"The PSP visits beautiful, seedy Vice City"

No game has made as much waves in the gaming industry in such a short amount of time as Grand Theft Auto. Whether or not you agree with the over-the-top, violent gameplay or the pulpy, Mafia movie stories, you have to admit that no game before Grand Theft Auto 3 gave gamers so much freedom in such a large virtual playground. Vice City Stories is Rockstar's 5th game based around the same gameplay mechanics introduced in the 3rd game and beyond. If you haven't had your fill of GTA yet, then you might find this game to be more than a quick cash-in.

Vice City Stories tells the tale of disenchanted former soldier Victor Vance, the brother of future protagonist Tommy Vercetti's brother-in-arms, Lance Vance. After joining the army to support his self-destructive family, he is led to perform a few shady acts that get him kicked out of the service. On the streets with nothing to fall back onto, Vic turns to the seedy criminal underworld. It's too bad that Vic always complains about not wanting to be a lowlife before committing such atrocities. It's the first time Rockstar has tried to make its protagonist a good guy, and the story has plenty of emotional drama that wasn't present in past GTA games. Whether you see him as the good guy in a bad situation or as a filthy hypocrite, the flimsy story makes for some interesting mission design.

Anybody with past experiences with GTA will feel right at home with this installment. Vice City Stories feels like an amalgamation of just about everything done right with the series, although some quirks and issues still have not been entirely ironed out. Vice City Stories' main component is the story missions, which combine the series' signature elements of driving and shooting people. After 5 games, you'd think that just about every mission idea possible has been done, and you'd be right. A lot of the missions are fairly similar to ones that have been around in past games, and a few of them are so similar that they seem to run together in my mind. One major issue that was fixed from Liberty City Stories is mission length and depth. Unlike LCS' simpler missions, harkening back to the days of yore, VCS features longer, multi-tiered and more exciting missions. In the span of 15 minutes, you'll be piloting a helicopter, engaging in a gunfight and going on a wild car chase with the cops around the city. Many of the missions are plenty of fun, even if their lengthiness means having to start over if you mess up near the end. For some reason, though, Rockstar decided to inject a few mind-numbingly boring, mundane and/or overly difficult missions that make the story campaign fall flat on its feet. Having to maneuver a sluggish forklift through a burning building is not my idea of fun. Aside from a small handful of select quests, most of the missions are superbly designed and plenty of fun. The campaign is substantially longer than LCS', taking about 10 to 15 hours.

With Vice City Stories comes the return of air vehicles and the ability to swim, features that were sorely missed in the previous GTA installment. Helicopters, such as the Maverick and the Hunter, return, and controlling them is fairly intuitive and remains unchanged. Swimming is reintroduced, which means that plummeting into water doesn't mean instant death. However, Vic has a limited amount of stamina, and if his stamina bar runs out, then he drowns. It's too bad you can't swim very far, making the ability to swim nigh worthless until you unlock the infinite swimming stamina.

New features include improved water physics, new vehicles such as the jetski and hovercraft, and an empire building system that combines elements from the business aspect of the original Vice City and gang warfare from San Andreas. The new water physics works fairly well, and the jetski and hovercraft take full advantage of it. While the hovercraft remains, in my opinion, as the touchiest vehicle to use since the RC cars, the jetski is plenty of fun to use. The greatest change, however, is the empire system. There are 30 business sites owned by rival gangs that are scattered throughout the city. You can attack any of them by destroying the gang vehicle outside, and then clearing all opposition that spills out of the building. Destroy the business assets inside, and the site is now yours to buy. You can develop these sites based on size and type of business, which ranges from prostitution and loan sharking to drug dealing and robbery. Of course, you'll have to deal with rival gangs. Attack a gang's interests enough and they'll retaliate in the form of drive-by shootings or attacks on your businesses. These attacks are constant, and will not stop until you either initiate a mission or fail to defend a business. Sometimes, you'll be forced to dart half-way across the city to defend a business, which can be annoying when attacks come one after the other.

