a review of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
a videogame developed by Rockstar Leeds
and published by Take Two Interactive
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation portable
text by Thom Moyles
All it took to get me to buy my first videogame console was 20 minutes of playing Grand Theft Auto III. The child of a hippie and a luddite, my console-based experiences all took place at the homes of friends, where we would typically trade off the controller from life to life, which would result in me playing for a minute, dying, then watching my friend play for half-an-hour. This is probably why I’ve grown to love games that don’t require reactions or memorization, as well as games that offer co-op. After years of pretty much exclusively playing games on various kinds of Apple Macintoshes, GTA3 was a straight-up revelation in the form of driving a flaming police car through a busy intersection to the booming sounds of a track from Scientist Rids the World from the Curse of the Vampires. The next day, I took some savings down to the local Circuit City and purchased the same PS2 that now sits grimly in my living room, with Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories inside. Even though it no longer plays blue discs, I feel like I owe it an apology.
Liberty City Stories is the only game where I’ve apologized to other people in the room while playing. I’ve seriously, with no sense of ironic enjoyment, turned my face away from the screen, winced, and muttered “sorry about that” as the game plays out onscreen. Most of these moments where I’m ashamed of forcing the experience of my playing the game on other people (never mind my shame at playing the game itself), occur during cutscenes. As more GTA games have been released, the series has become more dependent on writing, both in terms of the cutscenes played out by increasingly-recognizable actors and in terms of the supposedly-spontaneous audio that’s part of your avatar careening around a city. One major problem with this is that if you’ve got a lot of writing going into your game, you better make sure that it’s being done by somebody who knows what they’re doing. People as a whole are willing to let horrible prose slip by if it’s a single screen of expository text before you get down to the grim business of taking out an entire alien race with only a single fighter craft; having a bunch of hacks, or worse, programmers, write your game, is going to to be excruciating when the player is constantly reminded about the low quality of your hiring decisions.
“Low” is pretty much the Word of the Day for this game. Not in a moral sense. Just in a sense that every creative effort that went into Liberty City Stories is an example of plucking the low-hanging apple. If given the option of making the cheap and obvious joke, the game takes that choice every single time. There’s a sequence, not so far into the game, where your character is driving around a noise van yelling out nasty things about the political opponent of one of your employers. Let’s call this opponent O’Hoolihan, because I can’t remember what he was actually named. The first thing your character yells is reasonably hilarious, although not hilarious enough to be memorable. From there things go downhill fast, as your character yells things like “O’Hoolihan is a communist!” or “O’Hoolihan hates America!” (yes, they used both of these, possibly consecutively). If you have the bad luck of having to play this sequence again, you’ll have to hear the same horrible jibes, in the same sequence as they were originally offered, as your soul slowly slides away.
The mission requirements consist of driving your noise van through shining checkpoints to play your message and then destroying some competing vans. Unfortunately, this is about as creative as the mission design gets. When you first play the mission in GTA3 where you assassinate a rival gang member in an alley and you have an option of gunning him down or setting up a bomb in his getaway car, people’s minds were blown. The game was giving you problems, and then the tools that you needed to solve them. The sky was the limit, or at least it seemed, as the rest of that game played out with a series of by-the-numbers missions that never really utilized the open-ended nature of the game. That this early mission remains the height of mission design, some 3 games later, is ridiculous. There’s a small amount of templates that determine how missions work, with no real deviation from those except for when the developers want to get even lazier than that, which is when you get missions like the one where your character gets “made”. This consists of you leaving your savepoint, driving to a location and walking down an alley, which takes roughly 30 seconds total. Once there, a 5 second cutscene indicates that the crime boss is making you a made man (although you don’t get to see what this actually entails, possibly because the developers don’t know either). Immediately afterwards, you’re teleported back to your savepoint.
Still, this is better than most of the other cutscene-heavy sequences in the game, because it’s fairly short. The rest are full of stupid people yelling stupid things at each other over stupid plans, usually in an astonishingly ugly room. There isn’t a single sympathetic character in the game and worse, there isn’t a single interesting character in the game either. For a game that expects the player to spend a lot of time watching and listening to a bunch of assholes scream stilted dialogue at each other, Liberty City Stories does a horrible job of making any of it entertaining, let alone engaging. After you apologize to your friends for having to sit through a humorous sequence where your crook protagonist hits his prostitute sometimes-lover, the only thing left to do is drive around town, hitting motorcyclists, in the hope that watching virtual people get tossed 40 feet through the air will distract your friends from the videogame systematically flipping off everybody in the room.
What is good, good enough for me to throw in a star, is that the game has a radio station that plays pretty much only Punjabi Pop. If driving around in an anarchic fashion has lost a little bit of its luster over the latest iterations, doing so while listening to some nicely produced tablas is still pretty damn fun. With GTAIV looming over the not-so-distant horizon, I’m hoping that Rockstar arrests their current trend of development and is as adventurous with their game design as they have been with choosing their in-game music.