Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Review
No one can deny just how influential Grand Theft Auto 3 has been. It was released to millions of PS2 owners who had been waiting patiently for a must-have title, and boy did they get it with GTA3. Its revolutionary open-ended gameplay, high-quality voice acting and cutscenes, and its massive amount controversy created a huge amount of buzz, and over seven million copies of the game were sold. Of course, that's just on the PS2, which is the only console platform it was released on.
For most people who have waited for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the question wasn't of how good a game it was going to be. The question was whether Vice City was actually going to be a new game or just GTA3 with a facelift. And while you can't expect everything to change in one year, Vice City is way more than I expected. The 80's atmosphere, improved missions, properties you can buy, and even more secrets are what puts this game over the top to make it an instant classic.
Vice City's controls are definitely better than GTA3 because of two major aspects: you can aim smaller weapons much more easily with a new targeting system, and you can now pilot planes and helicopters with much more ease than before. For those who just like to drive around the GTA games and don't really care to do missions, these changes will not mean much. For those who actually went through GTA3 and explored every inch of Liberty City, these are both major improvements.
Just about the only major control problem I found with Vice City is one of preference. I find the mouse-and-keyboard setup of GTA3 on the PC to be far superior to using the PS2's dual shock controller, and while Rockstar did set up a new targeting system for some weapons, I still think that manual aim with a mouse is superior. That being said, if you found the PS2 controls in GTA3 just fine before, you won't have many complaints about Vice City.
GTA:VC just has more of everything. That's the easiest way I can explain the graphics - the explosions are better, the city is bigger, the viewable distance goes further out, and the vehicles are more detailed than before. Rain, mist, and fog effects are much more convincing than what they were in GTA3, and a few new effects like water spots (or even blood splatters, if you use the chainsaw) on the "camera" make the graphics that much better.
As is the same with GTA3, any one object in the Grand Theft Auto world is not all that impressive visually. Although the characters almost universally look better than in GTA3, your average pedestrian is still made with relatively few polygons. Some of the textures are low-resolution, and the game has to switch out low- and high-quality textures very often. But it's the whole thing put together that really does it; The mostly seamless transitions (save for a few seconds when travelling between main islands or into some buildings) and constantly changing game world are what make GTA:VC seem that much more alive.
Water effects are also improved here, as rain storms will affect the waves in the ocean as well as adding a mist shimmer as the wind and rain hit the concrete. Helicopters add mist effects of their own, as well as making the palm trees bend and sway from the force of the rotors. Even your character's shirt will flutter when he rides a motorcycle or is near a helicopter.
Of course, the biggest achievement that Rockstar has made in GTA:VC is that of the style and atmosphere of the city itself; it resurrects dozens of tidbits of 80's nostalgia and assaults the player's senses with them. Even if you didn't get to experience the 80's, you will likely still find many of the jokes and references at least somewhat funny. The neon lights of Miami are well-reproduced here, as well as the run-down Cuban and Haitian neighborhoods that make up part of the game's west island. Even the back alleys are well done in Vice City, with plenty of detail even in the places that are the hardest to find. This shows an attention to detail that caters specifically to those players who want to explore every nook and cranny.
The frame rate is about the same as it was in GTA3, ranging from 25 to 40 fps most of the time. Sometimes when the action gets heavy, though, the game can slow down enough to screw up driving or combat, which can ruin a mission for you. It's a rare occurrence, though; most of the mission failures are going to happen because they're just that difficult, not because of frame rate issues. Considering how much added detail there is, maintaining the same frame rate from the last game shows a pretty large accomplishment right there.
Here we come to the primary reason that GTA3 managed to do so well: gameplay. Vice City adds plenty of things for the player to do, and yet it manages to keep in almost all of the old gameplay as well. The missions are longer and more diverse here, and the production quality of the cutscenes is even better than ever. On top of the story missions, you can buy property, race cars or dirt bikes in several ways, fly a helicopter around all you want, deliver pizzas, and more. Of course, this is in addition to the things you could do in GTA3, almost all of which are reproduced (and sometimes improved upon) here. You can still go on Rampage missions, perform unique stunts, find hidden packages, drive people around in a taxi, put out fires, do ambulance missions, and kill vigilantes in police cars.
