(First published on Gamepad Magazine, 9th November 2010)
GRAND THEFT AUTO: VICE CITY (2002) – ROCKSTAR
There can be no denying that when GTA3 was released on the PS2, it represented a new major advancement in the gaming industry: the realisation of a sandbox game where you could go anywhere and do virtually anything. The ability to move around a massive area such as Liberty City and do as you please left a tremendous impact on gamers, who naturally demanded more. It would be Rockstar who upped the ante even further with Vice City a few years later. The GTA series is always held in high acclaim, and Vice City is easily one of the finest installments. By taking the revolutionary gameplay created in GTA3 and putting it into an 80’s storyline, Rockstar created an absolute genius game.
To put it simply, Vice City is a complete and utter rip off of the Al Pacino films Scarface and Carlito’s Way. You play as Tommy Vercetti, who fresh off a 15 year stint in prison is sent to Vice City by his mob boss Sonny Forrelli to engage in a drugs deal. Needless to say, the deal gets f***ed up by a bunch of Cubans, thereby setting into play a set of events where Tommy has to retrieve the money and the drugs, and later on take the City for himself as his reputation rises. As said previously, it may well be a rip off, but it’s ripping off two quality films, and the storyline in Vice City has plenty of twists and turns to keep you interested, while retaining a classic sense of GTA action and humour. Its also worth noting its very well paced, never getting overly ridiculous, and astonishingly for the 80’s, its very, very cool.
Much credit has to be given to the main characters of the story, which make the plot so enjoyable. Tommy is a cool calculated badass hero, and you revel in his adventures to become kingpin of the city. His compatriots Ken Rosenberg and the ridiculously named Lance Vance are great fun, and some of the people you get missions from are hysterical, from the rock band Lovefist (That’s not vodka, that’s BOOMSHINE!!!!!) to the gun nut Paul Cassidy, it’s a great cast working off a fantastic script and it makes playing the game so much fun.
GTA3 had already raised the benchmark for gameplay in sandbox games; with Vice City Rockstar wisely chose to refine a few areas, and the result is an absolute blast to play. Vice City is a great arena for Tommy to fool around in, with the different areas keeping a real sense of individuality: whether you want to cruise down Ocean Drive staring at the neon lights or raise some trouble in the more derelict Little Havana area, it always feels like one collective city and it is an absolute joy to simply explore and see what secrets and Easter eggs are hidden away (something that I feel San Andreas never achieved). And of course because its GTA, you can get around how you want: run, drive a car, ride a motorbike, fly a helicopter, surf the waves on a powerboat; all are possible, and there’s a wide range of vehicles with their own characteristics to try out. Later on you can even get your mitts on some military hardware, with a military chopper and quite possibly the best tank there has ever been in gaming to destroy with. And as you move around, the city is teeming with life. Pedestrians walk along doing their own thing, cars are always lining the highways: it feels like the city is alive, and the end result is that when you inevitably start causing mayhem you feel like the destruction is real.
The game is played out through a series of missions that you will receive from a crazy bunch of characters, and the variation ensures that you stay interested. One minute you’ll be chasing down a French guy who has stolen some hardware, the next you are blowing up an apartment building with a toy helicopter, then staging a grand shootout in a mansion: the game is always throwing new challenges at you. And to get the job done, you have at your disposal an impressive range of weapons, everything from pistols and machine guns to chainsaws and miniguns. Aside of the main missions, you can engage in some entertaining side quests, such as completing arena assault courses on a dirt bike, collecting cars for an auto show room and racing around the city. There’s enough on show here to ensure you do not get bored for a long time.
Playing Vice City made me want to live in the 80’s, and if that isn’t a testament to the graphics then I don’t know what is. The style is so rooted in the 80’s its impossible not to appreciate the charm; the wide expanses of colour, the lashings of neon around the fancy bars and clubs, Tommy’s Hawaiian shirt, the supercars with massive spoilers on the back and the way everyone has a pool on Starfish Island: it’s a incredibly realised world. The game is also helped by the ‘Trails’ effect, which softens up all the angles of buildings and characters thereby making it look very smooth. Facial expressions are quite amiss in-game (seemingly a GTA trend up until GTA4), but the cut-scenes all look superb to make up for this. In general, it’s a very good looking game: the only major annoyance lies with the very sudden ‘Welcome To Vice City’ loading screen when you are switching between islands, but that’s not enough to put me off the game to be honest
I am going to make a bold statement here: Vice City has the best licensed soundtrack in gaming history. The music is absolutely brilliant, and I could tell from the very first time I heard ‘Billie Jean’ as I cruised to the first mission in the game; the music captures the sense of the 80’s so well its unreal. There’s also a wide choice of music to enjoy; Flash FM and Wave 103 host the new wave/pop tunes, while VRock hosts a mix of glam and thrash metal, Esperanto hosts the best of Mexican and Cuban music. Its very diverse and there is something to please everyone. The hosts are all top notch as well (especially Laslow on VRock), and the two chat channels host some of the funniest dialogue I have ever heard in gaming, ‘Pressing Issues’ with Alex Shrub standing out as a personal favourite. Couple all this to some hilarious adverts (EXPLODER!!!!), and you have a huge score for sound.
All of this and I haven’t even mentioned the voice acting yet, which shines with A-list actors taking the roles. Ray Liotta does very well at giving Tommy some menace in his character, while Tom Sizemore does some excellent work as the villain of the piece. Burt Reynolds and Dennis Hopper are just a few of the other terrific voices in the game, and even the pedestrian noises just fit in perfectly. Vice City is truly outstanding in the audio stakes
So, a great plot, lovely graphics and magnificent music surely make this the perfect game? No. Unfortunately, Vice City has a few drawbacks that keep it from that title, and most of the annoyances are to do with the gameplay. The aiming system is fine, but if you come back to it after playing San Andreas, you can’t help but fell that it is clunky and annoying. Also, water equals instant death because Tommy can’t swim, which is a bastard. Finally, the game itself also has a very odd learning curve: at the start its fine, but towards the end you can get into battles which will leave your health shredded in seconds and be left wondering ‘what the hell????’
Vice City really is a very fine game indeed, and arguably, the best GTA game ever, even beating out the mighty San Andreas on style and fun. It’s a blast to mess around on, and when you want to get serious the excellent plot is there waiting for you. The sights and the sounds of the city, and the ability to do near what you want have kept me coming back to Vice City for extended replays, and I have never tired of it. A truly awesome game, and a worthy addition to any collection.