The often-overlooked Liberty City and Vice City Stories have some of the best character development and the most cinematic moments in the franchise.

Another year, another cascade of Grand Theft Auto rumors, particularly as E3 approaches in mid-June. A 4chan poster who claims to work in a “coordinating capacity” with the franchise’s maker, Rockstar Games, recently alleged that the long-teased new GTA installment would take place across five states.

But while much has been written about GTA V, which is still going strong online, and the classic 3D Grand Theft Auto games, starting with GTA III, not as much has been written about its expansions. GTA: Liberty City Stories and GTA: Vice City Stories, released on the PlayStation Portable (PSP) in 2005 and 2006, respectively, (and then on the PlayStation 2) also deserve some love.

Similar to the third or fourth season of a good television show, these two games give important space to other characters and themes left out of the PS2-era GTA games. And using the same Rockstar funhouse versions of New York and Miami from GTA III and Vice City, these expansions deepen and refine overall Grand Theft Auto lore.

Liberty City Stories

Consider the late Liberty City Stories mission “Bringing the House Down,” in which main character Toni Cipriani is tasked with blowing up Fort Staunton. A prequel to GTA III, Liberty City Stories takes place three years earlier, in 1998, with Fort Staunton still in control of the Sindacco crime family, rivals to the Leone clan. Bombs go off, and the neighborhood is leveled from below, explaining why the 2001 locale in GTA III looks totally different and is in the control of a different criminal faction, the Colombians, who operate out of Panlantic Construction.

One thing the old GTAs have going for them is that the world opens up in stages. There is no need for the same instant gratification served up in GTA V and Online. Cipriani, who’s been laying low the past few years, returns to the humble streets of Portland, looking across the river to the glistening Staunton Island skyline.

Cipriani rises through the ranks of the Leone crime family, chasing the coveted status of Made Man. He, along with Mickey Hamfists, ferry a bright-eyed J. D. O’Toole to his initiation ceremony only to whack the snitch in a lonely Harwood Junkyard. Later on, in “Making Toni,” we tense up when Cipriani walks down a lonely alley on his big day.

Luckily, he has earned the trust of the Leones.

Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories sometimes push you toward the fringes of the maps, forcing you to learn and maybe even learn to love other sections of the familiar landscape from GTA III and Vice City. Portland Docks and the Harwood Ferry Terminal now become the staging grounds for a whole labor union undercurrent.

The most notable moments in these early mafia Portland missions come from “Ma,” your own mother, who barks out mission orders from behind the curtains of her second-story window of Momma’s Restaurante.

Cipriani is always chasing his mother’s approval and never gets it, no matter how many bodies pile up on her behalf. And even after he leaves Portland in his rearview, Ma continues to send random waves of assassins after him, a thorn in his side for much of the game.

I’ll let Freud unpack all of that.

Grand Theft Auto is generally what I’d call an equal opportunity offender—punching up, punching down, and flashing a stretch hummer full of middle fingers at “political correctness.” Often the only true north is whether you, the player, are titillated or aghast. Still, I think the series is smarter about power than it’s often given credit for, and the more barebones Liberty City Stories allows that to shine through.

On Staunton Island, Cipriani primarily takes missions from Donald Love, who may or may not be inspired by a certain media mogul turned something else. Unlike in GTA III, this younger and more erudite version of Donald seems straight out of Phillips Exeter and Yale, ranting to “Antonio” about his political ambitions with sing-songy glee.

Cipriani makes an early mark on the new island by assassinating Mayor R. C. Hole, somehow only engendering a one-star wanted level (so really, how beloved was he), and then derailing the campaign of Miles O’Donovan, who seeks the mayorship in the aftermath. In “Steering the Vote,” Cipriani, and by proxy, you the player, ride around in a campaign van spewing propaganda: “O’Donovan hates America” and “Donald Love is a war hero.”

Yes, the 2005 Rockstar classic predicted what even the savviest political scientists missed.

Love, with Cipriani as strongman, sabotages ballots and voting machines, stopping at nothing to win. And with just enough plausible deniability that the Entertainment Software Rating Board didn’t slap an AO rating on this wild title, it’s implied that Donald Love is also a cannibal, supping on the flesh of his adversaries, including Liberty Tree reporter Ned Burner and his former mentor, real estate mogul Avery Carrington.

