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Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
Score: 96%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Games
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1 - 6
Genre: Action/ Third Person Shooter/ Mission-Based Driving

Graphics & Sound:
Is it too early to say, "Been there, seen that?" I don't want to rain on the parade, but I'm sure that some folks out there may be leery of the revolution turning into the commodity. From all appearances, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories is a worthy successor to the crown, and I don't just mean the portable crown. I tend to think that if a great game can scale well to the portable, it probably will win a bigger audience. Being able to take the game on the run means you can gather more friends and play in more places. As long as the presentation is comparable, why stay home?

And the presentation is definitely comparable, to at least the first PS2 game. The large-console version looks more detailed and clean, but there are few visceral differences other than the smaller screen. I found the graphics somewhat muddy, but there is a slider to adjust brightness in the Options menu which was very helpful. Starting on the opposite side of Vice City may have something to do with the graphics feeling a little less zesty. Those who played the first game will remember that the side of the island that includes Escobar Airport also includes more workaday, blue collar neighborhoods and the drab downtown. With headphones on, all the dialogue and music come through faithfully. GTA: Vice City Stories is long on all the things that made earlier games such a phenom. Cool Vice City, always a great place to visit, is rendered faithfully in all its splendor. Since the flow of the game is different than the original, you will find new landmarks, but it is still fun to see old locations and reminisce. The new characters are laugh-out-loud funny, with some great voice acting and dialogue. The music is a wide sampling of hits but doesn't feel as "big" as in previous games. Maybe I just need to spend more time in my car... You can customize the playlist to some extent, as an added feature.

In the first game, I loved raiding the army base. This was always fraught because there was no plan more calculated to get you "Wasted!" than running into a compound filled with heavily armed soldiers. You can imagine my surprise and pleasure when GTA: Vice City Stories started off inside that very same army base. Victor Vance (yes, that last name does sound familiar...) is a soldier recently transferred to the Vice City base and he just as quickly finds himself transferred to civilian life. "Crimes and misdemeanors" doesn't even come close to describing the escapades that land Vic in hot water. The only thing he has going for him is that everyone around him seems even deeper into "la vida loca." Hey, it was the eighties, right? We all engaged in a little debauchery.

Okay, my debauchery didn't stray far beyond sneaking out of my house to go to high-school parties. I sure wasn't jacking cars, running down random pedestrians (or gang members), and carpooling with uzi-toting whores. If you were that kind of kid, GTA: Vice City Stories may have a documentary feel to it. The less larcenous of us can just sit back and live vicariously through Vic Vance's experience of becoming a very bad man. The fall from grace is gradual, and Vic starts off running errands before moving his way up in the ranks. The progression for the single-player game is relaxed and includes many missions that serve to train a player on the basic mechanics. Later missions require well-honed skills and sometimes luck. The times when luck came into play and things got slightly frustrating were minimal; Rockstar seems to have mastered the balance by now. Experienced players may actually find the early stages of the game too slow. Luckily there are some neat devices to keep the pace up, such as the "Trip Skip" feature that allows you to skip the segment where you drive to a story location after you are wasted or busted. The other nice time saver is a taxi that waits to pick you up to return you to where your last mission began.

A real crown jewel and must-have feature for this platform is the multiplayer option. Hosting or joining a game gives you access to ten special game scenarios (don't call them "mini-games") that can host up to six players! The options run from some standard "grab and go" scenarios to more exotic games that use powerful vehicles in the game like the attack helicopter and the tank. Returning to where I started, if anyone were to accuse this game of being a retread, they would be proven wrong by this multiplayer addition. The joy of playing against friends or neighbors may actually outweigh the single-player story for some folks. Either way or both ways, it's clear that Rockstar didn't come at GTA: Vice City Stories with any goal but complete excellence. There is enough here to keep us busy and jamming on our PSPs for a very long time.

The earlier parts of the storyline for Vic is not all that challenging, but things heat up slowly. Rampage missions are still very difficult, no matter when you embark on them during the game. Other challenges that involve special items, vehicles or the "red balloons" are exceptionally difficult, and balance out the game for more seasoned players. Rockstar did a brilliant job of not assuming that everyone coming to this version of the game will be a veteran of the earlier titles. Too many times we see even the second game in a series become almost completely inscrutable for anyone who didn't play the first title. GTA: Vice City Stories is built for all from the GTA virgin to the veteran. In the beginning, the veterans will have to be patient at times and the novice will have to stretch and sweat a bit. After the first few hours of play, things have evened out and more of the game will have opened up. My experience has been that the GTA games are so open-ended that they encourage different styles of play. Gamers who want to live on the edge can hunt down Rampage challenges and rack up three or four stars while more casual gamers can devote time to tracking down unique jumps or racing challenges.

Game Mechanics:
GTA: Vice City Stories is a great translation from the large console, with a few exceptions; the biggest difference I found was that there is some lag between initiating an action and watching it happen on the screen. This is especially frustrating at times when things are heating up and you need to switch weapons, sprint or get out of a car on the fly. There were times when any of these clicked through quickly and other times when I found myself pressing a button several times before anything happened. Inconsistent, but not broken. Chalk this up to lag in the system or poorly implemented control schemes. The aiming system has some interesting quirks, as well. A grenade is not a precision instrument, but it needs to go in the general direction intended. Many times in GTA: Vice City Stories, you will line up a throw for a grenade or projectile, hit the button and watch Vic throw in some opposite direction. This is especially problematic when it puts you in the blast zone. Targeting is otherwise easy with the lock-on feature. Controlling vehicles is as good or bad as you found the control for the big-console versions; I like it, but there's no accounting for taste.

Multiplayer is an exclusive mode that doesn't mix with single player at all. Starting a multiplayer jaunt in the midst of the regular story will cancel out your single-player game and lose progress after the last save point. There are ample warnings about this, but it's a feature worth noting. I'm still a little confused as to why there isn't an option to auto-save in these games... I understand the appeal of the safe-house concept, but the safe-house already has a function related to changing outfits, restocking health, and reducing stars. In the next iteration of the GTA franchise, auto-save is a feature on my wish-list. I think it would make the entire game experience more immersive. Even without this feature, GTA: Vice City Stories is as deep and fun as games come. It might be wrong to say this is the best PSP game you'll play this year, but GTA fans will feel that way. What I know is that if the GTA franchise can continue to maintain this level of quality and innovate for each and every platform, we'll look back on these games with the reverence that RPG fans have for the Final Fantasy franchise. A weird comparison, I know, but just roll with me...

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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