Review by BigCj34

"GTA hits the sunny beaches of the 80's, but its the same gun-frenzy action as before."

There's a fine line in being a badass and a crook. Both have strong leadership attributes, take no prisoners and are prepared to fight. But while the former is fighting to stand up for his integral values and has to challenge the norm in the process, the latter will use those attributes for personal profit. Think of Michael Weston from Burn Notice to Tony Montana from Scarface to see the divide. The former is an ex-spy trying to help people who have been conned by Miami criminals; the latter tries to build up his drug empire in the same city after arriving from Cuba. Given the Grand Theft Auto series track record of moral dubiety, it's not too surprising that Grand Theft Auto: Vice City leans far more closely to Scarface, and borrows further cultural traits from Miami Vice and Blow to recreate the criminal underworld the balmy breezy city had in the 1980's.

Stealing cars and killing people has always been the staple of the highly controversial series, whose protagonists endure less than stellar backstories. Claude of GTA III escapes from prison following a bank robbery in Liberty City, CJ of GTA: San Andreas tries to silence rival gangs, only GTA IV's Niko Bellic has the most noble cause when he flees a war torn Serbia to bail out his brother in another completely revamped Liberty City. Yet Tommy Vercetti stars as the most gruesome anti-hero you didn't realize you were playing as. Released from fifteen years prison service, due to his involvement in a series of shootings when working for the mafia of GTA III's Liberty City, he's dumped in Vice City penniless. As he ends up losing money accrued from a cocaine deal in an ambush, Vercetti initially takes up odd jobs to repay his former boss Sonny Forelli. While his beginnings are humble, the outspoken, quick-witted protagonist soon builds up his own network, changing his agenda into a quest for revenge and fabricates his own criminal empire.

The character portrayed has always been the strongest asset of GTA, but Vice City was to first to add a historic cultural twist to it. GTA III put great detail into making Liberty City as grim, dystopian and corrupt as possible. Only a few patches of sunlight, parks and rooftops provided a glimmer of escapism from the city's harsh reality. Vice City presents a complete contrast: a pink and bright blue haze overshadows the city, buildings are a bright white, characters don ostentatious pastel coloured outfits and retro sports cars are littered everywhere, as echoes of Gordon Gekko's “greed…is good” line ring to summarize the decade . The jovial ambience and palmtrees doesn't suggest a place of high criminal activity, but its behind the scenes in the mansions and shop-front windows where there's a lot of drug dealing and assassinations on the go. Personal profit trumps moral integrity, where characters will do anything and kill anyone to build a profile in the city.

In terms of game-play features, property ownership is the most significant addition, as Vercetti aims to build a business empire. Some serve as convenient savepoints, but others are ailing businesses that require a take over, adding further missions and a means to generate revenue. Missions can range from a large scale bank robbery and car chases, but business related missions add some spice. Taking over the film studio unlocks some finecky stunt missions, making use of the newly implemented motorcycles and helicopters, the car garage requires more cars for its stock and the taxi depot requires putting the rest out of business. Whilst killing someone may seem easy on paper, being on the run from the police is the most challenging part of any mission. Fleeing a high wanted level and finding a car-respraying garage is separates the boys from the men. Either you get arrested, shot dead, or the car explodes from too many collisions.

Vice City's two-island map may slightly dwarf Liberty City, but there's more activity on the go. There's a few mini-game opportunities with a dirt track stadium and obstacle course, motorbikes enter as an extremely handy mode of transportation and you can even fly a helicopter. Side missions supplement the storyline, such as payphone assassinations, whilst taxi driver, police vigilante and fire truck missions are playable upon pinching the appropriate vehicle. Rampages involve killing a set number of cars or pedestrians in a limited amount of time, but sometimes it's good to just chill out. Vice City has many peculiarities worth exploring, from the beaches, the Cuban and Haitian communities, the mall and boardwalk, with hidden packages dotted over the map to reward the search. Whether it's viewing the sunsets, flying onto a high building or racing up the island, no outdoor area is off limits. The visuals may be poor, even for its time and the PlayStation 2 hardware it was designed for. Models are excessively blocky and most windows are flat textures, but the best has been made from a limited graphics engine. The eighties era has been pastiched remarkably well, without taking itself too seriously and risking inaccuracies.

The radio stations, historically used to parody contemporary pop-culture, have been used to great effect as well. Adverts and chat shows parody the cultural zeitgeist, such as the Degenatron games console and self-help cult manuals of its day to name a few. While its sad to see GTA drift away from songs either created in-house or from lesser-known artists, the roster of hit 80's singles reinforces the vibe. Hits from pop artists like Michael Jackson and Mr Mister are combined with 80's metal songs from Iron Maiden and Motley Crue; the Spanish connection is well serviced with a dedicated Latino and salsa station, as well as an old-school hip hop channel. While the ecstasy inspired drum-and-bass and trance stations, MSX and Rise FM, have been dropped; the playlists and much improved, film quality acting form a substantial part of the experience.

When a game sees a sequel that aims to better everything the original did, its predecessors fade off into obsolescence as there's little to justify playing it anymore. Vice City may use the same game engine and formula as GTA III, yet the experience between them is unquantifiable, as every GTA is a work of art in its own right. GTA III may lay thread-bare feature-wise when stood next to San Andreas, and GTA IV may have scaled things back as it took on a revamped game engine. But features don't necessarily matter, as the variety of storylines, cultural settings and even music playlists makes every game worth playing in its own right. Vice City stands as the first game to dip its toes into a themed setting is a radical shift from its predecessor, with an ambitious and morally bankrupt protagonist in a game that glorifies crime in a city where it doesn't seem so emminent. Is it better than the other GTA games? Well, the magic behind the GTA franchise is that there is generally no game 'better' than the other. If I was to pick one GTA game that's worth playing, it would be San Andreas due to its sheer size. The others however, are just too different to decide which one is second best. You simply have to play them all.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 03/06/13

Game Release: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (US, 01/04/08)

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