Review by JPeeples

Reviewed: 11/01/02 | Updated: 11/04/02

You've got KITT, the guys from Miami Vice, and a black Michael Jackson providing the tunes? What more can you ask for?

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City takes the free-roaming, go anywhere, do anything gameplay from GTA III and refines it to a level that has never been seen before. GTA: VC places you in the role of Tommy Vercetti, a crook who just got screwed on a “business deal” and a man who is trying to rise up the ranks in the Vice City (Miami) underworld in order to appease the mob in Liberty City, who was also screwed on the same “business deal” that Tommy was. Tommy is a desperate man, and is willing to do anything for anyone in order to get some cash, and rise up the ranks. Be forewarned, this game is not for children, or for the faint of heart. This game wears its “M” rating like a badge of honor, and it wears it well. Rockstar North (formerly known as DMA Design) has given gamers a virtual time capsule to the mid-to-late 80s, and I for one, am thankful for it. They’ve included things that most anyone who was around in that time period, and lived in the U.S., would enjoy. They’ve included, to my amazement (and great joy), slightly altered versions of K.I.T.T., from Knight Rider, the A-Team van, and Crockett and Tubbs, the dudes from Miami Vice. Truly fitting their classic TV roles, Crockett and Tubbs act as enforcers for the regular cops when your wanted level gets a BIT too high. As someone who loved these shows, I totally get what the developers were shooting for with it all. They wanted to send you back in time, and succeeded.

Vice City’s predecessor, GTA III featured an awe inspiring blend of both non-linear and linear styles, and this blend of styles has been refined to near-perfection in this game.The linear aspects of the gameplay take place as a part of the storyline throughout the game, and the non-linear parts take place at any other point in the game. If you don’t feel like tackling your latest crime lord-ordered job, you don’t have to. You can do anything you want. Among the most entertaining of the non-linear gameplay aspects is the ability to hi-jack any vehicle you want. All you have to do is go up to the car, beat the living crap out of the person in it (you can just steal the car if it’s not occupied), and drive away. The best part of this is that each vehicle takes on a life of its own. If you hi-jack a taxi for example, you can go out, and collect fares, all the while collecting tons of money. If you were to hi-jack a police car, you can go out and chase criminals, the irony in doing this is amazing. You can also steal a fire engine, and put out fires, doing this is surprisingly fun, as well as original. Each aspect of the gameplay is fine-tuned to near-perfection. The only chinks in the armor of the gameplay are the slowdown, which occurs occasionally, and the pop-up that can obstruct your view of what’s going on. The game also has some camera problems, the main one occurs while you are running to-and-from hi-jackings, or assaults for that matter, the camera gets right behind your back, which obstructs most of your viewpoint. This can be corrected, but it’s still annoying nonetheless. Don’t let the camera and pop-up issues prevent you from playing the game. They don’t hamper the gameplay all that much, and you can find ways around some of them. The gameplay in all other aspects is spot-on perfect, the game’s engine is wound up as tight as a two-dollar watch.

Rockstar North opted to give the player something they haven’t had in any previous GTA game: the ability to go inside buildings and explore them just like the regular parts of town. As you would probably expect, the interiors are just as beautiful as the outer structures (which I will get to in a bit), what you might not expect, is the sheer amount of things to do in these buildings. You can go inside malls, pizza joints, or even the local airport. All of these things have multiple things you can do in them, or, at the very least, look at. In a pizza parlor, for example, you can choose to brutally slay the workers and patrons, or you can opt to let them go about their routines as planned. These same principles apply to the other interior areas I mentioned. In a mall, you can beat the crap out of people (and probably net some dough), or you can just let them shop. In the airport, you have a broader set of things you can do. You can watch people go to and from their flights, or watch the workers do their jobs. You can also just do what you could do in any other place and just shoot the joint up, but part of the fun in this game is making each and every part of this game special, and to avoid routine. Since the game gives you all of this freedom, why not make use of it? Maybe instead of shooting up the airport, you will opt to just gaze in awe at the many intricacies of it’s design. Or, instead of assassinating the workers in the pizza joint, you will take a gander at the two arcade cabinets in it (both offer up plenty of comedic value for those who paid attention to ads in GTA III and VC’s radio stations (I’ll get to those in a sec.) The key to this game is to make use of everything that Rockstar North has given you. If you do this, you will almost certainly have a great time with this game.

