Rockstar's juggernaut Grand Theft Auto series debuted on the PlayStation Portable late last year in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, a side-story prequel to the events that took place in Grand Theft Auto III for the PlayStation 2. With Liberty City Stories, Rockstar successfully translated its open-ended world of crime to a handheld system, though not without a few missteps. Enter Vice City Stories, the newly released PSP GTA game that follows a similar side-story formula. Vice City Stories improves upon some of the flaws found in the first game, not the least of which is improved length and direction, as well as a great deal more personality. The story's still pretty subpar, though, and as much as this is very much Grand Theft Auto, certain conventions of the series are starting to feel a bit antiquated. Still, if you want to roam around a large city, shooting up the place and driving like a crazy person, few games on the PSP let you do that as well as this one does.
Vice City Stories returns to the pastel- and neon-colored excesses of the 1980s and Vice City. Modeled after '80s-era Miami, GTA: Vice City told a Scarface-inspired tale of Tommy Vercetti, a shunned mobster who found himself sifting through the aftermath of a cocaine deal gone wrong, and subsequently ended up building a major criminal empire throughout the city. It was a bizarre, convoluted, and completely entertaining tale, filled with ridiculous and profane characters, as well as lots of biting satire on the most superficial of decades. Vice City Stories is, again, a prequel, taking place a couple of years prior to the original game. You play as Vic Vance, the brother of central Vice City character Lance Vance. Vic's a strange fellow. When the game begins, he's just joined the army, and he gets off the transport truck at a military base in Vice City. Upon meeting his commanding officer--a borderline psychotic named Jerry Martinez--things start going wrong. We find out that Vic has joined the military to make some money to support his family, specifically his sick brother. But within the first few minutes of the game, you'll find yourself inexplicably picking up drugs for Martinez, killing Mexican gang members, and chauffeuring prostitutes.
Of course, any veteran of this series won't be shocked one bit by missions like these. The trouble here is that the setup for getting Vic into this mess is beyond flimsy. From the get-go, Vic talks about how uncomfortable he is with illegal activities, and yet he does every single illicit thing Martinez asks him to do. If you're someone who doesn't want to do anything illegal, and your boss starts asking you to pick up hookers and hide drugs for him, are you going to just gripe about it and then do it anyway? Not to mention that Vic seems completely willing to run into an apartment complex and start wasting Mexicans without even being ordered specifically to do so. He just says, "I'll go get it" (referring to owed money stashed inside one of the apartments) and goes in guns blazing. GTA heroes are never heroes, exactly, but the trick in the past has been that there's been no attempt to play those characters up as sympathetic. They weren't boy scouts--they were gangsters, killers, and dope dealers. Vice City Stories tries to present Vic as a guy who doesn't want to get into that stuff, yet he freely and frequently does throughout the entire game. He mostly comes off as a hypocritical idiot.
For what it's worth, though, once you get through about the first hour of the game, you'll probably be inclined to stop questioning why Vic is doing what he's doing and just go with it. As time passes, the game settles into the typical progression of GTA missions and oddball characters. While Liberty City Stories was almost devoid of memorable characters, Vice City Stories digs up a few favorites from the original Vice City, and introduces a couple of new ones as well. Vic's mildly crazy brother Lance, the alcoholic gun nut Phil Cassidy, the balls-obsessed Cuban gang leader Umberto Robina, and the foul-mouthed Ricardo Diaz (voiced by Phillip Michael Thomas, Gary Busey, Danny Trejo, and Luis Guzman, respectively) are all back. Lance plays a huge role in the story, but the others aren't quite as prominently featured as they were in the first game. Still, you get a good chunk of time with each of them.
Functionally, Vice City Stories plays very much as Liberty City Stories did. The same basic control adjustments made in the previous game to make up for the lack of a right analog stick on the PSP are made here. When running around and shooting people, you simply press the right trigger to lock onto an enemy. Occasionally the game will lock onto random civilians, as opposed to the guy with the submachine gun blowing a hole in your head, but usually it's pretty good about identifying exactly whom you should be killing. Camera control is mapped to the left trigger, and basically all you can do is whip it behind you if you get too turned around. This will lead to occasional scenarios where you're being shot from behind and have to take a couple of extra seconds to turn your character, and then the camera, to see where to shoot.
Mostly, though, the combat is quite fun. Running around causing mayhem and blasting away at the masses is just as enjoyable as it's ever been, and there's a good variety of guns and other instruments of destruction to play with. The one part that isn't so good, unfortunately, is the melee combat. Basic fisticuffs and blunt-object beatings are merely a bit clunky, but if you try to get yourself into a fight while holding a gun at close range to someone punching you in the face, you'll lose every time, unless you run a good distance away, turn back, and start firing. For some reason, the game just can't deal with aiming mechanics while you're face-to-face with an enemy; you're basically hosed.
It's hard to feel too sympathetic to Vic Vance, since he seems incapable of keeping himself out of trouble, despite the fact that he whines about it at every turn.
Vice City is a sizable open-world environment, and driving around it can be a bit overwhelming at first. Odds are that unless you've had Vice City regularly inserted in your PS2 for the last couple of years, you won't remember too much of the city's layout. But even though it'll take a while to figure out all the roads and side streets, there's plenty of familiar scenery and landmarks that appear just about where you remember them. The game's minimap is about as useful as it's ever been in depicting where you are, and there is a larger map to check on in the pause menu. Still, it feels a bit antiquated, especially considering evolutions we've seen in recent games of this type, where the best possible paths for a mission are highlighted on the map. Heck, even an arrow pointer telling you where to turn would be nice.
Driving in the game is pretty much as it's been for years now. The vehicle physics are perhaps a bit more exaggerated than they were in Liberty City Stories, and that's both a blessing and a curse. It's extremely easy to spin out while taking turns in many of the game's cars, trucks, and motorcycles, but at the same time, some of the jumps and ridiculous crashes you can have make those wacked-out physics worthwhile. You will run into weird physics glitches from time to time, and you'll sometimes get stuck in pieces of the scenery. These issues aren't exactly new to the series, but they're as annoying as ever. In addition to cars and bikes, helicopters make their return in Vice City Stories, and they're among some of the most enjoyable vehicles in the game. The flying controls are surprisingly easy to handle, even with the lack of a right analog stick, and flying around the city is often much quicker than trying to drive it.