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PSP Fanboy review: GTA Vice City Stories

It took a long time for this review to get completed, didn't it? Nearly a month after I received my review build, I finally post the official PSP Fanboy review of one of the most anticipated PSP games of the year. Why the holdup? Well, didn't you figure it out... this game is insanely long. There's a dizzying amount of content in the game, with an extensive adventure, fulfilling new Empire mode, and tons of side quests and minigames, making Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories one truly meaty, satisfying game. However, even with all the content the game provides, does it do enough to surpass the high benchmark set by last year's Liberty City Stories?

Vice City Stories sets out to improve upon Liberty City Stories in every single way possible. When you first boot up the UMD, you'll be treated to an intro sequence that displays the characteristically Rockstar high-budget charm. The initial load time is comparable to the first PSP outing: not very long at all. Yet, the fine folks at Rockstar have managed to cram in an unbelievably pretty graphics engine under the hood: it's noticeably better than LCS. You'll see that the character models come to life in a whole new way, with superior modeling, better textures, and much more natural animation. Add some impressive real-time lighting, and a beautiful Vice City sunset, and you have quite the visual treat.

Obviously, the GTA radio is back in this game, and it's just as massive as ever, with over 100 songs to be found in the game's track listing. Incredible. Fans of 80s music will love the selection, but even heartless fools that don't care for the music will find the biting humor of the radio shows to be right up their alley. It's well produced, and reminds you that although VCS is priced like a full console game at $50, this game is a much bigger production than any other handheld game out there.

Bigger is Better
As you've most likely read in our previous coverage of the game, Vice City Stories covers a lot more territory than its predecessor. There's a lot to like about the new content added to this iteration in the series. Firstly, the new vehicles: you'll find that driving the helicopter is quite pleasant (and it is quite the technical feat!). The new water mechanics are a great addition. Knowing that your character doesn't seem to dissolve in it makes a great deal of sense, and opens up a plethora of new mission opportunities. Finally, the greatest addition has to arguably be the new Empire mode, which allows players to take over certain businesses throughout the map. It is strangely compelling to try to expand one's empire by destroying rival gang territory, and investing money in one's own businesses. While it's certainly not fleshed out completely, it's a nice distraction and offers yet another benefit: additional save points. Every building you claim as your own creates a new save point for you to access, giving you a real benefit in establishing a large business empire.

Too Big for the Handheld?
While many of the new additions are great, there are still glaring flaws in Vice City's design that make it, in some ways, worse than Liberty City. The greatest flaw in this game may be the mission length. Although LCS was criticized for its simplistic missions, they made a lot of sense to portable gamers that didn't always have a lot of time for each gaming session. Seemingly addressing that complaint, VCS features many multi-objective missions that can span a great deal of distance and time. Although they may be more engaging, they can also be much more frustrating. It's quite difficult for a portable gamer to drive to a certain point to unlock a mission, then drive to another point to start it, and then go on two or three sequences before completing a mission. And then look for a save point. The game more closely mirrors its console counterparts, but for a handheld game, that might be an unwelcome change. The lack of checkpoints, frequently seen in other similar games, is also puzzling, showing a somewhat antiquated mission system.

The desire for checkpoints will be clear, even from the beginning of the game: the missions are tough, especially for GTA newbies, who may be unfamiliar with the game interface. The controls are just as wonky as ever, and in some cases, the game feels like a clear step backwards from Liberty City Stories. There are more missions where you'll have an AI partner (like Lance), and it's surprising, and frustrating, how unintelligent they can be. When missions are failed thanks to a character simply blindly running into enemy fire, you can't help but feel angry at the game. The controls themselves are unfriendly, with an awkward targeting system, and a clearly outdated weapons switching system. Can't changes to the UI be made in this aging series?

Vehicle physics also seem much looser than previous games. You'll find that cars have much more trouble sticking to the road. Although this makes for some pretty spectacular explosions, it can get frustrating when your car simply flips over when trying to make a simple turn. Some of the other vehicles, like the off-road buggies, are incredibly touchy, and riding in them feel more like a battle against the controls than anything else.

"You deserve good things."
One of the slightly frustrating aspects of the game (although in no way affects gameplay) is the story. Unfortunately, it tries to establish Vic as a sympathetic character, as he tries to earn money for his sick brother. However, he very easily and readily starts killing, carjacking, and generally doing other Jack Thompson-disapproved activities. The game at random moments tries to ground his character, and it fails. The supporting cast features a lot of very unique characters: however, many border on annoying. As the game progresses, the story and characters do seem much more satisfying, but it may be because at that point, you've become inundated to the high-fantasy world of the story.

While there are a lot of flaws in the game, one can't ignore the fact that this is still a very capable game, featuring some of the best technology on the system. The graphics and presentation are fantastic, and there is an overabundance of gameplay to be discovered, whether it's through the multiplayer, the extensive single-player campaign, or the various mini-games that litter the world. However, the same can be said about last year's excellent Liberty City Stories, and for players that are looking for more of the same, they won't be disappointed. But, for gamers newly entering the portable GTA scene, there's no reason not to pick up the equally impressive, and at times, superior, LCS, which now goes for a much cheaper retail price.

PSP Fanboy Score: 8.0

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