GRAND THEFT AUTO: VICE CITY STORIES / Rockstar / Sony PSP
Vice City Stories ends up playing the same tune that predecessor Liberty City Stories did. It's an impressive conversion of the PS2 Vice City engine to the PSP that retains the viibrant color, draw distances and core gameplay despite having slightly lower technical specs and only one iffy analog nubbie to work with. It even manages to cobble in some San Andreas elements retroactively, like swimming and gang warfare.
But once again the nubbie is the game's downfall; that, and the fact that the designers seemed to take no pains whatsoever to adjust the game's mission design to its relative imprecision and clunkiness. Liberty City Stories had more of an excuse as it was the first handheld conversion on this scale; with that one under their belt, they should have learned that the console-style mission design needed tweaking to fit the PSP's limitations better, but they apparently didn't learn or didn't care. You can probably thank mainstream gaming journalisms lack of criticism on those points (where it seems to be verboten for any game with GTA in the name to get less than an 85% bare minimum) for that, but whatever the case, Vice City Stories comes right back with the same problems. Hate those timed missions and mandatory janky street races on the consoles? They're even more fun when controlled with one clunky analog stick - and now with horrible timed forklift missions for an extra special bonus!
We step into the shoes of Vic Vance, older brother of Lance Vance and last seen being shot up pretty badly in the introduction to Vice City. The game steps back two years prior to that, with Vic going out into the world to attempt to earn money to pay his sick brother's medical bills. Vic is the first truly straight man in the GTA series; he's not a criminal at all prior to the game's outset and seems to have total disdain for any sort of illegal activity. Unfortunately, he's the case that proves why a straight man is a terrible choice for a GTA protagonist. Vic joins the Army, and has the misfortune to get stationed in Vice City under the command of a totally corrupt drug-dealing sergeant. The sergeant railroads Vic into smuggling pot and stashing it under his bed, and when it's found Vic gets dumped out onto the street with nothing to his name. Vic goes to work for Phil (the crazy hillbilly who gave a series of missions in Vice City), whom he bailed out of a jam while running the pot. The situation quickly gets laughable as Vic gets up on his moral high horse repeatedly during cutscenes, only to turn right around and go murder scores of people in gameplay. The story is never really the central appeal of GTA games and it's OK for them to slide a bit here, but VCS's story is a little more ridiculous and hard to swallow than other games in the series, with more unappealing characters and also re-treading a lot of ground that's already been covered in the series.
To end on a positive note, however, Rockstar splashed out a little more cash in the audio department than they did in the prior game. VCS cuts a handful of Vice City's radio stations, but retains most of them and brings back a mostly new roster of licensed 1980s music. The "big name" actors from Vice City whose characters return here are retained - Philip Michael Thomas as Lance, Gary Busey as Phil, and Danny Trejo as ... uh ... that Cuban gang leader who was always air humping.
VCS is an impressive technical marvel, but is really dragged down by the poorly optimized mission design. And roaming the land freely isn't much a of a viable alternative as there's few side missions other than hunting down the 99 Red Balloons. Eventually you can get gang/turf wars going, but that requires hanging in past a number of incredibly irritating mandatory story missions that you might decide just aren't even worth the trouble. As with Liberty City Stories, if you really want to play it the PS2 port is probably the way to go.