Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Less than a sequel, more than an expansion, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is the direct follow-up to last years immensely popular, hotly controversial, uber-selling mafioso psuedo-opus: Grand Theft Auto 3. The fundamentals - theme, gameplay, and goal structure - have been retained from the original (surely to the continued chagrin of concerned parents and sympathetic politicians). Players must boost cars, evade the police, run missions ranging from drug deals to executions, and ultimately rule a city through muscle and casual violence in order to succeed. Though the series has evolved both aesthetically and mechanically over its various iterations, from the original top-down 2D presentation of GTA, GTA2, and GTA:LM (London Missions), culminating in the 3D shift in GTA3, violence and a license for deviance have always remained kernels of attraction. This theme is retained and in some instances intensified in Vice City; mechanical and mission-orientated structural improvements accompany refined environments, modestly improved visuals, a vastly expanded list of weapons and cars, and three additional modes of transportation: airplane, helicopter, and motorcycle. In addition, Vice City partially reins the immensely appealing open-ended gameplay of GTA3 by placing an array of specific tasks within a more meaningful and accessible matrix, yet simultaneously encourages independent exploration through an expanded environment with more distinctive individual areas.
The player assumes control of Tommy Vercetti, an ex-soldier for the mob who has recently been released from a long stint in the can. Acting boss Sonny Firelli, with dollar signs in his eyes, immediately puts Tommy in charge of brokering a drug deal. When things go sour, Tommy resolves to find and collect restitution from those responsible. With nothing but his clothes and a rented beach-side hotel room, he sets out to claim a slice of Vice City: where warring gangs run amok and drug money makes things move. In a climate ripe for a leader with enough muscle and resources to take control, the words of Tony Montana ring true. If you don't know the words, I'm sorry, my editor won't let me put them here.
The brilliance of Vice City, like GTA3, derives from an open-ended gameplay system. Players are given unhindered access to a living, breathing, and expansive city filled with fully reactive elements - innocent citizens, police, and gang members that all behave independently. While a portion of playing time is spent on structured missions and story-mode, much is spent running about the city, causing mayhem, and attempting to elicit innumerably varying A.I. responses to strings of direct and indirect player action. The term “time-waster” accurately describes the games absorbing free-roaming design; even without making any actual “progress”, manipulating Tommy and observing the results is an almost tireless pleasure.
In VC, Rockstar North (formerly DMA Design) emphasizes the principle of “simple input, exaggerated output” to an unusually high degree; moving about and interacting with the environment is consequently rewarding in itself. For example, hi-jacking a car is performed with a single button press that is followed by a complex sequence: Tommy opens the car door, pulls out the driver, curses at him/her, and jumps in. Similarly, the player can bail out of a fast-moving vehicle with another button press and witness the destructive consequences from afar. Most impressive is the ability to shift an entire city into panic mode, complete with rioting citizens, pursuing police and swat teams, and in extreme cases, armor-laden tanks firing heavy artillery to transform the environment into a landscape of fire, smoke, and destruction - a scenario produced by simply shooting a few innocents and officers and evading arrest for a matter of minutes. The game appeals widely and remains appealing over many hours, yielding significant, complex, and therefore rewarding consequences from relatively little player effort.
A significant gameplay refinement over GTA3 involves the revised mission system, or story-mode. Tommy must complete various specific tasks on his way to becoming a certified “wiseguy”. These range from starting a riot at a picket line to busting allies out of jail. Scattered about the city are specific locations where the player can initiate missions and save progress. In GTA3, traveling among mission points tended to become tedious, especially when the player failed and was required to drive back and start over. In GTA:VC, this issue is partially alleviated since a Taxi now appears in front of hospitals and police stations to instantly transport the player to the starting point of a previously failed mission. Also, the overall range of mission tasks has been diversified, which is a positive since there are plenty more to boot. Rockstar North has effectively addressed the most significant problems associated with an open-ended structure by increasing the range, amount, narrative-relevance, and accessibility of missions. When considered along with two new vehicle types and a longer list of weapons and cars, VC adheres closely to the basic formula of GTA3 - refining and slightly expanding upon an original and highly ambitious design to stand as a realization of what GTA3 could have been.
Also worth noting is availability of the three new modes of transportation: helicopter, airplane, and motorcycle. The latter vehicle controls similar to a car, though is harder to control at high speeds. However the dynamic lends to relatively quick adaptation and provides an alternative for ground transportation. Air travel is possible thanks to helicopters - which are more versatile and practical - and planes. Certain areas, such as rooftops, are only accessible by the air vehicles, and travel across town is expedited by air travel. Yet while each of the new vehicles has been well integrated and, except for the plane, serves some utility, players will still spend a majority of time traveling by car. A few more missions requiring the use of new vehicles would have made the inclusion seem more organic, and less of an obvious add-on.
While the overall visual quality has only been modestly improved, VC contains well-defined sub-environments including ethnic ghettos, pastoral suburbs and ritzy downtown centers. Themed areas are packed with plenty of detail to ensure that exploration of nooks and crannies consistently yields the discovery of sometimes unanticipated, though pleasantly appropriate, environmental objects. For example, traveling into the heart of “Little Haiti,” one finds a collection of half-rotting shanties and voodoo iconography. Character models are well rendered, though some animate exaggeratedly (notice the extended hip sway of hookers as they stroll down the sidewalks). Violence is similarly cartoon-like - shoot a victim in the head and watch as rectangular streamers of red shoot upwards. Vehicle models are sharp and polished, and satisfyingly depict various stages of damage. Though fictional, all bear close resemblance to a real-life model so players can gauge the relative speed and handling characteristics even before jumping in. Most impressive about the look of the game is the large number of on screen objects at any given time; multiple cars drive past on independent routes while (at times) dozens of pedestrians go about their daily business. Though, like GTA3, it isn’t among the best looking of PS2 games, it is visually complex with enough diverse elements to effectively convey the illusion of a large and bustling city.
An A-list cast contributes to the excellent and extensive voicing - including Henry Hill himself: Ray Liotta. Jenna Jameson also makes an “appearance.” It naturally follows that the story is delivered with unusual polish, with a highly produced sound design that easily puts most other titles to shame. The radio station concept is utilized once more, with a greatly expanded list of popular 80s songs and tons of AM radio-type dialogue, much of which is keenly satirical and quite humorous.
Vice City is a larger and spicier serving of GTA3 with some minor, though beneficial, trimmings. More vehicles, more weapons, a larger environment and refined mission system all contribute to make an already entirely compelling experience even better. Vice City isn’t a sequel, but then again it doesn’t need to be; the ambitious open-ended design and top-notch gameplay of GTA3 hasn’t been exhausted yet, and with a few more additions Rockstar may even eke another less-than-sequel out of the series with positive results. Some minor technical issues along with a disjointed narrative keep this one from a perfect score.
Added: November 20th 2002