I have to admit, I’ve been holding back from reviewing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for quite a while now. Not because the game was impossible to get into, not because the title isn’t readily accessible, but because I wanted to bypass a large amount of the hype and fervor surrounding the game to get down to the most fundamental point of the review. I’m not talking about the on-going debate of whether or not this is the best game ever made. It’s a useless debate, and something that’s wholly subjective anyway. I’m also not talking about the amount and type of violence present within the game. Parents and authority figures should know the aggression imbedded into the gameplay is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. If anything, the overt nature of the violence shown serves to illustrate how base, distasteful, and ridiculous hostility is on many levels. Instead, I’m speaking about how Rockstar North managed to encapsulate a near-total gaming experience with the creation of Vice City, allowing a nearly unparalleled level of depth in a console game to date.
Pop culture junkies take note, because it’s easy to detect influences from Miami Vice, Scarface, the A-Team, and other late ‘70s/early ‘80s movie and TV references affecting the entire tone of the game from the start screen to the end credits. Set in 1986, players assume the mantle of Tommy Vercetti, a low level thug for the Forelli family who’s just been released from a 15-year stretch in Liberty City. As a “reward” for faithful service during his time in stir (read: he kept his mouth shut and didn’t say anything), Tommy is sent from the relatively “calm” surroundings of Liberty City to the bustling, fast-paced action of Vice City. As an emissary of the family, Tommy’s largest job is to expand the Forelli’s “business” in the hot city by gaining a large hold on the growing drug market down there. With the help of a family “associate”, a local lawyer named Ken Rosenberg, Tommy manages to set up a large score for a large sum of money. However, when Tommy attempts to complete the deal, he winds up walking into an ambush. Choosing to save his skin rather than risk a bullet for the drugs or the cash, Tommy realizes that he’s not only lost the deal, but he’s also landed in hot water with the mob. Thus begins Tommy’s quest for vengeance against the people who set him up to take the fall for the failed deal as well as a heightened search for his money before the heavy hitters in the Forelli family decide to “solve a few problems”.
Starting this search isn’t as easy as it may seem, especially because Tommy barely knows anyone in Vice City. What’s even worse, a large hurricane that’s parked right off the coast of the city hinders progress to certain areas of town. So at first you’re forced to have a certain amount of reliance upon Ken as he introduces you to some of the city’s movers and shakers. However, as you start to make your name and face known, people will start to seek you out for your skills and abilities, providing you with jobs or missions that you can fulfill to increase your bank account. These characters include an unscrupulous land baron, a heavily connected Latin American general, drug barons, band managers and adult movie stars. Just as in Grand Theft Auto III, quite a bit of your time will be spent fulfilling side missions, getting sidetracked by demands placed upon you and generally wreaking havoc upon the citizens of Vice city. However, instead of becoming a generic nuisance upon the populace, Vice City gives you the opportunity to become a powerful crime boss yourself.
A surprising amount of property is actually available for purchase for players that manage to save up, steal, or kill for enough money. Ranging from innocuous places like hotels and nightclubs to more risqué spots such as adult movie studios and strip joints, owning land offers plenty of advantages. For one, many of these buildings have either garages, changes of clothing, or save points attached to them, so you can store a fast set of wheels for time-sensitive missions, evade the cops with a new outfit, or record your progress. Most of these buildings will allow you to go inside of them, adding a newer dimension of depth to the Grand Theft Auto series and opening up a much larger environment to interact with. Even more significant is the ability to go on your own missions to expand the scope of your empire, whether that means shaking down suckers for “protection” money, or teaching punks some “respect”. However, the most important facet to owning property is the fact that many of them produce daily revenue that you can funnel into your coffers. This stable, consistent influx of money will provide you with plenty of dough for any nefarious plans you may have.
Fully maintaining a hold upon the city is very hard work that often requires running from one side of the city to the other. However, if breaking into a flat sprint is too slow for you to accomplish your goals, you can “acquire” one of the more than forty vehicles accessible in the game. Rockstar prided itself on the mechanics of the cars in GTA3, and for Vice City, they’ve gone and completely retooled the system. To that end, you’ll notice a radical difference in speed and handling depending on the size of the car. Larger, wide body cars feel appropriately awkward to turn on sharp corners, forcing you to take their turning radius into consideration during your driving. The largest trade off with these monsters is that they can take a lot of damage. By contrast, many of the faster vehicles are so highly tuned for speed that they can accelerate you into trouble, even propelling you into the air on hills. However, these delicate machines can also get banged up easily.
