I don’t think anyone could have predicted that we would be sitting here calling the Grand Theft Auto series of games one of the most revolutionary in the last ten years of gaming, possibly longer. The truth is, after Grand Theft Auto 2, many, including myself, expected the edgy, explosive series to curl up and die. GTA2 was a lackluster follow-up to the ground-breaking GTA, but then something amazing happen. DMA Design (currently Rockstar North) set down and brought the series to 3D, and unlike previous franchises milking the technologies of today and calling themselves new and improved, DMA really did improve GTA. They developed and enlarged the gang interaction we saw in GTA2, more cars were added, better missions put in place, a storyline so intriguing it had you going from mission, to mission wondering who you would stab in the back next, or who would stab you. The game I speak of is, of course, Grand Theft Auto III, which I had the honor of reviewing earlier this year for the PC. Now I stand with the task of reviewing the follow-up to one of the best games ever released, and while I knew it would be awesome, I didn’t know it would be this awesome.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City transfers you from the gritty, polluted Liberty City of the north, to the ocean front, neon glowing Miami-look-alike to the south, aptly named Vice City circa the 1980s. You are Tommy Vercetti and you fresh out of the pen after doing years because you wouldn’t give up names when you were captured. You are looking to get back into your old scheme of things, but your employers seem to have a different agenda. You are sent into Vice City to make a name for your boss’s organization in the drug-smuggling ring which brings in the mad cash. After meeting up with your lawyer contact, Ken Rosenberg, you make your way to buy some cocaine, but when the deal goes bad and all of your accomplices are killed, your money is taken, and your cocaine is stolen by those who killed your friends, you set out to get your revenge, and make a name for yourself.
The first thing you will notice about Vice City when compared to GTAIII is the fact that the story seems much tighter than the loosely organized gangs of the series’ third incarnation. You start off doing several missions for Rosenberg, but slowly, and surely, you meet up all of the major players of Vice City.
There are many notable additions to VC over GTAIII, the majority of them being improvements and additions that were sorely missing from the aforementioned. Motorcycles make their triumphant return to the series (missing since GTA2) and are just as fast and as hard to drive as ever. Four different flavors are roaming about the streets of neon. Also added and improved upon are the flying vehicles. Everyone who has played GTAIII remembers the Dodo and the infamous “Grand Theft Aero” mission that called for you to steal the plane and get it back to your employer’s headquarters. The problem is the Dodo was so hard to fly, it wasn’t anywhere near fun to play around with, and a majority of the people who played the game just drove the thing back. I am happy to say that better planes, and the addition of helicopters make Vice City much more enjoyable from a bird’s eye view, which says a lot because with the improvements to the graphics engine, you can literally see for miles.
Basic gameplay hasn’t really changed for the most part. The majority of the game consists of you accepting missions that require different objectives to complete and earn money. They range anywhere from escorting someone somewhere to killing a specific person, or people. Along the way you will get a clever mixing of the two, or something completely different. One mission pits you against a band of no-good-nicks on a golf course whom you must deal with by using a golf-club and ridding a golf-cart. Others require you to assassinate a specific character, but they aren’t always as easy to get to as walking up and popping-a-cap, many missions will make you think about different ways of doing things, a straight up approach will not always work, and when it doesn’t you are much more likely to die faster.
One major positive point that Grand Theft Auto III had was the fact that you could basically go anywhere and do anything, you had the freedom to explore Liberty City, and, thankfully, Vice City may be even more accessible to the curious.
Hidden throughout the cities two main islands are 100 secret packages that unlock a number of different weapons at your hotel, so you don’t have to search them out, or buy them from either Ammu-Nation or the Tool Store, yes I said Tool Store, and we will get to that later. Returning for another run are the Ambulance, Fire truck, and Police Car missions that reward you for attaining higher levels of success and public assistance. You also have the Taxi missions and a new addition, Pizza Delivery, which has you hurling pizzas at customers walking down the street, while not living up to the ease and fun of the Taxi missions; it still proves to be a worthy distraction from the normal. Even if you decide not to follow the games main story right off the bat, there is hours upon hours of items for you to collect and side missions to complete that will aide you later in the game. Another new addition is the ability to buy property throughout the city. By purchasing this property, the businesses make money for you, that you conveniently stop by every couple of days to pick up, and several buildings also open up new missions such as street racing, and the famed car collection from GTAIII. Also returning are the super-fun Rampage missions which set and objective and give you the desired weapon with a time limit, it is up to you to fulfill the requirement and earn some cash.
Speaking of weapons, Vice City features over double the weapons to be found on the streets of Liberty. Melee weapons are a big addition as you can choose between machetes, knives, swords, and the ever-cool brass knuckles. Long range returns include the rocket launcher, sniper rifle, shotgun, Uzi, sub-machine gun, and the classic pistol. There are tons of weapons you can buy and find throughout the city.
Unfortunately GTAIII’s somewhat disappointing targeting system has returned, but with some added improvements. Having played the third installment on the computer, I was treated to a free aim system that I found to be a perfect match for this type of game, but since the PS2 doesn’t feature a mouse and keyboard for this sort of game, you are forced to use the game’s auto-targeting (if the gun supports it) or the manual aim. Manual aim is more difficult to center you opponents in your crosshairs just because of the nature of the controller itself. The Dual Shock 2 was never designed for a first person aiming mode, and it shows. The more weapons you find with auto-target the better, but just hope it auto-targets the correct target.
As I mentioned earlier the graphics engine has been tweaked and improved over GTAIII. While flying, or driving, you can see far off into the distance without the fear of pop-up or fogging. One feature that I welcomed with its addition to the PC version was the option to turn off the annoying motion trails that are set on by default. While many people seem to like them, and think it gives the game an edge, I hate them in the strongest sense of the word and would have seriously frowned upon Rockstar North if they hadn’t included the option to remove them. Never before have I seen a graphic stunt turn out so bad.
The real meat of the game comes from the amazing sound, and the soundtrack in particular. With real 1980’s artists like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Michael Jackson, Flock of Seagulls, and others, it gives a bit of realism to the game. Also stringing continuity to GTAIII we find Toni (Flashback FM) and Lazlo (Chatterbox) both getting their start in the radio world on Flash FM and VRock respectively. With literally hours, upon hours of music it is surprising Rockstar was able to get all of that on one DVD, and was is even more surprising the amount of money Rockstar Games, and owner Take-Two, shelled out to get these songs.
The best thing about Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is that it is easily accessible to the casual gamer, or a fan of the series. The game brings you in at a very low difficulty level and then ramps it up to levels near the end of GTAIII, and while it never becomes as difficult as it’s predecessor, there will be some mission that you find yourself frustrated beyond all means.
Vice City is more than a quick paint job on a year old game with new characters, but it isn’t GTA4 either. There is enough innovation and fixing of known issues to make this game just as classic as the one that came before it, and with sales on track to rival its partner in crime, its no secret that the Grand Theft Auto franchise has become one of the most intriguing and profitable in the industry. Still, there is so much to do and explore in Vice City that will never find yourself bored because you can’t beat a specific mission. You get the excitement of a platformer (finding objects) the thrill of a racing game (stealing cars and street racing) and the freedom of an adventure game (exploring the world around you). Vice City may be a follow-up to Grand Theft Auto III, but once you play it you see that it is so much more.