Classic PS2 Review: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for PS2There’s less than a week to go before the release of GTA4 on April 29th, and we’re looking back at the series that revolutionized the videogame industry. Last time we reviewed the groundbreaking genre-defying 3D debut of Grand Theft Auto, GTA3. This time we’re taking a look at the first of the ‘episodes’ – Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

When The Family asks you to do time, you do time. When Tommy Vercetti gets out of jail after 15 years of keeping his mouth shut for the mob, instead of receiving the gratitude of the Family he’s asked to head south and do them a little favor. Nothing serious, just a little…pharmaceutical purchase. The exchange is ambushed, both the drugs and money go missing, Tommy suddenly has a lot to explain to his bosses, and all of the sunshine-dappled and cocaine-laced streets of Vice City stand between him and finding those who screwed him over.

The gaming world had yet to catch its breath. Less than a year after GTA3 and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was announced with the astonishing promise of a game that was bigger, longer and graphically superior to its predecessor.

System: PS2, PC (Windows), Xbox
Genre: Action, Driving, Shooter
Release dates: October 27th 2002 (USA), November 8th 2002 (EURO)
Players: 1
Developer: Rockstar North / Rockstar Vienna
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Origin: UK
Rating: M for Mature with Blood, Strong Language, Violence

GTA: Vice City is a gleeful hybrid of the Al Pacino movie Scarface, 80s cop show Miami Vice, and 80s Miami itself. Unafraid to satirize its own themes, they translate the exploratory, non-linear sandbox gameplay of GTA3 into a gorgeously tropical world that is simultaneously vicious and decadent, culturally shallow and deeply troubled.

Watch a Vice City TV spot from 2002:

GTA3‘s sandbox format encouraged experimentation and play with the environment itself. Vice City was such a rapid followup, the burning question was, ‘What else can you do?’. Vice City added motorbikes, aircraft, building interiors, ownable businesses, player outfits and safehouses to buy or take over. There are more stores and weapons to buy, there’s hospital/police station taxi service that takes you back to the beginning of a failed mission for another go, and the plot and character elements are much, much stronger.

GTA3 was so big, the voice talent list for the sequel reads like a bizarre Hollywood movie. Tommy Vercetti is voiced by Ray Liotta (of Goodfellas) and in the supporting cast you have Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds, Debbie Harry (of band Blondie), Gary Busey, Lee Majors (Six Million Dollar Man), porn star Jenna Jameson and Phillip Michael Thomas, who just happened to co-star in Miami Vice.

Grand Theft Auto Vice City Versus Miami Vice

Vice City & Miami Vice

The soundtrack took a huge boost, too. With the exception of the all-talk stations (there are two, both plot-linked and hilarious) the radio is all authentic 1980s music, interwoven with hilariously topical DJ talk and ridiculous, satirical commercials. Tunes range from the beginnings of rap and hip-hop to pop, new wave, classic rock, emotional soft rock and disco soul. And we’re not talking small-time tunes, either. Blondie, Michael Jackson, INXS, Buggles, Run DMC, ELO, The Cult, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Tito Puente, Gary Numan and Bryan Adams all feature. The game is set in 1986, but the music is borrowed from throughout the decade. And it’s perfect.

Picture the scene. You’ve got your hands on a streamlined, powerful convertible. The top is down, the stars are out, the night is hot. The huge beach is all but empty now, waves lapping gently in the gloom beyond the palm trees, the bright neon and the cars and bikes cruising the strip. Pumping out of the car stereo comes the chorus of ‘I wear my sunglasses at night’. On a whim, you pump the gas and as the car speeds up the wind begins to whip your hair. The neon-lit hotels and bars blur by.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Convertible Strip screenshot

The Night Is Young

Where GTA3‘s Liberty City was a generic yet NYC-influenced ‘Badtown, USA’, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City anchors itself firmly in 1980s Miami. This is a real place, at a real time. All of that era’s problems and triumphs are here – Reagan, immigration, gang war, drugs, huge hair, the first home videogames, Live Aid, mindless action movies and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The sham Miami that is Vice City is so good…so good that it conveys what it’s like to actually be in Miami. After spending a hundred hours or so playing this game, your first visit to Miami Beach slowly blows your mind, and I speak from experience. I felt like I’d been there before, but never had…apart from the experience of playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. With GTA4 out next week featuring a Liberty City modeled so closely on New York that it even includes my old neighborhood beer garden in Queens, this sort of experience will only become more common. It is Digi-vu; a digital Déjà vu.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Fontainebleau screenshot

Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel, Twinned

While the graphics for Vice City may look a little dated now, they were a big improvement on GTA3‘s blockier geometry from just 12 months before, and even now, if you pick up this game again, the details are still staggering. In the daytime pale vapor trails track across the sky, and at night you can see the blinking lights of airliners high overhead. Exploring the harbor, the spray from the engine of your boat splashes against the camera. Other people pack the streets – sunbathers, joggers, roller-skaters, bums, businessmen, tourists, hookers, hoodlums. The weather changes from sunny to rainy storms and the waves swell higher. Pause on the street and listen to the sound of passing traffic, and the thump-thump-thump of a speedboat’s hull slapping the waves as it powers between the islands, hear the distant strains of the radio playing in the lobby of a hotel. A swearing cop chasing a mugger. The colors look a little bleached in the sunlight. As with its predecessor, Vice City’s volume of detail is what generates a feeling of immersion in the game-world, and the real-world influence on Vice City means what you’re playing in looks, feels and sounds like Miami, 1986. The only down-side is that with the increased level of local detail, the draw distances are reduced, so when driving at speed, obstacles can unexpectedly load in your path, or distant structures have no texture for longer than is really justified by any weather haze or low light conditions. Loading screens take about thirty to forty seconds on the PS2 when you move between the big islands.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Helicopter Over Hotels screenshot

I Left The Car Around Here Somewhere

The game mechanics remain mostly the same as GTA3, but a lot of little touches have been made. Tommy Vercetti can shop at hardware stores for improvised melee weapons, stop into Ammu-nation for a wider range of firearms, or slice and dice with a meat cleaver or katana. Vice City contains over eighty different vehicles. The new aircraft are just as varied as the cars – there are five types of helicopters and a seaplane which all handle convincingly depending on their source – the newscopter is fast and volatile and the police chopper stable but slower. There is a bonus Apache-style assault helicopter that unlocks at the military base after the game’s plot missions are completed, armed with rockets and a minigun. The motorbikes range from the Vespa-like Faggio to chunky powerbikes and choppers, points are awarded for impressive wheelies and stoppies, and stunt courses and races abound. The model car missions from GTA3 are back, accompanied by some bomb-carrying model helicopters and racing with RC ‘Red Baron’ planes. These missions are begun by getting into special vans parked all over the city.

Taxi, ambulance, fire truck and vigilante missions return in the same format as GTA3, but you can also make a little pocket money by delivering pizza, ‘collecting’ vehicles needed at the used car mart, or holding store clerks at gunpoint and asking for the stuff straight out of the till. There are a host of different racing events – either on the streets over a variety of courses, or at the ‘Hymen Memorial Arena’ where you can enter a Destruction Derby, dirtbike stunt course and a Stock Car Race.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Miami and Vice maps

Miami Beach Area & Vice City

Vice City is packed to the gills with gangs, competing groups and striving personalities, all on the look out for a little help from the right quarter. Here’s where Vice City adds a fresh layer of controversy to the saga – joining drug use, prostitution and violence on the GTA rap sheet are pornography and national stereotyping. Cubans and Haitians face off over the turf of Little Haiti and Little Havana, hurling insults and racial slurs all the while, and a series of missions from a film set features setting up and promoting a movie featuring wannabe adult star Candy Suxxx (voiced by real-life porn star, Jenna Jameson).

The missions range from very easy (driving from A to B) to the insanely frustrating (stealing a tank from a military convoy guarded by soldiers with assault rifles). While you might bottleneck at one point or another there is a lot to do while you mull over another strategy, and the strength of the sandbox worldbuilding philosophy behind the game comes through – experimenting with different approaches is not only possible, with some of the tougher missions it is essential. Creating and executing strategies can be extremely rewarding, and very gratifying when something works out. Strategy can be as simple as trying a mission with a different weapon to the first time, or as complex as (for the tank-heist) blocking the road with a pre-placed garbage truck and trying to land next to the tank in a helicopter, to avoid having to fight your way through the army guard.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Cuban Gang Car screenshot

The Feisty Cuban Hermes

The worlds of GTA3 and Vice City overlap. In 2001, Lazslow hosts the all talk radio station Chatterbox FM in Liberty City, mentions that he only hosts a talk show ‘because I got kicked off the rock station’ and one of his guests is the glorified pimp, ‘Marriage Savior’ Fernando Martinez. In Vice City in 1986, Laszlow hosts rock station V-Rock, and Fernando Martinez is the DJ of the soft-rock station, ‘Emotion 98.3’. Many of the vehicles on the streets of Vice City are the 1980s pre-cursors of the GTA3 counterparts, and a lot of the fake brands and products are common to both. Donald Love, the media and property mogul in Liberty City in 2001, is seen in Vice City learning his trade and picking up a few choice nuggets of wisdom from cowboy investor Avery Carrington.