Many of the side missions and gameplay aspects return in Vice City Stories. The driving physics remain the same, retaining that 1970's car-chase movie feel. Rockstar made attempts to fix the targeting system, but issues still remain. For the most part, it will no longer randomly target civilians if threats are present, but sometimes it still has trouble targetting the closest threat. The overhauled melee system is a nice addition, with grapples, blocking and extra attacks available. It's still much more efficient to use a gun, though. The hidden packages return as well, in the form of 99 red balloons that need to be popped, in reference to the popular '80s song. Rampages and unique jumps return, as well as all of the old stand-bys such as vigilante, fire fighter and paramedic. Rockstar saw it fit to add checkpoint saving to some of these side missions, but extended the amount of levels required for completion, which just makes these side missions more monotonous than ever. The best new additions are the golfing minigame and the shooting range, which is a hold-over from San Andreas. Vehicle time trials return, as do races. It's a shame Vice City Stories didn't introduce anything else, but at least it got rid of the god-awful RC races.

In order to extend the UMD life further, Rockstar has brought back the multiplayer from LCS and fleshed it out further. New gameplay modes such as VIP and Empire Takedown make for interesting games. A variant of LCS' "Tanks for the Memories" has players fighting to steal the Hunter, a highly lauded Apache-like attack helicopter capable of mass destruction. The Street Rage mode has a new Quadathalon option, which has players switching between land, air and sea based vehicles during races. Once again, Rockstar has opted to keep multiplayer Ad-Hoc only, so you'll need to find friends that have copies of the game. While being able to play this online would be great, it remains nothing more than a pipe dream since the game is so resource intensive.

With regards to presentation, Rockstar has done it again with VCS. Admittedly, VCS looks absolutely stunning. The draw distance is probably the best in the series aside from San Andreas, and the density of objects in the city is amazing. Animations are fantastic, and the cutscenes in VCS have the usual cinematic flair. VCS' audio sets the bar high for future PSP games, featuring over 100 licensed tracks including songs by Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Kiss, Quiet Riot, etc. The Hollywood talent that provided voice work from Vice City returns in VCS, so you'll be hearing Philip Michael Thomas, Danny Trejo and Gary Busey reprise their roles as Lance Vance, Umberto Robina and Phil Cassidy, respectively. For the first time, a celebrity makes a cameo as themself in the form of Phil Collins. VCS is simply a treat for the eyes and ears.

However, Vice City Stories isn't without its flaws. The game's graphical power comes at a price though, since the game loads areas so slowly. The entire city is broken up into streaming blocks, and you won't see any detail until you get close enough. With the fast cars and long straight-aways, you'll find yourself crashing into lamp posts or little bumps in the road that exist, but simply haven't loaded yet. This is particularly jarring when you're flying aircraft - nothing breaks the mood more than crashing your biplane into a tree that suddenly popped into view. This also leads to the game seizing up for a few seconds at a time as it tries to load the radio stations. Often, the radio will cut out or skip because the game simply can't process the graphics and the audio at the same time. It's hard to enjoy the well put together soundtrack when the game can't load it half the time. Another issue comes from the fact that the game will freeze while loading objects. Whether it be the police, or gang members during rampages, the game will freeze up for anywhere from 5 to 10 seconds as it spawns them around you. Yet another major issue - one that is present in every GTA game but is worse tenfold in VCS - is garages losing your vehicles. Garages are supposed to be able to save your vehicles, but they disappear very often in VCS, making them pointless. Other glitches include cars spawning upside down and cars that spawn driving UNDER bridges.

It's safe to say that Vice City Stories is the essence of GTA distilled into a single, solid package. There is nothing available on the PSP that quite compares to gunning down a long stretch of road on a speedbike listening to '80s rock, and VCS is another solid entry in a long-running franchise. If you haven't had your fill of GTA yet, then Vice City Stories is definitely a game you want to pick up.

Summary:
Pros:
+ Amazing presentation and soundtrack
+ Distilled awesomeness of past GTA games
+ Longer, more complex missions
+ Finally (re)introduced air vehicles
+ New empire building
+ Fleshed out multiplayer

Cons:
- Load times
- Graphical issues
- Quirks such as targetting remain a problem
- Various bugs and a few unbalanced missions
- Will feel stale depending on your GTA intake
- Multiplayer remains Ad-Hoc only

Vice City Stories is worthy of a solid score of 8 out of 10, and would've been a 9 without it's various technical problems. If you're still on the fence about this one, at least rent it.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/08/07

Game Release: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (US, 10/31/06)


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