GTA goes there, but with patented Rockstar humor. “Listen, Don, we need to win this election. OK, we need to make sure that there are no skeletons in the closet, if you know what I mean,” Cipriani warns.

And though Donald eventually escapes to Francis International Airport with Cipriani’s help, you’d be a fool to assume he won’t try to return to Liberty City soon.

Vice City Stories

Vice City Stories takes us back to the 1980s vibe of Miami, two years before Vice City. Only instead of Tommy Vercetti and a Scarface storyline, the saga centers around Victor Vance, Grand Theft Auto’s second Black main character after San Andreas’ Carl “CJ” Johnson blazed the trail. Unlike CJ, or Franklin in GTA V, Victor Vance has a military backstory, not one drawn from the hood.

Vance hopes to collect a steady paycheck from the military, but that goes up in smoke because of his corrupt cocaine-addicted superior Jerry Martinez. Kicked out of the barracks, Vance takes a series of odd jobs for arms dealer Phil Cassidy, who much like Donald Love is at his most bombastic in this expansion.

In a highlight mission, “Boomshine Blowout,” Vance navigates a forklift through a burning warehouse to retrieve crates of boomshine—not to be confused with moonshine. Only, with each successful crate delivered to Cassidy’s truck, a new piece of debris reroutes your path. Another entry “Domo Arigato Domestoboto,” also plays on a ticking time bomb puzzle theme and involves controlling a Short Circuit-esque robot maid to crack a safe, all the while juggling (oh so tedious) domestic tasks. Both Vice City Stories and Liberty City Stories, rather than limited by the PSP, use the conventions of handheld games to conjure up something pretty original.

Victor Vance is a bit too passive in the early storyline, being pulled in many directions by other more dynamic and active characters, including Cassidy. A strong central character like Tommy Vercetti/Ray Liotta he is not.

Once Vance arrives on the second island, he does start to pop a bit more. Too often in media depictions, Black main characters are alone on an island, without any Black friends or family to speak of—totally removed from their community. In Vice City Stories, though, it’s almost as if we get two main characters: Vance, who does everything by the books, and his brother Lance, the little devil on his shoulder. Soon the duo get in deep with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and I cannot recall the last time I’ve seen two Black men working side by side for so long in a video game.

The game’s empire business side missions allow Vance to acquire property and earn money through a protection racket, drugs, and other smuggling work. This crude system is an early version of GTA Online’s elaborate business property options. Check out the office icon in GTA Online and then look at the identical one in Vice City Stories if you have doubts.

Perhaps the most controversial character in the game is Reni Wassulmaier, the gender-bending Flashback FM DJ, who becomes a living, breathing central character in Vice City Stories. While Reni’s depiction unfortunately resorts to transphobic tropes, she’s also the driver of some of the game’s most memorable and inventive missions out of InterGlobal Studios, and someone that Vance leans on.

Music has always been serious business in Grand Theft Auto games, with more than 30 hours of music in GTA V alone. Search Youtube for ’90s classic DJ Quik or MC Eiht tracks and you’ll see a new generation of fans shouting out GTA in the comments, more proof that top-flight video games can have as much cultural influence as film and television.

Additionally, in contrast to GTA III’s mediocre soundtrack, Liberty City Stories’ radio brings legitimate East Coast credibility with hip hop station Liberty Jam and even features three tracks by late legend DMX. Vice City Stories, meanwhile, builds on the solid foundation of GTA: Vice City with even more gems like Keni Burke’s “Risin’ to the Top.”

One other radio-bound figure who becomes a real character in Vice City Stories is Phil Collins—yes that Phil Collins. After a series of earlier preparation missions, Wassulmaier’s “In the Air Tonight” has Vance foiling saboteurs looming in the rafters of Hyman Memorial Stadium. Who knew the beloved musician was in deep with the mafia? Once successful, players are treated to an uninterrupted Collins performance, fitting for a series obsessed with song.

With the love and detail even put into these PSP games, as always, there’s just so much else going on in Grand Theft Auto. Now, Californian that I am, I’m going to do some manifesting: GTA 6 will come out soon. GTA 6 will come out soon.


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