One of the best things the game has going for it is the tremendous atmosphere throughout the game. As you begin the game, you will have a feeling of urgency, a feeling that says you have to succeed, or you’ll be SOL. You’ll feel tension with each move you make. This trend will continue on as you progress through the game. Each and every alteration to the world, has an effect in some manner on the player. When you, say, kill a certain number of people, you might feel empowered, or proud, or disgusted. This sense of attachment to your character (Tommy Vercetti) is something special. Each character in the game, no matter how small, adds to the atmosphere of Vice City. This atmosphere can give you freedom, it can also give you sorrow depending on how you take a situation. The atmosphere is something created by the game, and the player, in equal parts. The game gives you stimuli to create an atmosphere, it’s up to the player to use that stimuli in a way that they see fit. The player can make every mission in the game personal, based on attachments they’ve made to the characters. Or, they can simply do the missions to get them done. They can choose to forsake any attachment in an effort to make the game easier on themselves in some way. Few games have ever given the player this much freedom in a game. Rockstar North should be commended for making this game so open to interpretation.

The freedom doesn’t stop with the atmosphere of the game. It goes on to the aforementioned free roaming gameplay. GTA: VC allows you to take the game at your own pace, much like its predecessor. After you complete the first mission, you can do whatever you want right from the get-go. You can go on killing sprees, you can crash into cars, you can put out fires, or do whatever your heart’s content. Or, you can mix it up a little bit. You can make completing the missions your primary objective, and then go crazy afterwards. This sense of freedom continues on throughout the game. It’s a never-ending cycle of personal freedom that gives the player complete control over their destiny.

Now you might be thinking that the gameplay in Vice City is simply pure insanity, and, to an extent it is. However, there are multiple layers to the depth of the gameplay. On the surface, the gameplay is just about killing and doing missions, go a little deeper, and you will start to appreciate the freedom you have in the game, but when you dig really deep, you will find a game that can be rewarding in a psychological manner as well. Take the wanted level system in the game. The more stars you get, the more negative reinforcement you will have acted upon you in the form of increased police action against you. This is all done in an effort to tell you, as a gamer, to cease doing what you are doing to deserve this wanted level if you want the negative reinforcement to stop. There is also some positive reinforcement in this game as well. For example, when you help a cop out in his daily duties (you can do this by stopping a robbery, or by beating up a guy a cop is questioning), you will be rewarded with money. This money acts as positive reinforcement to tell you to keep helping people out. The irony of this is that your character is supposed to be against the cops, yet finds himself desiring the money that helping them out can, and will, provide him. This game has many paradoxes like this, and I enjoy each and everyone of them.

However, not all is fine with the gameplay. A few billion too many bugs made it into the final product that really shouldn’t have been there to begin with. Of the gravest offenders, we have a bug that wonderfully freezes the game up randomly. Boy, isn’t that a joy? Nothing like trying to move onto a new mission only to have the game fade to black for an eternity Now I’m an understanding guy, I don’t mind these things too much on low-budget releases since I know that the publisher’s resources might not be enough to make sure the game is properly bug tested, but this kind of crap is simply inexcusable in one of the biggest releases of the year. It makes the game look like a rush job created to cash in on the immense popularity of GTA III, despite the fact that development for it began before the release of GTA III. Considering the lengthy development time, and the vast resources the game had allocated to it for it’s last year in development, there is no reason that these bugs couldn’t have been ironed out.

The controls in GTA: VC are the best the GTA series has ever seen, however, that being said, a few problems creep into the mix that, much like the bug problem, should not be there. On the upside, the control is responsive, and the button configuration makes sense and actually works with the player, unlike most games. The controls are split up depending on what you’re doing in the game. If you’re fleeing on foot, you’ll have a different control scheme than if you were driving in a vehicle. Some of the vehicles, such as the police car and the fire engine, even have their own control schemes. Sadly, the control really hits the skids when you drive a motorcycle (for the most part) and when you attempt to target an enemy with a gun. The controls for motorcycles seem great, until you try to turn while riding on one. When you attempt to do this simply insane thing, the bike controls like it’s on a sheet of solid ice, it just goes wherever it wants seemingly. Now, thankfully, this problem is rectified to an extent when you ride on some of the better bikes, but it simply shouldn’t be an issue to begin with. Next on the negative side, we have the oversensitive targeting system used for many of the guns in the game. The key problem with the targeting arises whenever you try and target something that is close to you, the problem isn’t quite as bad when you are doing some distance shooting. Considering that the game pretty much revolves around your use of guns to kill enemies and progress the plot, this problem is also inexcusable.

