Like squeezing Marlon Brando into a tuxedo or forcing a horse into a bedroom, there are limits to what you can cram into a finite space. So when the announcement was made, the cynics had a field day…
"What, the Grand Theft Auto experience – the current bastion on the TV consoles of open-ended, go-where-you-like gameplay, and one of the most expansive videogames around – on the PSP?" they asked incredulously, and possibly less eloquently.
"Can't be done," said one. "Impossible," added another. "I'll sue," snapped the third.
Better call off the lawyers. GTA has completed its compression from PlayStation 2's DVD to the PSP's UMD. And, crucially, it's still GTA.
The GTA games offer you a life on the wrong side of the law, by placing you within vast three-dimensional cities where you cause as much mayhem as you can handle while rising up the ranks of the criminal underworld. Some structure is provided by plot-tied missions involving the kind of activities you'd expect of an Armani-clad, Beretta-loving Mafiosi, but here's the thing: the missions aren't a crucial element. You'll need to complete them to see the end credits, but more time is spent between missions than undertaking them.
That's because the GTA games are huge virtual playgrounds, where you live an absorbing alternate existence free from moral restraints. Drug trafficking, corruption, extortion, prostitution, murder: if it's illegal, it's in and at your disposal.
Fancy that car that's just stopped at the traffic lights? Take it. One button press and its owner is lying on the floor, with you now behind the wheel. If he protests, run him over. If pedestrians take his side, squash them too. Should the police arrive, ram them. Then shoot them until their car blows up.
GTA games, however, are not harsh. This is mostly because their darker elements are balanced by stylised, cartoon-like graphics, and a witty script that cleverly caricatures the serious gangster films the games emulate. The result is an exaggerated version of 'reality' that is unlikely to be taken out of context by the intended mature audience.
Anyway, where were we? That's right, Liberty City. This seedy metropolis – the setting for the PSP edition – will soon feel like your second home. Working for the Leone crime family, as Toni Cipriani you'll soon know its streets out of necessity (shortcuts are lifesavers when evading an entire police force – though a visit to a vehicle spray shop will swiftly cut short a chase by disguising your criminal status), as well as simply desiring to discover its many facets.
Whether it's ramps from which to perform insane bike – or if you're feeling brave, car – jumps, local amenities (mostly gun shops!), extracurricular activities such as locating Liberty City Stories' 100 hidden packages, or simply cruising around admiring just how much the developer has managed to cram into this game, there's always something new to find, something fun to do.
Should you prefer a little more discipline, the game's missions will take you on a tour of the city as you restore absolute Leone law. The narrative may contain more wiseguy clichés than Hollywood would know what to do with, but the stylish cutscenes sandwiching your illicit escapades are exceptionally convincing, thanks largely to the excellent voice-overs.
The missions themselves offer little variation, however. The top layer may involve gunning down a rival or scouting the neighbourhood collecting earnings from prostitutes, but this is generally underpinned by an A-to-B-to-A structure. On the PSP they're shorter than their console brethren – a good dynamic given the volatile nature of pocket gaming. But they're also more frustrating, partly due to an unbalanced difficulty curve and, worse, the occasionally awkward control system. Movement, particularly at the wheel of certain vehicles, can feel unpredictable, while targeting your desired opponent is something of a lottery (the manual override is too clumsily employed to be of any use during shootouts). Then there's the camera system, which loses all pretence of trying to properly frame the action in confined spaces.
In the scheme of things, the above are not game-breaking problems, but they nevertheless tarnish an otherwise excellent production.
To reinforce that excellence, GTA:LCS boasts a six-player wireless mode featuring seven styles of play (from deathmatch to checkpoint-based racing). Some work better than others, but while it's unlikely to keep you from the main game for long, multiplayer is still a very welcome option – one even the console versions have yet to offer.
Indeed, the hustle and bustle of Liberty City's streets may lack the intensity found on those console versions, but the illusion of a living, breathing city remains as forceful – in itself something of a landmark for a handheld title.
Who would have thought so much could be packed into a tiny UMD?Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is on sale now.