Around three-and-a-half hours into Liberty City Stories you'll stop playing. Not because you'll be bored, but an outcome forced upon you by the PSP battery running out of juice. Play with Wi- Fi switched on and you'll be lucky to enjoy three hours of gangster-ridden violence. It's the only serious flaw in an otherwise brilliant addition to the GTA canon, so we thought it best to get it out of the way first.
Although this tale of gang warfare, made men and a young upstart trying to rise through the ranks of the mafia feels very familiar, Liberty City Stories shouldn't be mistaken for a mere side dish to the other games' main courses. What we have here is a massive, full-blown game in its own right, a game whose single-player story will keep you hooked for around 45 hours. Add on another eight hours or so for all the side missions and you can begin to appreciate how it easily measures up to everything that's gone before. And let's not forget the seven multiplayer modes, a first for GTA, which we'll come to later.
At first Toni Cipriani makes for a curiously bland character, which may have more to do with the game's slow start than the man himself. The game begins in customary gentle fashion, with lots of easy 'get from A to B' driving missions and the odd simple shooting mission to familiarize you with the controls. As the story progresses and more characters, both new and familiar to the series, flit in and out of missions, the relationships centering around Toni become ever more complex. Without spoiling things, his rise to the top isn't short of twists and turns to accompany the generous bloodshed.
KILLING IN THE NAME
And it'll take you these early missions to fully get used to the controls anyway. The basics are Square to jump, Circle to fire, Triangle to get in and out of vehicles, and holding X to make Toni sprint. So far, so every GTA game on PS2. To target, you simply hold the right shoulder button and use the D-pad to cycle through enemies - the system usually locking on to the next enemy rather than a nearby civilian even if it's not always perfect. It's also easy enough to momentarily take your finger off the right shoulder button after every kill and then press it again if you find manually cycling through enemy targets awkward.
If you press the right shoulder button to draw your weapon and then press Down on the D-pad you'll switch to free aim mode, allowing you to be more precise. Pressing the left shoulder button while in free aim mode slows the target reticule, which is very useful in some of the vehicle-based shooter on rails sequences. The game even compensates for the absence of a second analogue stick by letting you rotate the camera if you use the D-pad while holding the left shoulder button, while pressing the left shoulder button once centres the camera. The only tricky part is performing drive-bys, though even here you can customise the buttons to use either the shoulder buttons or the D-pad to look left and right while in a car. All in all, Rockstar has done a fantastic job translating the controls to PSP and working around its limited layout.
SHORT AND SWEET
Missions are of the five or ten-minute variety and revolve around driving somewhere within a cetain amount of time, shooting someone or collecting an object, but sometimes two or even three of these are involved. It could easily feel repetitive if the game didn't make fine use of the rivalry between the gangs to throw up the odd humdinger of a mission.
For instance, at one point in the game your boss gets wind of a secret meeting between the Sindaccos and the Forellis about running the Leones out of town. Instead of steaming straight in there, a device is planted on Paulie Sindacco's car allowing you to remote control it and mow down the Forellis so the Sindaccos get the blame. In another you hijack a union leader's limo and must drive like a madman to scare her into working for Leone. Another interesting one has you promoting a candidate's mayoral campaign in a van while a rival attempts to win back the support of any neighbourhoods you've converted. The game really hits its stride with inspired missions such as these.