It's easy to use terms like "cash cow", "milking", and "oh dear god when will it stop!?" with a series that gets the annual release treatment. The yearly grind can be a harsh mistress, wearing out the fun a once-unique game used to have, but certain titles manage to rise above the challenge and deliver a good time anyway. While Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories isn't the best GTA ever, it still ends up a welcome addition to Rockstar's long-running, mostly-annual murder simulator.
The setup should be familiar to anyone who's played GTA before, which means just about everyone. There's a big open city to play in, with new areas opening up as the storyline progresses, but most of the fun comes from messing around while looking for trouble. Missions are gotten both from places marked on the map, signifying people who have jobs to give out, and various vehicles scattered throughout the city. The usual cop car, taxi, and ambulance missions make their return, feeling maybe a bit too familiar for long-time GTA fans, but new challenges like being a gunner on an AI-controlled motorcycle can be a lot of fun.
Missions aside, the bulk of playtime is involved with just screwing around. A crowd of people just crying out for a molotov cocktail, or maybe getting the wanted rating to six stars in order to steal a tank, is just the thing for a rainy afternoon. Ramps in odd places are even more fun now that Liberty City has motorcycles in it, almost making up for the lack of any kind of airplane. It's a big sandbox to play in, and no other series gets it as right as GTA. The sheer amount of mayhem you can get up to is as amusing as ever, and just as likely to cause politicians to label gamers immoral, bloodthirsty psychos. Who knew that running through the city streets decapitating random people with a katana was incompatible with the concept "all in good fun?"
As entertaining as goofing off in the city is, the bit that expands the game into new territories is the story. Liberty City's is the weakest in the series, excluding the first two games, with Toni Cipriani never being more than the mob's errand boy. On the plus side, the missions themselves are pretty good. Delivery, racing, and run & gun action are the standard tasks, but the mission details are varied enough to keep it interesting. Whether it's trying to win the love of a psycho Mom or watching Donald Love's fortunes come and go, the plot and its relation to the missions keep things feeling fresh. While most jobs are pretty easy, with very few needing more than one or two attempts, every once in a while one will come along that needs planning and preparation. Bull-in-a-china-shop tactics can be fun, but snagging a sniper rifle before a mission in order to thin out an overwhelming force from a distance has its points as well.
While a lot of fun, it just wouldn't be GTA if there wasn't a laundry list of problems as long as your arm. Cars that disappear the second the camera isn't on them anymore, a targeting system as likely to lock onto a random pedestrian as the cop shooting at you, the graphics engine forgetting to draw in bits of the road, and more make their return. These issues have been plaguing the series since GTA3, and it would be nice to see them resolved someday.
Despite a few bumps on the road, Liberty City Stories ends up being a solid and fun game. Liberty City was always a well-designed playground, and its re-use ends up feeling like a homecoming. The annoying glitches are overwhelmed by the sheer addictive nature of the gameplay, whether it's looking for trouble or going on any of the dozens of missions. There's always something else to do. Odds are good it might involve a flamethrower in some way, and you can't ask for better than that.