Dissecting Rockstar's formula: Joystiq previews Vice City Stories (PSP) & Bully (PS2)

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Dissecting Rockstar's formula: Joystiq previews Vice City Stories (PSP) & Bully (PS2)
Bully & GTA: VCSThe headquarters of Rockstar Games, a thin 6-story building squeezed between Best Buy and Adidas, stands just north of where Broadway cuts through Houston Street flowing downward into a mecca of trend -- or shopping for trends -- known as SoHo. A few blocks away Sony has erected one of the world's largest PSP displays (seen here), which towers over the intersection of Lafayette and Houston. But it's not just neighboring downtown-Manhattan real estate that connects Rockstar and Sony.

"Rockstar + Sony" boils down to "Grand Theft Auto + PlayStation 2," or its derivative, "Grand Theft Auto + PSP." Few formulas have been as eagerly consumed by gamers and as critically accepted as this one; and none have been subjected to as much political scrutiny and subsequent demonization as Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series, which has debuted on Sony's platforms since its modern inception (GTA III). Combined, the series has sold roughly 50 million units (including those sold on non-Sony platforms).

So popular and prolific is the GTA brand that it was almost unnecessary for Rockstar to announce that it would dole out another incarnation for PSP this fall. Even before Liberty City Stories launched last October, we'd already anticipated the conceptual sequel. This, despite our disappointment in the inherent staleness the franchise has developed since 2002's Vice City. A condition that Rockstar has surely noticed and perhaps seeks to remedy by revisiting its version of a volatile Miami circa the mid-1980s.


While this staleness could indicate of our growing disinterest in ganster-gansta dramas -- they mad played out, yo -- the stagnation is more a sign that Rockstar has maxed out the current hardware. Perhaps our criminal fantasies, compelled by suspended disbelief, could be rejuvenated with the potential built into the oncoming waves of newer, more promising consoles and computers. But that will have to wait until next year.

This season, it's Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, exclusive to the PSP (until the eventual PS2 port), starring Vic Vance, an ex-marine, who hesitantly plunges into the throngs of corruption, ultimately leading to his death in Vice City (jump to: 1m45s). Aside from the boilerplate plot, VCS looks to be rife with pop culture inferences, a pleasing hallmark of the series, but simply not as cool as it used to be. And of course, VCS will ooze M-rated content, though this has similarly lost its edge. Critics and fans will praise VCS if and when it delivers with a coherent backstory that satisfies those of us who have a vested interest in the GTA universe, and, on the flipside, a tale that coerces newcomers to investigate the original Vice City. Professional voice acting and a licensed, time-stamped soundtrack will certainly help that cause.

GTA: VCS Narrative aside, VCS is a mixed bag. Both impressive, and, for the already initiated, ho-hum, the game is an outstanding technical feat for the Leeds team, and when compared to LCS, VCS features twice the polygon count (translation: twice as many on screen characters & cars), double the draw distance (a helicopter tour of the city is "wowing"), and almost double the size (Vice City's map with more indoor environments). Unfortunately, few gameplay elements, besides a Jet Ski and Ferris Chunder wheel, are franchise novelties. Frankly, a botched drug deal turned kidnapping, turned high-speed boat 'n' car chase, turned gang massacre aboard a smuggling vessel, all amounting to a big-time cocaine score for Vic and his brother, is, well, kinda boring these days. Also working against VCS is the simple truth that the technical wizardry can be entirely disregarded, however unfairly, by considering that older versions of the GTA series (on consoles and PC) have already surpassed what VCS has to offer.

Our hopes for VCS have been stifled because of the sense that Rockstar is caught up in the babblings of naysayers -- the sense that the company is stuck trying to prove it can bring a complete version of GTA to PSP. While coming damn close, the PSP versions are always going to be at least a step behind current console standards. Just imagine the rift once GTA IV is on the market.

So why not venture beyond the PS2's shadow? Perhaps, with the few VCS details Rockstar is still withholding (hint: one's allegedly related to the save system), it will become clear that Leeds has been focused on making a uniquely PSP game, not just importing a PS2 experience. Oh, and for the record, multiplayer is still limited to ad hoc play.

