The seventh generation of consoles saw a renaissance in handheld gaming, lead by the Nintendo DS and PSP. Nintendo had major titles backing their handheld, but the PlayStation Portable was a more ambiguous prospect. What Sony’s console needed was an exclusive hit that would move units, and that would come in the fall of 2005. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, a prequel of GTA 3, propelled the handheld into the hearts of PlayStation fans everywhere. To this day it is the best selling game on the platform, yet another accolade on the award shelves of Rockstar Games. Despite its system selling power, the game is far from a perfect and has some glaring flaws that age has only worsened. It’s time to unpack this shorter entry in the franchise, in our GTA: Liberty City Stories retrospective.
New Perspectives, Old Ideas
The PSP introduced PlayStation fans to a whole new form factor, allowing them to take console-quality games anywhere. With a new console came new tech, of which Rockstar was readily available to take advantage. To better utilise the technology in the PSP, the developer dropped the RenderWare engine for an in-house built engine. The RenderWare engine had powered all three 6th generation franchise instalments that had propelled the developer to stardom. Buoyant off the critical acclaim of GTA: San Andreas, it was time to bring the gaming juggernaut to the small(er) screen. In a collaborated effort between Rockstar Leeds and the Edinburgh based Rockstar North, GTA: Liberty City Stories dropped almost to the day we first visited Liberty in all its 3D glory.
Unsurprisingly, the game received overall praise, a common thread that ties the franchise together. Things were very much a mixed bag, however, highlighting the limits of what we could expect from the hardware, not to mention some glaring graphical and gameplay glitches that would only worsen once the game was released on the PS2. Even after fifteen years, many of these issues persist in the mobile versions. Releasing so close to its bigger brother, the overall presentation left the game looking rushed and slightly rough around the edges. In essence, the developer removed positive aspects from San Andreas, leaving it looking old by comparison.
The Mob That Couldn’t Shoot Straight
It’s 1998, and after an unspecified period away, Toni Cipriani has returned to Liberty. His dreams of advancement in the Italian mafia are dashed when the paranoid Don Salvatore relegates Toni to soldier status, under the scheming Vincenzo. It becomes apparent that a mob war is raging between the four Italian crime families in Liberty, including the Sicilian mob looking to set up roots. Tony has his own problems, however. If being a lowly enforcer wasn’t bad enough, his ball-breaking mother is less than happy to see him home. Believing him to be a bad son who abandoned her, Tony must try (in vain for the majority of the game) to prove that he’s a worthy son.
The city also finds itself in turmoil. Pesky union workers, usually in the pocket of the mob, are striking. The current mayor threatens the future of the Liberty City mob, and smaller, more violent street gangs have started encroaching on your territory. Yep, it’s a Grand Theft Auto game, alright. Don’t expect the expansiveness of San Andreas or the entertaining cast of characters of Vice City; this is scaled back experience. It’s not bad, but at the time, it could feel like every mission was side-quest. There are few memorable missions, just a long list of monotonous grunt work.
GTA: Liberty City Stories suffers from the same problem that many sequels/prequels do – the callback. Sure, it’s nice to see old faces, but apart from Don Salvatore, there are no memorable characters. The average gamer with a middling memory of the franchise would be limited to “hey, That guy!”, etc. Even our protagonist has the personality of a boulder and not even a good one at that. Tony lacks any of the wit of Tommy Vercetti or the charm of Carl Johnson. He’s rather like the straight man, relying on the roster of cooky characters for comedic effect. His rise through the ranks is an all too forgettable tale.
Limitation breeds creativity, or so they say. The PSP couldn’t be described as a beast when it came to power, sporting a measly 4.3-inch screen to boot. Sadly the creative mantra wasn’t adhered to when it came to the game’s gameplay. Liberty City was never a beautiful city, but it looked positively ghastly on such a small screen. I accept the difficulty any developer must face when developing for new hardware, but some issues are unforgivable. Chiefly among these is the lamentable frame rate that, at times, conjured up the experience of flipping through a moving picture book. When the game later came to the PS2, these problems only persisted.
The whole cornucopia of classic game bugs is on offer here. Buildings and people appear from nowhere. If you’re getting too familiar with a wall, you may end up clipped to it. In fairness, the game never crashed on me, but I always expected it to. Not everything is disappointing, however. LCS does borrow from its predecessors in the shape of a more varied weapon selection and the addition of motorbikes. You won’t be diving out of planes or stealing high tech weaponry on a jetpack, but the game isn’t without entertaining missions. One involves overriding a cars control system, mowing down gangsters, all while the cars occupant screens in confusion.
The radio stations have always been a highlight for me. To this day, I often listen to them on YouTube, because some of the franchise’s best writing is here. Unfortunately, the score is a mixture of licensed music from obscure artists, paling in comparison to earlier titles. Thankfully, the obligatory talk radio station (LCFR) is funny, taking shots at southern “doctors” who hand out questionable advice, to the 90s Dotcom bubble. It’s puerile, but you shouldn’t expect NPR. Graded on a gameplay spectrum, GTA: Liberty City Stories is disappointing, but still enjoyable in certain aspects.
I posited the question of whether the game could count itself as one of the worst Rockstar games ever made? In short, yes it is, but that isn’t a terrible thing, necessarily. Rockstar has always focused on quality, so graded on the quality curve, GTA: Liberty City Stories is the worst of a good bunch. You’ll enjoy playing it, but you won’t walk away impressed by some complex narrative or engaging gameplay. Ultimately, the is a forgettable game, a fate avoided by every other entry in the franchise.