Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories Review
Out of all the Grand Theft Auto games released so far, I've found that many people enjoyed Vice City the most. Maybe it's that hilarious 80s atmosphere, maybe it's the music, and maybe it's the characters, but for whatever reason the middle game in the "GTA3 trilogy" seems to be the fan favorite. After the somewhat disappointing GTA: Liberty City Stories on PSP (which took the original city from GTA3 and basically created a new story with both new and familiar characters at once), Rockstar Games is back again on Sony's portable system with Vice City Stories. But is the return to Vice City, which is clearly modeled after Miami, actually worth it?
In VCS you'll play as Corporal Victor Vance, a straight-laced Army guy and brother of the infamous Lance Vance from the original GTA Vice City. It's 1984, two years before Tommy Vercetti from GTA Vice City arrives. Vance has just been transferred to the Army base here in Vice, and Sergeant Martinez is his commanding officer. It becomes clear within seconds that Martinez has not only let the corruption of Vice City get to him, but he's completely lost in it. He'd be a funny character, but the dude is completely over the top in a way that goes beyond even the most ridiculous of GTA characters - I won't spoil it, but he's just so utterly crazy it's tough to really find him endearing.
Vic Vance is kind of weird, too. Every mission he's sent on, by both the Army and by the private sector, has him doing all kinds of things he's quite clearly morally against. But there he is, doing it anyway, getting himself in huge trouble in the process and just agreeing to the next, even more outrageous mission once he's done. It feels a little like Rockstar just didn't have the budget here to spend on the high level of writing and voice acting we've gotten used to with the home versions of GTA. Sure, as you progress the story gets a little better, but not much.
I'll say this: Vic Vance is definitely no Tommy Vercetti (the main character from the original Vice City, voiced by Hollywood actor Ray Liotta). Vercetti had just the right amount of crazy and Liotta really let fly with some great one-liners, creating in my opinion one of the best video game characters I've seen in a long time. This time around, Rockstar didn't give Vic Vance nearly enough charisma to match Vercetti, or even Carl from GTA San Andreas, for that matter.
But let's put VCS' story and characters aside for a moment and go into the actual game. Vice City itself will look and feel quite a bit like you remember it, with its garish neon lights and good-looking palm trees everywhere. Those hip 80s sports cars are all around, and the radio stations are back and and while I don't feel that the track list is quite as strong as in the original Vice City, it's close enough that personal preference will likely sway you one way or the other. This time we've got disco and soul stations, as well as rock, rap, Latin, and new wave - and of course VCPR talk radio. The track list includes Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight", The Scorpions' "Rock you Like a Hurricane", INXS' "The One Thing", Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is", Run DMC's "The Way it Is", New Order's "Blue Monday", and Depeche Mode's "Everything Counts". Of course there are plenty more tracks than this, many of which are not as well known, but it's overall a pretty decent selection of music from 1984. If I had to pick my favorite right now, I'd say it's pretty much a tie, as both games include a great combination of both bad one-hit wonders as well as timeless classics.
The Vice City you know and love looks pretty damn good here on the PSP; the developers have done a lot of work on the game engine since Liberty City Stories and the result is one of the best looking games seen yet on the PSP. Draw distances now rival what we saw in San Andreas on the PS2, and the frame rates have improved somewhat as well. The poor PSP still sometimes has trouble loading all of the graphics, voices, sound effects, and music from the UMD, and so sometimes pop-up of solid objects or cars in your face will happen if you're traveling at high speeds around the city.
The action has also gotten some further tweaking, and the single-analog-stick controls the PSP offers work just fine here. Just hold down the right trigger to target an enemy, and use the circle button to shoot or attack him. Targeting here is about as smart as I've ever seen in the GTA series, and only in rare situations did I wind up targeting some innocent bystander while the guys with guns shot me.
You'll find that the missions in Vice City Stories aren't exactly the most original if you've played any past games in the series. In fact, they're very derivative, so if you're just plain sick of what GTA has had to offer in past games, then you'll have to really enjoy the city itself as well as the music and style to make this game worth it for you. Sure, there's the "Trip Skip" option as well as a way to bribe the cops to get your stockpile of weapons back after getting busted or wasted, but it still doesn't make some of these missions much less of a chore to do.
And speaking of chores, I've found that the biggest gameplay innovation here in Vice City Stories - Empire-building missions - are a real disappointment. Now, you'll get to take over businesses, something we've seen before, but you'll also get to do some canned missions to improve business and bring in more money. The problem is that these missions are downright boring, and the only thing that makes them bearable, again, is the city itself and the music you'll be rocking out to while doing them.
I do want to mention some other technical aspects of Vice City Stories I really like. Not only can you fly helicopters here, but the city looks great as you do it and the frame rate is just fine - the controls aren't bad at all, either! You can still have a custom MP3 radio station if you've got some music on your PSP Memory Stick, and Vic Vance can swim. The helicopters and swimming have of course been seen before in past GTA games, but they are a first for the PSP. Of course, it doesn't really feel that much like a "new" feature, and instead feels like we're finally getting something we should've had in LCS anyway.
Vice City Stories includes quite a few new multiplayer modes, bringing the total to over a dozen. Again, it only works via local wireless and not over the internet, something I really, really wish more PSP games would do, but at least the action here works great and many of the modes are really fun. Vice City itself is a great place for a shootout, too, with natural choke points on the bridges between the two islands (oh, right, the island and the "mainland").
The only real disappointment I can find with Vice City Stories is that it seems the guys at Rockstar are running out of story ideas that can be squeezed onto this generation of game consoles. The city is as vibrant as ever and the 80s soundtrack works great as both a nostalgia piece as well a collection of some of the really great songs from the period. The action is just like you like it and while the missions are hardly original, when it comes to making a prequel to the many-million-selling Vice City, on a portable console, I understand if the developers don't want to get too radical. Either way, if you enjoyed most GTA games but felt like Liberty City Stories was just missing a few too many features, then you'll really get into GTA Vice City Stories.