Few games ooze the sort of unquantifiable mass market appeal that's been pressure-pumped into the Grand Theft Auto franchise - a series that somehow manages to whisk everyone from the squint-eyed hardcore fan to casual gaming pansies into a foaming frenzy of superlatives. It's no surprise then that Sony fan boys have been leaping up and down, flailing widely at Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories' worldwide October release as the moment when the PSP finally gets its killer app, pushing the posh-screened handheld toward near instantaneous global domination.
Anyone who's been watching the cataclysmic rise of Rockstar's mega-franchise probably won't argue with the fact that Liberty City Stories is going to shift PSPs by the bucket load - the question is though, does this first full-blown GTA foray into the handheld market deserve its inevitable success? In search of answers, fast cars and dirty ho's, we holed up in Rockstar's secret high-security bunker, ready to listen to some Liberty City Stories.
Believe it or not, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories has been in development at Rockstar Leeds for over two years now, with the homegrown studio taking programming duties while Rockstar North supervises the game's creative elements, ensuring this portable GTA retains the levels of ingenuity and authenticity that series fans expect.
Preceding the original PS2 GTA game by three years, LCS sees low-level henchmen Tony Cipriani (who eventually winds up dishing out the missives at Saint Mark's Bistro in GTA III) return to Liberty City after four years of exile, thanks to some nasty business involving mobster supreme, Don Salvatore Leone. Rockstar apparently decided to revisit Liberty City and its mobster routes after endless fan feedback, clamouring to slip back into Mafioso shoes, ever since Vice City and San Andreas went their own unique ways.
Before we go any further, there's something we want to clear up right away: the game's not called Liberty City Stories for nothing. This is the Liberty City you love, loathe and probably have permanently etched in your brain, almost exactly as it appeared in the original GTA III game, down to the last cunningly crafted inch. The map sports an identical footprint to the 2001 title but, thanks to some narrative trickery in this prequel, you'll spot more than a few historically-induced cosmetic changes as you squeal across the urban brawl.
Despite this, Rockstar stresses that LCS is an entirely new, fully-formed GTA game in its own right, featuring a completely new story, brand new characters, new missions (including the usual insane stunts, packages and taxis) and a wealth of new tricks learned during the development of Vice City and San Andreas, designed to make sure your one hundred hour plus quest across Liberty City is like nothing you've seen before. Alongside the obviously improved graphical pizzazz (and make no mistake, LCS looks fantastic, thanks to the PSP's meaty screen and pin-sharp resolution), GTA III's vehicular roster has been beefed up considerably with the inclusion of motorbikes - first seen in Vice City - and San Andreas's much-improved combat engine putting in an appearance. What's more, the city now sports fully-rendered building interiors and a whole host of AI improvements giving Liberty City's streets a new lease of life.
From a mission perspective, the Rockstar boys are being as secretive as ever, only flying us through a couple of objectives from the enormous number planned during our half hour hands-off with the game (and yes, we probably would have made a break for the door with the code if they'd been foolish enough to let us near it). What we saw though looked very promising, very impressive and very GTA, indeed.