Greetings again from Liberty City, the fictional, crime-plagued metropolis that put the controversial Grand Theft Auto video game series on the map four years ago.
Gangsters, crooks, streetwalkers and innocent bystanders: they're all here, in a living, breathing town somehow shoehorned into the pocket-size Sony PlayStation Portable, the entertainment giant's newish handheld gaming device.
After playing the game for a dozen hours or so, I can report that the just-released Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is about as offensive and habit-forming as its predecessors, which have sold millions while prompting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to push for an investigation of violent games and their impact on children.
The game is big news for a handheld device that has seemed a little lost without a must-have title going for it. Sony has pitched the PSP as a game machine with media playback extras thrown in but so far has sold more video content than games. Over at retailers such as the Tenleytown Best Buy, offerings for the Sony device have been slowly expanding -- but most of that added shelf space has been taken up by movies such as "Saw," "Napoleon Dynamite" and "The Grudge."
While Sony has sold 2.3 million PSPs in North America since its launch in March, at last count there are 145 video titles for it, three times the number of games. While the most popular video titles have sold hundreds of thousands of copies for the PSP, Grand Theft Auto's most recent installment for the PlayStation 2 sold more than 6.6 million copies.
A GTA game in the PSP lineup might start to tip the balance back, making the Sony gizmo a game device again and finally giving Nintendo, long the dominant player in this market, something to worry about. Years ago, Sony made it sort-of socially acceptable for grown-ups to admit they play games, with the original PlayStation. Liberty City Stories is the kind of title this gadget will need more of if it's going to make that argument for the handheld arena.
The story arc in Liberty City Stories is pretty much the same as in its predecessors: young hustler on the make does the bidding of various thugs and power brokers until he comes into his own.
In this installment, the player takes on the role of Toni Cipriani, a goon who climbs to the top of a corrupt town's crime empire by riling up various gangs, leaning on union officials and trying to influence a city election at the behest of a local media mogul.
Liberty City was the setting for Rockstar Games' first breakout hit in the series; later versions took the action to alternate-world versions of Miami and California. For millions of gamers who have spent dozens of hours in this game series, popping this game into the PSP and seeing Liberty City again is sort of like coming home: Hey, there's the old hideout!
Dan Houser, vice president at game developer Rockstar Games, says he didn't change much about the game's content or style while fitting Liberty City Stories to the PSP, though the game's development team aimed for three-minute missions, compared with an average of five-minute missions for the console versions of the games.
"We always wanted to make a game that was like being in your own TV show or movie but that also gave you the freedom to explore," said Houser, who is also one of the founders of the company, about the series. Indeed, the thrill of the games, partly, is the chance to poke around in a gangster's home turf. What, say, does Tony Soprano do when the camera isn't on him?
Though I've checked out and mostly forgotten a bunch of games for this device, I've now played Liberty City Stories pretty much everywhere -- watching TV, while in a restaurant, in a car. (It was parked.) The first hour or so was Important Game Industry Research, but the rest has been on my own time. I'll play it on an upcoming transatlantic flight until either the battery dies or my seatmate strenuously objects.
But I wouldn't give this game to kids. Parents sometimes wonder whether games have to be violent to be fun; it's a good question -- but Liberty City Stories won't answer it any more than the previous Grand Theft Auto games have, and Rockstar has certainly cranked out one or two games that were both violent and not fun over the years.
And perhaps I'm the wrong guy to ask. Though I've worked through only about one-third of the game, it has already given me a ranking that would shame my mom: "Jailbird."
Take-Two Takes Another Developer
Take-Two Interactive Software, the game publisher that owns Rockstar Games, announced Monday that it has acquired local game developer Firaxis Games. Firaxis, famous for being the home of local game-designing legend Sid Meier, is based in Hunt Valley, Md., and just released the latest in its best-selling Civilization game series through the publisher.