Keeping an eye on your car’s visible damage is very important, because too much structural and mechanical dents will eventually cause your car to explode. Fortunately, you can take advantage of this fact by bailing out of your car while it’s moving. A new move included for Vice City, bailing has a few tactical advantages. While you’ll take a little damage from the fall and the landing, it’s significantly less than what you’d suffer from an explosion, which is usually enough to kill Tommy and most other characters outright. If timed correctly, you can take a banged up car, drive it into a gang battle or a police blockade, and leap out of the car right before it blows, turning the vehicle into a guided missile. Many a mission can be solved or assisted by this “kamikaze” method. You can also disable cars however you wish, thanks to the new car modeling. For example, you can shoot the tires out of a car, rendering it essentially useless for high-speed getaways.
Cars aren’t the only vehicles available to you in Vice City. The game also does an amazing job of including motorcycle physics into the game. Just like the cars, every motorcycle handles differently, from the larger bikes that resemble Harley Davidson SofTails to the speedier crotch rockets modeled off Kawasaki and Honda race cycles. However, you’ll still be able to perform donuts, wheelies, or other motorcycle tricks on bikes. You should still be aware that just like real life, an accident or collision has the ability to send you flying off the bike. All of these machines are rather terrestrial, but Tommy won’t just be limited to the streets of Vice City. Considering it’s tropical, sea surrounded territory, Vercetti will gain access to plenty of cigarette speedboats and cruisers to zip around the city’s harbors and inlets. While not as maneuverable as a car, the physics attached are pretty complete. For example, instead of traffic, your largest obstacle will instead be dealing with the difficulty of cutting through waves and flowing water which has a weight and motion all its own. Similarly, Tommy will be able to take to the air in helicopters and fly from place to place in the city. You won’t be able to land on every building, but you will be able to get an eagle’s eye view on the rushing, bustling denizens of the town.
The AI within Vice City has definitely been augmented, presenting much more life and vitality to background action on the streets of this vibrant town. Everyday citizens walk down the street on their way to work, the beach or other places, freely intermingled with tourists who look the part. That’s pretty commonplace to find in most titles, and doesn’t seem that major. But look deeper, and you’ll get a taste of just how smart the virtual populace is, even without your direct intervention. It’s common to see people arguing over who damaged whom in a car accident or gang warfare in the streets between rival crews, amongst other things. Pull a gun out in public or fire a few shots in the air, and you’ll watch the crowd scatter in front of you.
Even more alert and active are the police, whose presence within the game takes on a whole new threat when provoked. Cops can often be seen stopping petty criminals on the street who commit crimes, but they still have the presence of mind to drop their prior perp and come after you if you commit an egregious crime. In doing this, they’ll often use the same tactics that you have available, meaning they’ll try to take out your tires, set up roadblocks and, as a last resort, use their cars as bombs to stop your rampage through their streets. While the first or second level of police presence may seem to be little more than a nuisance, if you become Public Enemy No.1 with a higher level, the cops become truly tenacious, stopping at nothing to bring you down.
With the augmented arsenal, this can sometimes be a difficult task for the police to accomplish. Vice City offers 8 different classes of weapons, varying from small, handheld melee items like screwdrivers and hammers to larger, more destructive guns such as a rocket launcher or an M60. Tommy’s restricted to holding only one kind of weapon in each class at a time, so if he’s running with a screwdriver and comes across a bat, he has the choose which one will be more effective for the task at hand. However, you shouldn’t be disappointed with the arms available to you. Bats and chainsaws have a very interesting way of bringing people around to your point of view quickly, and cutting through large groups of enemies is no problem with the proper machine gun. You can even take out police helicopters if you happen to have very good aim or the right weapon. While I’m not entirely sure where Tommy places all of this equipment on his body when he’s not using it, he does seem to take to wielding it effectively. He can also increase his steadiness by kneeling before shooting, which has the added benefit of making him a smaller target to hit, which is especially useful in big gunfights.
Visually, Vice City is truly amazing, portraying a living, breathing city with unbelievable depth. Every building, from the lowliest storefront to the largest skyscraper, seems to have its own history, personality and flavor. Even when you’re first starting the game, the city imparts the feeling that it’s been there for a while, just waiting for you to discover it’s secrets. Without truly paying attention to the game, it’s pretty obvious that Vice City has been modeled after Miami. But what’s more impressive is how certain sections of the town look exactly like it’s real life counterpart. For example, you’ll detect the change in light, sunrises and sunsets, but even though action happens during the day, much of it occurs at night. Here, the town undergoes a subtle transformation, with plenty of neon lights, phosphorescent bulbs, and other touches illuminating buildings exactly the way that South Beach lights up at night.
