It's like sex with an old flame, returning to Liberty City. If you forget that brief liaison in St Mark's amid all the missions in San Andreas, it's been almost five years since we swapped intimate moments, hours, with Liberty. Back then, we obsessed over her - got to know every curve, her expansive beauty and her deliciously filthy underbelly. With eyes closed, we knew where and how to get quick kicks, and the places to avoid for fear of having a new arsehole torn into us. Epiphanies and glories aside, anyone that played with Liberty had a good deal of fun messing around with her, but once we'd done her budding, moved on to the next siren.
See? Exactly like an ex. Even to the point that, in the years since, we've been introduced more interesting toys and techniques; motorbikes, air planes (that actually fly), unhindered streaming play, new outfits, faster, meaner cars and more hot coffee than even a Java addict would care for. As time has gone on, we've seen our playground grow from that of a modest city to span several counties. With scale in mind, it's no surprise that Rockstar chose our diminutive Liberty when looking to pair with Sony's PSP - both compact, but it's familiar territory for an unfamiliar technology. It's unfamiliar on more than just a hardware level, as the former technical underpinnings for the game, Criterion's Renderware, is no longer an option, having been annexed by competing publisher Electronic Arts. So, at a technical level at least, it was back to the drawing boards. Another good reason to stick with the assets you've got - in this case the city and her inhabitants - and focus on the game engine and storyline.
So what's the old bird like? We'll she's not quite the way we remember, but that's because this sequel is actually a prequel, set several years before the events of GTA3. General geography is the same, but where you once knew a construction site, there's a vast tenement complex, ferry landings replace tunnel entrances, bridges are still under construction - a perfect excuse to keep you on one island until you've progressed through a suitable number of missions. The streets are filled with familiar cars and trucks, with the unusual addition of motorcycles - a mode of transport missing from GTA3, and with good reason, as you'll find out if you wade through the typically comical game manual-cum-newspaper.
As with GTA3, the game kicks off on the island of Portland, a vague approximation of New York's Queens and Brooklyn, where you're introduced to the game's initial key characters. As is standard fayre for the GTA series, missions start off with pretty simple tasks - run somebody to a destination, take out an opposing gang member. But pretty soon things get much more complicated, and altogether more lengthy, but still following a familiar pattern - go somewhere, do something, change of plan, go somewhere else, do something there. If you're lucky, you'll get double crossed, and if you're really
lucky, there'll be a new outfit in your apartment at the end of the mission. Wooo.
Man your mission
Paying attention to the dialogue on the mission briefs is essential, as it's way too easy to miss an important objective, though on too many occasions the brief is, erm, too brief, and you're left wondering what the hell to do next. Example; You've chased your mark around town, got him out of his car, but now he's planted a bomb, so what the hell do you do about that? Boom! Back to the start. It's here, when things go wrong and you're killed or arrested, that you'll find the welcome return of the taxi cab sat waiting outside of a hospital or police station. Last seen in Vice City, the cab takes you back to the start of the mission and saves at least a little legwork getting across town.
Several hours of mission-only play gets you onto the second island, Staunton. By now it's clear that nothing strays too far from the formula set out in GTA3, though it's good to see a little experimentation; one mission has a fixed perspective, leaving you free to run around frantically dodging several chainsaw wielding attackers without having to constantly adjust the camera - which is nice, because the camera tends to be a real pain when you get into a closed quarters.