There is another reason for extending the GTA series again this holiday: $money$. To be clear, it's not just greed, fed by the arrogant knowledge that VCS will be a bestseller no matter how tired the execution. There will be money going towards the lease on trendy Manhattan office space, but the VCS release is just as much about banking dollars to insure the risks a company is willing to take to further our imaginations and the boundaries of video games.

Enter: Bully.


The drawn out controversy surrounding Rockstar Vancouver's Bully has been well documented (see related links below), and we won't dwell on it here. With news that Bully has received a T-rating, the fire has been extinguished. But it will be interesting to watch the effects of media sensationalism on the game's sales. Is it true? Is there no such thing as bad PR?

It's delightfully peculiar that for its last PS2 hoorah Rockstar will step down from the grandiose stage of big budget action cinema-gaming and take it back to school. High school. Halls in which we've all walked (or will walk). Inspired by the likes of Rushmore, Napoleon Dynamite, Donnie Darko, Mean Girls, Heathers, Grange Hill (UK show), and even Saligner's Catcher in the Rye, Bully's roots are grounded in significant cultural works, but the game ventures into new territory within the realm of interactive entertainment. This is obviously no "Columbine sim." Will gamers be disappointed when they can't decapitate the tormenting jock or set the ruthless headmaster ablaze? Are we interested in playing a clever, but light high school drama?

Bully We say, "Yes!" Bring it on! Sure it's sorta like J.V. GTA, with cliques (defined by Rockstar as: Nerds, Preppies, Jocks, Greasers & Townies/Dropous, plus the Bullies) instead of gangs, eggs instead of grenades, trips to the grocery store instead of dealings at shady waterfront warehouses, rumbles instead of shootouts. But it's got intimate elements, like an original score that creates a stark, but surprisingly effective contrast against the Rockstar licensed-soundtrack standard and dynamic relationships with roughly 80 unique NPCs. You'll be forced to follow a linear story arc leading to a single ending, but Rockstar claims there aren't any generic character models. We didn't spot any on the school grounds as we experimented with some throwback fighting humiliation moves, which were a blast. When's the last time you administered the dreaded snake bite? Or grabbed a kid by the wrists and made him slap himself?

But here again, as with other Rockstar titles utilizing a modified RenderWare engine, graphics have been sacrificed for the sake of the sandbox, what PR reps describe as the "living, breathing world." Bully is prettier than other Rockstar efforts, but also not nearly as big (comparisons to GTA III are generous) and the AI remains typically flaky, with awkward character interactions; and not because we're dealing with adolescents, but because hit detection is awry. It takes us half a dozen attempts to slug an unsuspecting nerd, but he's quickly back on his feet and aimlessly circling the lobby, with no apparent memory of our assault. Elsewhere, a make-out session with a fat girl demanding chocolates works better.

We've come to expect certain limits and wonkiness in the "Rockstar + Sony" formula. But, given the overall sales figures and high review marks for GTA titles, it seems that both consumers and critics accept these flaws. If Bully is approached with these same standards, then the game will sell and critics will applaud. But Rockstar isn't all that concerned with Bully's success. Bully is merely an experiment. An attempt at improving the formula. Rockstar's simply wondering, can fresh settings counteract GTA's staling universe?

Rockstar's real concern is GTA IV, which will gauge the effect of next-generation hardware on an exhausted theme. GTA IV will succeed, and, if Bully fails, given the costs of next-gen development, Rockstar will be inclined to abandon innovative framework in favor of newer, and staler versions of GTA. Our hope is that Bully succeeds. Our hope is that consumers and critics encourage Rockstar and others to invest in broadening the scope of our virtual worlds with material that provokes and provides fun.

Bottom line: Should I buy it?

1) Vice City Stories - It will be one of the better offerings on PSP, but shouldn't we judge this game against its predecessors? Ask yourself, are you bored with Grand Theft Auto? If the answer is "yes," then save your money and allow your actions to dictate industry trends.

2) Bully - Support it. We can't guarantee it's gonna be a classic, but it's the first mainstream title to grapple with schoolyard society. That's dope. Again, your money -- $39.99 -- can persuade publishers to consider funding original games.

[The preceding article is based on a demonstration of "Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories" and a playtest of "Bully," which took place on Friday, September 22 at Rockstar Games in New York City. While both were near complete, neither build was final.]

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