GTA:VC also adds something that GTA3 should have had, but was completely missing: motorcycles. The first two Grand Theft Auto games had motorcycles, but Rockstar couldn't get them just right in GTA3, so they made the decision to axe them altogether. Well, after you take a motorcycle into Vice City, the complete lack of them in GTA3 will become even more pronounced. You'll wonder how you ever did without them.
Vice City's motorcycles are modelled very well and handle perfectly; the tradeoff, of course, comes from the fact that getting into an accident will fling you from the bike, hurting you in the process. Either way, motorcycles are balanced well and look great. There are also new bonuses you can do related to them: wheelies and "stoppies" (sort of a reverse wheelie by leaning forward and hitting the brakes). Also, some of the unique stunts can only be done by motorcycles, which means anyone who wants to finish this game 100% is going to need to learn them well. Overall, motorcycles make a triumphant return in GTA: Vice City, and they are better than ever.
This time around, the story follows a specific character, rather than some nameless guy with Elvis hair. Now, you play as Tommy Vercetti, an ex-con who has been sent by his Mafia high-ups to do business in sunny Vice City, Florida. The best part about Tommy is that the voice acting is done by GoodFellas star Ray Liotta, and he does an excellent job. Tommy has plenty to say, and displays a very brazen, violent attitude most of the time. Not only does he have things to say during the cutscenes, but he also has some internal dialogue. On top of that, he has plenty to say to people out in the game; Tommy talks trash while he's carjacking people, avoiding the cops, or on a murderous rage. As it is, Tommy actually has character, and the game gives him plenty of opportunities to show it.
The best thing about Tommy Vercetti, though, is that he rises above the 80's trends that permeate Vice City. At the same time, he's not so Mafia-like that he becomes a comic-book portrayal of a bad guy. In fact, the city itself is more of the comic book, with Tommy being the normal guy (well, really, really, violent normal guy, I guess) in the middle of it all. Tommy Vercetti is unique and convincing enough that he could easily fit into a classic movie role like one in GoodFellas or The Godfather - that is a rare thing for a video game character. While he probably won't get up there with Lara Croft on the popularity scale, he is definitely one of the most memorable main characters I have seen in a game in years.
The missions you'll go on in Vice City are generally pretty different from those in GTA3; instead of just going to kill some guy, you're going to most likely get over there, flush him out, chase him down, and then deal with the extra twist at the end of the mission. While that makes the missions much more unpredictable and fun, it also makes them harder. Longer missions means more chances to screw up and get killed or arrested, which can lead to some major frustration.
Of course, Vice City does give you plenty of things to do while you're cooling off about that mission you've tried twelve times and still can't beat. It's difficult to stay mad at this game, and once you've gone off and collected some cash, grabbed a hidden package or two, or done a dirt bike race, you'll be back for more.
One of the most underrated new features in Vice City is the ability to buy properties. You can buy new safe houses to store cars at and save your game in, and you can also purchase businesses which open up new missions. The addition of properties gives the player a reason to explore in order to find them, as well as the need to save up money (which was mostly useless to have in GTA3). Once you've beaten all the missions associated with a business, you can then start collecting money from that place regularly. Once you've managed to get the missions for a couple of businesses finished, then your money problems are mostly over, as you can do a round of money pickups to get some cashflow.
This cannot be understated: Vice City is a difficult game to complete. Players that are new to the GTA series are going to find themselves up against a wall of difficulty very quickly, which might mean they'll give up on the missions early on. These missions are generally quite a bit tougher than the ones in GTA3, and while many of them can just be skipped, there are some that are integral to the plot. If you can't beat one of these, well, then the plot is going to just stay right there until you do beat it. I think that with the amount of mass appeal that the GTA games are getting, they could have put in some sort of difficulty setting in order to make the missions easier for the novice player.
Law enforcement in Vice City is also a bit more persistent than they were in GTA3; to start, there are more cops around, especially once you get their attention. On top of that, police will do a few new things to try and catch you now - they will lay down spike strips, shoot out your tires, and rappel out of SWAT helicopters. The FBI and the Army are still there as well, of course, although they don't really have any new tricks that I noticed.
There are a few minor bugs in GTA:VC, although I found them to be minor irritants at the worst. If you're running down the street, just dropping six inches off of a curb can cause you to take a few points of damage, and even running on flat ground will do this once in a long while. I suppose that if I had two health and was on the way to save my game, and died from stepping down a curb, I'd be pretty damned angry. It hasn't happened to me in 20-25 hours of gameplay, though, so I just don't see it as a big problem.
