core storylines.
But random attempts to run people over in "Liberty City Stories" proved surprisingly difficult. When Cipriani drove through the city, pedestrians seemed less present on the street. And without them to run down (an odd complaint, no doubt), less chaos ensued. Assumedly, the population of the city has been diminished to diminish the drain on the machine's processor and therefore its battery, but there are signs that such a power-saving trick may make it harder to tip the first domino of one of the series most popular types of spills.
Perhaps the demo focused on the wrong area of the city. Or perhaps the series' famous chaos will be better reproduced in the multi-player a mode that allows six nearby PSP users to link up through a wireless connection and battle it out in the city. Again, players will have to figure this one out once they get their hands on the game.
Despite some lingering question marks, if it looks like a "GTA," sounds like a "GTA" and plays pretty much like one, is it a real "GTA"? It seems that way.