Light and other environmental effects actually plays a major part within the game, as it shows off a large amount of the texture work and cinematic camera angles during play. There are a large number of surfaces that will take and reflect light realistically, such as marble floors, windows or cars, many of whom appear with a sheen to them as if newly waxed. Water also reflects light well, with plenty of glints off the water’s surface or off the sides of boats. Plus, as you travel from place to place, you’ll notice plenty of lens flares and, if you’re in the right place, even have your vision obscured by sun with blinding flashes. This sun is probably one of the best recreations of a natural phenomenon in a game, and works beautifully. You also have to respect the volumetric fog and rain particles that splash onscreen from heavy rainfall during storms. While your vision won’t be obscured by the water molecules on the screen’s lens, it goes a long ways towards making the game seem more like a movie or TV show. Utilizing these effects. Vice City tries to place its cameras in the most advantageous angles to the onscreen action. For example, if you launch a vehicle off a ramp, the camera will sometimes slide underneath your vehicle to capture every moment of flight from takeoff to landing. Cutscenes are also shot with a ‘80s style presentation, with plenty of wide angles, camera splices, and plenty of effects shots.
Character-wise, Vice City is so Miami Vice, it hurts. If you remember that classic TV show, you’ll remember the horror that was wide lapelled shoulder padded jackets, or brightly colored pastel clothing. This, and many more fashion tragedies are exposed in living color in Vice City, where the models are large and very detailed. A major improvement on the graphics in GTA3, you’ll be able to detect and understand emotional context from the characters simply by looking at their faces. Vercetti looks like a man who’s been through a lot during his life, but can still take care of business when he has to. Sporting a serious 5 o’clock shadow, he looks like he hasn’t slept or showered in a few days. Fortunately, you can change into any one of ten outfits acquired throughout the game so he won’t continually seem too unkempt, which also has a change on his appearance.
Character animation happens to be a mixed bag within Vice City, with a few motions coming across much more naturally than GTA3. For example, Tommy’s carjacking around motorcycles feels particularly dynamic, especially based off his relative position to the bike. If he’s approaching from the front, he’ll launch into a slick jump kick, sending characters sprawling. If, on the other hand, he approaches from the side or the rear, he’ll shove an elbow into the driver’s chin, knocking them off the bike. Some of this also extends over to cutscenes, where characters typically move with a natural gait and rhythm. This illusion is slightly broken when you get to some of the basic citizens, many of whom are locked into a basic pattern, moving and turning robotically. For example, many of the bikini-clad citizens have an odd swivel to their hips, and cut on a sharp 90-degree angle around corners rather than angling their turns.
There are also a few graphical problems that arise from this robotic movement. For example, there is a certain amount of clipping that you’ll detect within the game. It’s not immediately noticeable while you’re zipping around the town in one of your cars, but if you run around on foot up and down streets, you’ll find it, especially if you notice background characters that get involved in accidents or fights near walls. Additionally, you’ll find that running around in certain areas can engage a few camera problems, primarily because the camera will decide that it has a better angle on a certain scene than you might want, and can sometimes obscure or completely obstruct your view. This is fine when you’re going into certain buildings, but in gunfights, it can be deadly. Finally, you’ll also be able to detect a certain amount of slowdown that occurs during frenzied action, such as massive gunfights or explosions. Chugging to a slow crawl before resuming its framerate, the speed degradation feels as though you’ve entered The Matrix’s bullettime system. Yeah, Vice City is squeezing every bit of power out of the PS2’s processors and chips, and there are a few times in which the machine just can’t take the pressure.
Aurally, however, this game is top notch. You’ve got to give Rockstar props for attracting such a high caliber cast to this project, because their acting chops really shine through. Hearing a good actor provide the voice of the main character points out how lacking GTA3 was in not giving The Kid a voice to identify him. (And we all know how good that game was!) Ray Liotta really sets the tone of the game as Tommy, with a great mix of menace and mobster cool in the timbre of his voice. Liotta is bolstered by an outstanding supporting cast, which includes Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, Gary Busey, Tom Sizemore, and many more, you’ve got a huge list of talent that truly brings this game to life. As a side note, it also features Phillip Michael Thomas as Lance Vance. That’s right, Tubbs from Miami Vice comes along for the ride in a digital version of his town, and he fits in just as if the ‘80s never ended. It’s truly a beautiful thing. Sound effects are also perfectly done, so you’ll definitely know the finely tuned hum of a sports car against the growl of a hog from a mile away. Similarly, you’ll have an idea of what people are firing at you by the pitch of the gunshot.