Fun Factor: 9.5
It’s more fun than GTA3. The scale of comparative fun might get a little subjective at the top end of the scale, and I make no secret of the fact that I love both games, but Vice City is my favorite of the two. The environment is larger and more fun to explore, and the huge selection of cars, trucks, boats, helicopters and a plane make simply mucking about in the game world a pleasure of itself. The plot is marvellous – you warm to the vicious Tommy as he struggles to discover who screwed him over, and as it becomes obvious that the only way he’ll get the money back is to earn it by taking over the town, you’ll be eager to take him to the top. The characters of Vice City are enjoyable to meet, work for or take down, and the radio stations provide a musical and humorous background that is second to none. The start-again taxi that appears when you respawn after failing a mission takes away the annoyance of dragging yourself back to the start point, but doesn’t restore your weapons…which you’ll need for most jobs.

Graphics: 9
Again I’m teetering at the top of the scale. GTA3 was groundbreaking, and Vice City‘s local graphical quality is much improved. The drawback of this is that draw distances are reduced, building and terrain textures viewed on one island from another are sparse to non-existent, and the middle-distance (when flying over an island, for example, or looking a long way down the beach) strikes a balance between the two – blocky and simple, but approximating their closeup selves. Beyond those minor difficulties, Vice City was unprecedentedly complex, and remains gorgeous, atmospheric and marvellously put together.

Audio: 10
While the radio in GTA3 was an amusing and musical background to the game that flirted with game plot elements, Vice City cranks it up a notch and makes the radio a fully-fledged plot device and integral part of the game. The show guests are Vice City’s great and good, many of whom you’ll meet in the course of the game, fleshing out their characters and stories to a level that would otherwise require lengthy cutscenes. The radio is also packed with fantastic, period-accurate music that sets the scene wonderfully. The voice acting talent is fantastic. It’s tough to find fault with the audio in Vice City.

Ingenuity: 9
While it stands on the shoulders of GTA3, it’s packed with ideas and features that didn’t make it into the prior game, and they put a whole new spin and shine onto the already revolutionary game style. It introduces missions to take over businesses that then make the player money. It introduces flight. It introduces pizza delivery, robbery, and professional driving and bike riding as money making schemes. There are rail-shooting style missions from helicopters, boat races, boat destruction, leaflet-bombing missions, air races, assassinations, heists and sniper missions. Vice City showed again that when you build a world, you can do great things with it.

Replay Value: 9
While it sustains all of the variability and experimental approaches of its predecessor – the game world is yours to explore and manipulate as much as you can, and the missions can be undertaken in many different ways, the high replay value rests in revisiting the experience. If you’ve played through the plot missions of this game once there is little to tempt you to start again, but plenty to keep you playing. The elusive 100% completion requires finding 100 hidden packages all the jumps, winning all the races and arena challenges, and completing all the side missions. Even in the course of a lengthy playthrough, few players will check all of this off their list. If you’ve never played this game, and you own a PS2, Xbox or PC, I would say that while the graphics may not be up to the minute, there’s a timeless quality about this game that will continue to appeal for many years to come, and urge you to check it out.

GTA3 in 2001 and GTA: Vice City in 2002 were a smash-hit one-two punch from Rockstar. They were established as a major player in the game studio landscape and in the next few years developed some other great franchises – Midnight Club, Max Payne, Manhunt and Red or Dead Revolver. After such monumental success with GTA, when they announced the next game in the series, the gaming world waited with bated breath for the 2004 release date.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Teaser

Back On The Block

Next in VGB’s run-through is 2004’s sprawling epic, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Check out our previous GTA reviews:
Classic PC Review: Grand Theft Auto (1997)*
Classic PC Review: Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999)*
Grand Theft Auto 3

* – GTA1 and GTA2 are now free to download for PC. See our reviews for the link details.