Preview: GTA: Vice City Stories

Rockstar returns to the excess of the '80s for a new PSP-only Grand Theft Auto. Fresh impressions, latest trailer and gameplay clips inside.

Few people were surprised when Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories snapped its chains and fled to the PlayStation 2. That is, after all, where the real money is. Still, the release of Rockstar's first game for the PSP certainly did its part. Around half of the million or so PSPs in the UK have a copy of the game lodged in them, and it's a good bet that the situation isn't much different elsewhere - except for Japan, of course. So the audience for another one is there. But Rockstar insists that this time the game is staying put.

The first thing I noticed about Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories was how damn good it looks. The quirks of the hardware sometimes blind you to its power, but the developers at Rockstar have made this prequel to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City sparkle. There are signs that they're extending beyond the comfort zone, though, such as in the missions where you take to the air. The draw distance is admirable, stretching off into the distance, letting you use your vantage to survey the massive city. But the texture errors are a reminder that this is not coming easily for the portable.

Excellent, too, is the water and everything associated with it. Rockstar calls it an understated character in the game, adding as it does to what is already impressive bulk. Vice City is double the size of its portable predecessor. These bloated proportions are mirrored in the missions, which vary considerably in size, instead of sticking towards the lower end as Liberty City Stories did. Part of the reason for this is Rockstar's realization that gamers aren't necessarily playing their PSPs on the go. Sure, there are the subway riders who lose themselves in massive games, but many of them are playing at home too, tethered to the wall for that bar of extra brightness. And it's for them that missions are now more similar in structure to those found in the console instalments.

Less visible but no less real are the improvements to the game's AI. Free-roaming games suffer from what Rockstar explains is called clumping - when similar vehicles or characters congregate spontaneously in the same area. You'll notice this if you play the first PSP game for any amount of time. Vice City Stories does away with that non-randomness, says Rockstar. Every effort has been made to make the city more believable, hiding the population algorithms behind another layer of smarts.

The city may be the same, but the two years between this and Vice City means that here you're faced with more of the birth stage of '80s excess, when money was pumping into high rises and hard drugs were spreading through society. Not surprisingly, narcotics play a big role in the game, and they formed the impetus behind half of the missions I got to see. But that doesn't mean it's all grizzly. One mission tasks you with driving land and water vehicles for a TV commercial; it's a fitting introductory mission to the new craft on offer.

Another of the defining features of the '80s was the musical landscape. The excellent soundtrack to Vice City was actually one of the things that kept me playing. Unfortunately, Rockstar claimed the tracks in the preview build - most of which sounded new, relative to Vice City - are placeholders, though it's fair to assume that once the legal wrangling has been taken care of they'll be confirmed. Should that be the case, I can see music again being a big part of the draw for Vice City Stories. The DJs are as funny as ever, perhaps even more blatant - if that's possible.

Water doubles the playing area of Vice City - and it's far improved compared to previous GTA games.

Even if you're not a slave to the birth era of electronic music, there's more than enough gameplay here to keep you playing. Rockstar would not give an estimate of the playing time being included, but there's every indication that this is the company is cramming as much into Vice City Stories as that poor UMD will hold. I only got to see a sliver of the singleplayer story mode, and Rockstar is again promising multiplayer bits to extend that further.

One of the core features in Vice City Stories is how open the world is to exploration. Not long after playing the game you'll find yourself commandeering boats and other watercraft, and you'll take to the air after a time too. I didn't get to see any of the minigames, but Rockstar promises that you'll be spending just as much time earning sundry cash through non-essential missions as you have in the past.

Based on the handful of missions we've played, involving breakneck city navigation, high-speed chases to beat rivals to a "package", large-scale shootouts and landing a helicopter in just the nick of time, there's no doubt that once you're adjusted back into the GTA swing of things, control is tight and intuitive. Whether you're changing weapons, locking on target or hammering down a road in hot pursuit, things feel as natural as they've ever been. And we left our latest hands-on session at Rockstar, as always, wanting more.

It's important to note that what Rockstar has shown so far is just a fraction of the experience. There's still the multiplayer to consider, for one thing. And the way my question of playing time was approached gives me the impression that Rockstar is aiming to keep the world going in some way - perhaps through downloadable content. We'll find out soon enough. The second coming of the Grand Theft Auto series to the handheld is just a few weeks away now. And with the next-gen debut of the series slated for October 2007, you can be confident that the only place you're going to be playing this one is on the PSP.

Stay tuned for our verdict on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories.

Alex Wollenschlaeger
Editor, Kikizo

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Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
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Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
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