The star of all of the sound effects has to be the music within the game. Everyone knows that games have individual soundtracks that comprise their in-game play, cutscenes, intro and outro action, but Vice City’s is so massive that Rockstar has actually issued the entire soundtrack in a separate 7-disc set. Representing the punk, rock, R&B, rap, dance and pop of the ‘80s, the game’s seven music radio stations capture the vibrancy, self-absorption, and expressiveness of the decade. Featuring hours upon hours of classic hits from artists like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Nena, Twisted Sister and Hall and Oates, amongst many others, these are the songs that you’ll hear during any flashback lunch on a local radio station. In fact, if you’re a child of the ‘80s like I am, or older, you’ll probably find yourself absent-mindedly singing along to the songs that come on the radio. And if you don’t sing along, you’ll most likely know the song or be able to remember the first time you ever heard it. Talk about bringing back memories…On top of that, you’ve got the now legendary (and unbelievably funny) commercials and talk shows stations that feature odd products and off the wall guests. It’s very easy to find yourself listening to one station just to exhaust the entire playing format before switching to another one. It’s truly unbelievable just how much music is included in this game. Plus, considering that you can take advantage of full DTS sound support, you can have a great gaming experience wrapped up in the sounds of the ‘80s.
While I’ve gone over quite a lot of features in this game, it’s barely scratching the surface. I could attempt to list off the numerous missions, bonus features, or hidden bonuses that can be found within the game, but then this review would be over twenty pages long as a minimum, or I’d be a BradyGames Vice City game guide supplement (definite thanks go out to them for their help in conquering this title) Instead, I’m going to take my last few words in mentioning one facet of gameplay that still needs work for the future Grand Theft titles yet to come, as well as raise a point that I’ve heard from other gamers.
The thing that needs improvement would be the targeting system, a feature that has improved significantly over GTA3’s aiming system by leaps and bounds. In GTA3, you often found yourself cycling through numerous foes until you reached the one you wanted to shoot. The largest problem with this system is that it often wound up taking way too long, and you’d often find a bullet in you while the system rotated between people that weren’t threats and those who practically had a gun at your temple. The new target and lock-on system solve a few of these problems by honing in, and giving you the option to lock onto, the most immediate threat to Tommy regardless of where he runs or ducks. This is sound about 60% of the time, but there are two problems that arise. The first one is that you’ll often that the system doesn’t acquire new targets after previous ones die, which can essentially lock you onto a dead body in the middle of a huge gunfight. This means you’re probably going to be dead meat. The other problem is that locking onto characters can sometimes engage the odd, problematic camera angles as the game tries to present the best view for you to take out your target. Conceptually it’s great to try to give players the advantage, but there are a few times where you might notice a disorienting camera shift as it locks onto an enemy.
Finally, the one point that I’ve heard from other gamers, and must admit that I agree with, is the lack of swimming ability for Tommy. For some reason, water kills him within seconds, so if you’re on a bike or in a car and you find yourself heading towards the bank of a river, you’re forced to either bail out or die. This is even worse on a boat, because you’re essentially surrounded by death with very few places to go. (And boats don’t take kindly to bullets.) I don’t really understand why swimming wasn’t included in the game at all. Seems like it would provide additional options for missions, like scuba diving for lost shipments or other products. Plus, I recall reading that the shores of Vice City are supposed to be teaming with sharks. But if you’re not fighting off Jaws or able to swim or get attacked by sharks, does it really matter (outside of providing a richer storyline)?
Overall, Rockstar North has managed to do something that few companies can: take a hit series, innovate it and the entire genre that it exists in, then do even better with its follow-ups. But apparently, Vice City’s recipe for success seemed to be rather simple. Add one awesome cast, seven helpings of amazing music, heavy dashes of addictive gameplay and plenty of missions, and you’ve got enough game to serve the world a great gaming experience. This is one of the crown jewels of the PS2, and if you have that system, you are obligated to own this title. But don’t just take my word for it. Get a copy, sit down and start playing. I’ll guarantee you’ll become addicted.