For this review, I’m afraid I am going to resort to the greatest cop out in games journalism; you are either going to like Liberty City Stories, or you’re not. To some, it is a downgrade from the huge, deep world that was created for San Andreas, a graphically lesser romp through a city we’ve all seen before. Rockstar is just trying to milk their fanbase of even more money, and should be ashamed of themselves. To myself and others, LCS is a technical marvel, (being developed for the PSP), a full fledged GTA experience that combines GTA3’s world with Vice City’s upgrades, all for the cost of a budget game. In this light, Rockstar has given us a nice little gift.
And that’s really it from a review standpoint. Anyone familiar with the series will find no surprises here, save perhaps for seeing Tony Cipriani as a thin gunman rather than a fat restaurant owner. Oh, and the soundtrack is immensely smaller due to the size of the UMD. Plus the game really likes to fill the streets with whatever car you’re driving. Nevertheless, you will either enjoy the trip back to Liberty City, or you’ll be wanting to go lift some weights and level up your shooting skills in Los Santos.
But fear not; the review isn’t ending just yet (so sit back down). Now we can take a look about what Liberty City Stories means to the series on a whole. Small as it might be, I believe it has a lot to say. GTA, in its current form, has run out of steam. And unless someone at Rockstar realizes it, I’m a little bit worried about what we might see in the next gen.
Granted, LCS was developed by Rockstar’s Leeds office, with some supervision from RS North. This could very well be the cause for many of these observations, though most seem to deal more with GTA design and style than with the people implementing them. Everything just feels worn out at this point. GTA has never been the pinnacle of storytelling, but there has always been a good deal of potential, considering just how much the games borrow from classic mob films.
It’s still just potential, however; the story never goes above or beyond gangsters shooting each other up. Maybe San Andreas was better, but I can’t really say; I stopped playing before its horrible stereotypes drove me nuts. Being a prequel, there was a great chance here to explain and establish the situation in Liberty City as seen in GTA3, and it is absolutely wasted. I’m tired of static characters and “drama” that involves guys yelling at each other because of some baseless betrayal. There has to be more than can be done with this huge, connected world that they have created, but so far we haven’t seen it.
I’m also wondering what the hell is going on in their humor department. As much as people love to bash this series, I have always been hugely impressed with the quality humor and brilliant satire found in GTA games. Its still here in LCS, along with some jokes that I can only describe as tasteless. The public radio station features a chef who doesn’t just slaughter animals for meat; he also lets cows make live births into his frying pan. There are at least two jokes insulting the Menstrual cycle, and even more about having sex with underage girls. Hot Coffee may have been pointless, but at least sex isn’t uncommon among the world of entertainment. Many of the jokes in LCS are just trashy, the kind of things that don’t leave the high school lunch room or the college dorm. Of course, this is exactly the proper audience for the game, but not all of us are that crass, and the humor here is leagues behind what we’ve seen before from Rockstar.
I don’t think they’ve run out of ideas, since there is still some good satire here (their Dr. Phil impersonator stands out as one of my favorite radio shows in GTA history). Rather, it seems as if they may be taking the same route as Family Guy: if no one understands the intelligent humor, cut it down and fill up on physical gags. Or in the case of LCS, use more degrading jokes that will offend as many people as possible. They can do better than this, and I simply hope it is just a glitch with this entry, and not a sign of future trends.
Believe it or not, I have no qualms with the regression in gameplay. I found San Andreas to be far too complex for its own good, one of the worst examples of the modern design trend of throwing RPG elements into any random genre. Liberty City is favorite locale in the series, so being able to explore it again with bikes, new outfits and more missions is fine by me. For a $12 purchase, there’s no reason to complain! Still, playing LCS got me thinking about the “GTA formula” and how it has barely changed in the span of four games.
There was a time where I wanted to write a whole article on this idea, but I think it can be distilled down to this; GTA3 was a good step forward for open ended “sandbox” games, but it certainly wasn’t the final destination. Sure, since then we’ve seen additional modes of transportation and larger areas to explore, but you can still boil down most of the GTA experience to Midtown Madness coupled with simple, arcadey combat. All San Andreas did was try to sprinkle in a bit of real life, which ended up feeling like work as much as it did play.
It could all be so much more. What about having better NPC interaction, so that the player has more options than just “kill”? What about a better combat system and possible squad-based controls with your allies? What about more nonviolent (and optional) jobs to do on the side? Better yet, Rockstar could do us all a favor and make all their new little features entirely optional. Not having to worry about eating and other such chores was a real treat in LCS. It would be nice not having to worry about that again in GTA4, while still being able to enjoy the new improvements. That is, if they put any in.
Liberty City Stories proves that Grand Theft Auto games can still have some magic in them if you take the time to explore and you play the game at your own pace. But it is still feeling worse for wear at this point, and now the silly little additions from San Andreas look even more like quick fixes that do more harm than good. The next generation is upon you Rockstar Games. Time to get back to the drawing board.