GTA: VC’s visual style is bursting at the seams with realism. The game’s bright and beautiful look is a nice change of pace from the dark and gritty look that populated Liberty City in GTA III. This new, brighter look really helps place you in the mid-80s version of Miami, and as such, it really enhances the mood of the game. The graphics, on a more aesthetic level, are just as amazing. Everything in this game is chock-full of detail. The game’s many vehicles are packed with details (such as the way the car falls apart as you damage it), the same can be said for the buildings in the game.. Even the clothing on the characters is finely detailed, as are the many, many weapons you’ll use throughout the game. On the next layer of visual goodness, you have the subtle graphical touches that do an amazing job at complimenting the atmosphere for the game. Touches like reflections off of rain on the road add a sense of danger to the game. The graphics in the game are amazing but they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, perfect. They frequently suffer as a result of the aforementioned camera problems. However, given the sheer number of characters on-screen at any given time, as well as the game’s huge level layout and vehicles on-screen, the character model problems are forgivable. They might not be the best graphics ever ,but they are some of the finest graphics I have ever seen.

The aural aspects in GTA: VC are some of the most inspired in recent memory. First off, is the music in the game. There’s a virtually limitless supply of it thanks to the series’ trademark “radio stations.” You see, when you steal a car, it will be set to a radio station, you can change the station in any of the game’s vehicles to suit you. Best of all, Rockstar shelled out the big bucks and made sure that pretty much every song in the game was a licensed tune. In this game, you will hear the sounds of bands like Slayer and Anthrax, as well as the hard rock sound of Ozzy Osbourne. For those who crave a more peppy sound, there are a couple of Michael Jackson tunes to be found, and some fantastic Latin beats as well. The attention to detail in the music department is simply astounding. On top of the usual radio stations, there are a couple of talk radio stations in the game. Believe me, your jaw will drop, and you’ll bust out laughing when you turn to the talk radio stations, they feature great satires on staples of pop culture from the 80s that you must hear for yourself to appreciate. The game’s use of sound effects is equally amazing. Each and every sound effect in the game, from the fire of a gun, to the sound of water spurting from a fire hose, sounds authentic and showcases the attention to detail that Rockstar North placed on the sound. The game’s aural aspects don’t end with the sound effects, the voice acting in the game is the icing on the cake. Rockstar North also made great use of professional actors, who voice the game’s many characters, and who do an amazing job at conveying the feelings of each character in the game. VC features the voice talents of Ray Liotta, Burt Reynolds, Jenna Jameson, and many others. The voice acting really helps to draw you into the characters in the game, as each actor (or actress) does a fine job of conveying a sense of emotion, further drawing you into the game. The sound in the game provides a stunning, and at times, startling satire to the on-screen mayhem. Hearing a caller on either of the talk radio stations provides an amazing departure to the goings on in the game since they usually just ramble on about nothing. It’s almost as if the callers live in an alternate universe, a Bizarro-world if you will, in which they are the only ones who exist. Then, just when you think the radio station is in a Bizarro-world, you are treated to commercials that keep up with the game’s tongue-in-cheek stylings. You’ll hear commercials for the Neo Gamestation (which comes with THREE great games), and other ridiculous products and realize that you’ve been sucked into a world so much like our own, yet not quite just like it, that your jaw will drop. You’ll be sucked in, and you’ll realize that you’re a puppet in Rockstar North’s show, and you’re more than happy to come along for the ride.

Overall, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is one of the finest games to come to the PS2, and it’s one of the most original games in recent memory. Few games have been able to mix so many different gameplay styles, and do them as well as this game does. This game has a better driving engine than most driving games, and features a better 3D fighting engine than most 3D fighting games. DMA Design should be commended for their painstaking attention to detail, how they managed to do what they did is simply beyond me. They showed that they are willing to do what it takes to create an amazing game, and raise the bar in gaming as a whole. While the game does have some kinks to work out, on the whole, the game is amazing. You’ll be stunned the first time you play the game, and you’ll be in for a wild ride that never stops. GTA: VC is packed with about as much fun as humanly possible. The sheer volume of things you can do and places you can explore will keep you hooked. The frenetic gameplay never lets up and always keeps you on your toes. The game’s nearly-limitless gameplay helps to insure that everyone will find at least one thing they really enjoy about this game.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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