PSP Review

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories

Stevie's penchant for vice emerges

Welcome to Vice City. It's 1984 and opportunity is ripe for the picking in a city rising from the depths, its emergence governed by violent power struggles amid a wildly lucrative drugs industry. As a mark of the city's growing prominence, a new opulent metropolis quickly claws skyward, built perilously on the crooked foundations of crime. Enter Vic Vance, a one-time soldier who used to believe in nothing more than providing for his sick brother and protecting his mighty and proud nation. However, a single careless on-duty 'indiscretion' (namely delivering drugs and chauffeuring hookers for his crooked commanding officer) swiftly sees Vance hurled from the service, thrown to the mercy of Vice City's streets. What's a guy to do when faced with a city crying out for his skills in its haze of crime and corruption? Feast or starve, shine or fade, create an empire or shrivel and die? Some choice.

The GTA series made its PSP debut in 2005 with Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, a somewhat flawed but technically impressive parallel story edition that revisited and revitalised the streets of PlayStation 2's landmark Grand Theft Auto III. Now we find the crime-addled streets of Vice City getting the same faithfully free-roaming handheld treatment in Vice City Stories, which also graces players with a completely new central character (Vic Vance, brother of Vice City's Lance Vance) and storyline, all built around the recognised GTA mission structure. What's more, Vice City Stories is considerably more 'whole' than its PSP predecessor, exuding a more drawn out, defined, and convincing GTA feel in its delivery.

Vice City Stories exists as a prequel to the home console Vice City, though it's still a firm believer in the original game's cheesy Miami Vice-style portrayal of the 1980s - possibly history's most excessively self-obsessed decade. Sadly, while the aesthetic content remains unchanged, including everything from the God-awful fashions to the beautifully disgusting soundtrack, which is laced throughout Vice City Stories' superb vehicular radio stations, the basic premise of the game and its central character grates against the usual strengths associated with GTA.

More specifically, Vic Vance, who's clearly an honest and straight-laced kind of guy with his heart in the right place, goes against the design of the usual reprobates and gangster types given to the player throughout the series. The control of out-and-out antiheroes generally allows the player to accept the tsunami of ensuing bullet-addled nastiness that they get caught up in, as its generally par for the course for such shadowy individuals. But Vic is instantly uncomfortable with the illegal acts his commanding officer asks of him - regardless of the possible repercussions it entails in terms of providing for his family - yet off Vic happily trots to deliver drugs, taxi prostitutes, and even gun down a gang of Mexicans. No argument, no moral standpoint, nothing. As the player, you're expected to swallow the fact that Vic is capable of such conflicted idiocy. It's difficult. And when that idiocy sees Vic discharged, it's even more difficult to empathise with his actions or care about his future.

Yet, that said, anyone handing over hard-earned cash for yet another crime-based jaunt through the GTA world probably won't care a jot about such narrative trivialities, because in this particular long-running series all that matters are missions, motors, mayhem, and more of the same. In that sense, Vice City supplies the usually structured gameplay flow of extensive GTA assignments and celebrity-imbued characters - some of which make return appearances from the original Vice City. Of those characters, it's Vic's mentally volatile brother Lance Vance (voiced by Phillip Michael Thomas - the original Ricardo Tubbs from Miami Vice) who occupies the greatest chunk of storyline and screen time.

Traversing the sprawling streets of the massive in-game environment is as accessible and enjoyable as always through the now famous GTA approach of virtually consequence-free 'vehicular liberation'. And the selection of travel opportunities available to the PSP owner in Vice City Stories ranges, of course, from regular cars, motorbikes, vans, and trucks, through to the aerial thrill - and expeditious navigation - offered by the odd instance of helicopter jacking. And, those players not bothered about reaching unopened mission points with best speed can always enjoy the now standard edition distraction provided by the taxi, fire engine, and ambulance vigilante side missions.

The control mechanic employed for Vic and the vehicles he utilises is surprisingly functional considering the game's complete 3D third-person perspective and the PSP's lack of a second analogue stick. But, when on foot, a compensation comes through the PSP's shoulder buttons: a quick press of the left button centres the following camera directly behind Vic; whereas the right shoulder button is used to locks onto enemies if he should become embroiled in gun-toting street battles with cops or gang members. However, although most situations are manageable by using the combined shoulder buttons to control camera movement and aiming, there are annoying occasions when close-quarter confrontations mean having to run into open spaces before partially turning Vic and then clicking the camera back behind... and then applying the aiming lock. It can grow a little tiresome, but forewarned is generally forearmed.

In terms of aesthetic scope and the accuracy of the game's content transition to the handheld format, those who've already played through the original Vice City on the PlayStation 2 will be fairly impressed with the level of detailing - though it's not without fault - and Vice City Stories certainly does come close to fulfilling Sony's claim that the PSP is a PS2 in your pocket. Any sacrificed texturing and detail is barely noticeable, largely thanks to the reduced screen sizing, which makes everything still feel slickly designed and thoroughly well implemented while exuding that eponymous Rockstar swagger.

The single most notable addition to Vice City Stories over its GTA brethren is the newly implemented 'empire' mission element. As the player gradually ploughs Vic's niche of crime in the city's underground mire, it's possible to nurture a personal empire by wrestling illegal 'businesses' away from gangs and turning them to Vic's own gain in terms of finance and reputation. By embarking on bloodbaths against attending gang members, and then destroying the interior of the wanted property, Vic can then purchase the wreckage and rebuild it into a brand new (illegal) business - ranging from the likes of prostitution, smuggling, drug dealing, etc. Acquired properties are also open to financial upgrades, and also mission/reputation-based upgrades, though sadly these mission upgrades are often woefully shallow, drawn out, and repetitive - which tends to damage the appeal of Vice City Stories as a genuine 'portable' gaming option.

Multiplayer action - though sadly still not available in an online sense - is provided through a fairly decent Ad-Hoc mode that pits up to six players against one another through a selection of ten varied modes including the likes of standard issue multiplayer Deathmatch, to Empire Takedown, where players attempt to plant explosives in a rival gang's base, and Might of the Hunter where players race for control of a heavy duty Hunter helicopter and then proceed to destroy opponents with it.

Yet, regardless of layered longevity or shrinking the game as a whole down impressively onto a handheld format, and despite its recognised and respected history, GTA is fast becoming a tired franchise, a series that is in desperate need of something new - the empire element is a small step, but nothing more. And there will be some who'll level criticism at the game because it shoehorns a second story vein onto the structure of an established PS2 title rather than create something brand new for the faithful series/PSP fan base. Also, while the technical achievement of squeezing Vice City onto the PSP is certainly to be applauded, there are still environmental draw glitches and atmospheric hiccups (particularly around dusk and dawn) which still render a gap between Sony's portable machine and its PS2 home console.

The presentation is still as assured as ever, the character vocal, musical, and radio DJ performances still rank higher than most other games, and its missions and larger-than-life cast are all immediately familiar and welcoming in that 'good friend not seen for a long time' kind of way. But the familiarity of Vice City Stories also breeds a clawing sense of stagnancy, and the lack of a second analogue stick - while patched - does leave a rent in the application of the gameplay control. Finally, while the game offers up considerably more mission depth than Liberty City Stories, it's also not especially well suited to the portable format for that very reason (not that prolonged couch-play isn't an option), and cramping fingers, wrists, and eyes are a very real possibility. Vice City Stories is an expansion pack, a second pass, a different angle, but it's not a fresh game, and it's not one that will live long in the memory.

E3 Trailer