GTA: Vice City Stories

Hands-on with the latest handheld Grand Theft Auto, which is looking like the biggest PSP release this year

Last year our 'Daily Star fame' Liberty City Stories review proclaimed the handheld crime-em-up an "essential" PSP purchase, and looking back 12-months on, it's still the biggest thing available on Sony's slick handheld.

Vice City Stories then - the 80s equivalent to last year's Liberty City reminisce - is expectedly shaping up as this year's main event on PSP, sporting prettier graphics, a twisting storyline and yes; ridable Jet Skis.

This time around unfortunately-named protagonist Lance Vance steps aside and you take control of beefier-sibling Vic, who looks a bit like CJ from San Andreas. The action takes place a number of years before the original Vice City, meaning not everything is as you remembered in the old Miami-eseque metropolis, a massive ferris wheel is among landmarks you'll find in the handheld prequel.

We recently went hands-on with the pastel-coloured Vice City update, and the first mission we sampled took us to a mansion clogged-full of bikini-clad henchwomen. Keen to react on fan feedback, the missions in Vice City Stories are bit more complex the LCS's simple 'drive from A to B' affairs, this particular one taking us to point A, putting us in the middle of a hussy fire-fight and then on to the beach for an action-packed ATV chase.

And the chase itself was as impressive as GTA action comes; the ATV in front lobbing grenades in our path as his female passenger takes pot shots at our ride. After a while a low-flying chopper adds to the chaos, but thankfully we're good enough to ice the bad guy before its propellers even started spinning.

The second mission demonstrated VCS' varied gameplay further; we're tasked with picking a 'package' (we're assuming there's some drugs in there somewhere) from a specified drop-off point on the highway, only there's two other rival gangs out for the loot and the police aren't far behind. The resulting multi-car pile-up allows us to snatch the package from the burning boot of our rival's mashed car, and the police and SWAT give us hell on our rush to the pre-determined safe house. It's real bite-sized GTA, and if Rockstar can keep every mission this intense, then VCS could turn out to be even better than Liberty City.

The third and biggest of our sampled objectives involved picking up a young lady from the hospital, before snatching an ambulance chopper to rescue the accident-prone Lance Vance from the roof of a burning building. Once Lance is safely aboard we're ordered after a trio of speeding boats who've nicked some of our loot, and with Lance manning the on-board machine-gun it's time for some bullet justice, and crafty piloting skills to land the 'tached legend on the deck.

Helicopter controls are surprisingly well-tuned on the PSP, using a combination of the thumb-stick and two shoulder pads. From high above the coast VCS's improved draw-distance is also shown-off to full effect; there's still some pop-in but it's as impressive as anything tinkered-in to the console GTA's, and certainly a big improvement over last year's handheld effort. While we're at it there's an impressive amount of foliage littered around the streets as well; perhaps the first time we've noted being impressed by a large row of trees.

Outside of the missions, Vice City still has all of the hallmark GTA features and Liberty City' upgrades, such as mission taxis that wait patiently outside the hospital or police station when you've buggered up, the much-loved multiplayer mode (more on that soon) and all of the hidden packages and car-chase mischief the series has become famous for.

In fact, we almost wasted our hands-on time winding-up the police in several car crash incidents, which is arguably what makes the GTA series so enjoyable in the first place (for us, anyway).

As it is, Vice City Stories is shaping up as the biggest PSP release of the year, with genuine improvements over the last handheld instalment and graphics rivalling anything else on Sony's handheld. Obviously more attuned with the PSP hardware, Rockstar is out to top last year's excellent handheld GTA, and if our hands-on time is anything to go by they just might do it.

Look out for more on Vice City Stories very soon.