The new targeting system for your shotguns, pistols, and submachine guns is nice, although there are some problems related to it. GTA:VC will attempt to figure out who your biggest threat is by considering who's shooting at you, who you are facing, and how close to you any other threats are. It's not perfect, though, and it will commonly target some random pedestrian in front of you rather than the cop shooting at you ten feet to your right. It still manages to be far better than GTA3's targeting system, which required a lot of button-juggling to do correctly.
The weapons in Vice City are going to be very satisfying for those who love the outrageous violence of the GTA games. There is a large range of weapons now, and they're split up into categories, of which you can only carry one weapon each: fists, grenades, melee, pistol, sub machine gun, shotgun, rifle, sniper, and heavy weapons. The new heavy weapons are loads of fun to play with, as well as the melee weapons (which include a screwdriver, machete, katana, and a chainsaw, as well as others). Generally, you're going to find you have a favorite weapon in each category, and you'll stick with that one. Some of the weapons that share the same category are basically the same, with only minor distinctions. Others are very different - the Uzi, Mac-10, and Tec-9 sub machine guns are all similar, but firing the Spaz automatic shotgun is definitely a big change from using a pump shotgun.
The only complaint I have with the weapon system is that whenever I did a Rampage mission, the specific weapon type allocated for that mission would then disappear out of my inventory. It was pretty annoying to go buy two thousand rounds of submachine gun ammo specifically for drive-bys, only to have it all just go poof after finishing a Rampage that featured a Mac-10.
Ultimately, I find that GTA:VC is a difficult yet rewarding game. Trying a mission for an hour would get on my nerves, but finally beating it would give me a sense of accomplishment that not all games that are so difficult might give. The main reason to keep doing Vice City's missions is to find out what's going on with the story; there are betrayals, surprises, and other twists that make the game feel that much more like a movie.
There aren't many games that ship along with a separate box-set soundtrack that retails for just as much money as the game does. Rockstar can get away with it in Vice City, though, because it's very obvious that the music they've chosen contributes to the game's atmosphere immensely. As opposed to GTA3, these songs are all straight from the 1986 time period, and are almost all original works done by the real groups during the day. There are some major hits here, as well as quite a few songs that aren't so well-known. While I can think of at least two dozen songs I'd like to have had on the Vice City soundtrack, the fact that it's not 100% chart-toppers makes it sound more like a genuine cross-section of a single point in time.
The GTA:VC soundtrack consists of nine radio stations, covering a pretty wide variety of music. Rock, new wave, rap, pop, latin, and of course chat radio are all covered here. Each radio station has more than an hour of repeating music or chat, which means you won't tire of it for a while - unless you just despise 80's music. Big stars like Michael Jackson, Run DMC, Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, and more are covered here as well, which means almost any music lover will find some 80's tune they still really enjoy hearing.
The voice acting in Vice City is as excellent as it was in GTA3. There's also more of it than the last game, and it carries the same star power as before. On top of Ray Liotta's efforts, Burt Reynolds, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Hopper, and even porn star Jenna Jameson all contributed to the game. There are also quite a few lesser-known stars that are on the roster; the manual's list of credits for music and voice acting is simply massive.
So how about the sound effects? As crazy as it sounds, I find the music and voice acting to be much more important to this game than the actual sound effects. That's something I have never said about a game (even GTA3). Anyway, they're still quite good, and the weapons are quite a bit more satisfying to fire than in previous GTA games. The engine sounds are also well done here, and the motorcycles all sound great (especially the Harley). The helicopters also sound excellent; not that they sounded bad in GTA3, but here, even the sounds of the rotors slowing down and spinning up are perfect. Since the player will be spending quite a bit more time near helicopters this time around, it was worth the effort.
Rockstar Games have managed to do something very unique for a game: they captured the atmosphere of an era better than most movies could do, and simultaneously managed to pack in a wonderful, open-ended game. The cutscenes are great, the missions are difficult yet satisfying to complete, and there is so much to do you might not see it all - even with a hundred hours of play.
If for some reason you didn't like Grand Theft Auto 3, there's still a chance that you may enjoy Vice City. While this is a more difficult game than the last one, it is still packed with a ton of cool stuff to do; this game is worth every penny even if you only complete a quarter of the game's story missions. Add to that the excellent main character, ultra-violent storyline, and the truckloads of 80's atmosphere, and I find that it's difficult to go wrong with Vice City.