Review by theREALbbobb

"It certainly provides one of the most unique gaming experiences around these days, but not one of the best."

When Grand Theft Auto III was released, the Grand Theft Auto series made a transition from niche product to mainstream. The follow-up, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, continues this, as it’s basically a slightly improved game with a lot of new content. Constantly I’m finding myself to be the voice of dissent these days, because let me tell you: while Vice City is a good game, it is not stellar. Both this game and its predecessor are impressive primarily because they are successful marriages of multiple genres (which is certainly a commendable feat in itself), rather than because they excel in every conceivable way. I just hope that future installments will correct and improve upon this interesting formula.

Now unlike many who have played this game, I did not grow up in the 80s, the decade that Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is set in; I’m that young. I was never fond of the clothing of said decade, I dislike the vast majority of the music, and the names of Vice City’s acknowledged influences don’t ring even ring a bell for me. Absolutely no facet of the game’s time period has any emotional or nostalgic resonance with me. But I don’t hold this against Vice City; in fact, most of my complaints concern its gameplay more than anything else. I just don’t fall into this mirthful stupor that an older gamer might when he turns this game on, and perhaps that’s for the better.

Vice City casts you in the role of Tommy Vercetti (voiced by Ray Liotta), an ex-convict who has just been released after serving a fifteen-year sentence. However, he hasn’t quite learned his lesson obviously, because he gets involved in a drug deal at the onset of the game, which goes horribly, horribly wrong. This leaves almost everyone involved very angry, and our brutish anti-hero in terrible debt. It’s from there that the adventure begins. You’ll travel back and forth across Vice City doing various missions, which serve as stepping stones for your climb from small-time crook to big-time mafia boss.

But one of the things that’s great about Vice City is that it doesn’t bolt you to a single, straight path. You’re actually given quite a bit of leeway with your decisions after the drug deal, and you only get more as the game progresses further. For example, after a few hours of gameplay, the second half of Vice City becomes accessible, along with more and more mission offers. Yet you don’t even have to go straight to the missions if you want. In fact, one of the truly impressive things about Vice City is just how much you can do without actually progressing any further in the game.

Vice City isn’t that big of a place if you compare it to an actual city, but within the context of a videogame, it’s absolutely enormous. It’s a vibrant city, and exploring it is a fun diversion on its own. Admittedly, most of this is pretty superficial, as you can’t enter most of the buildings. However, the attention to detail, the creativity, and the effort that went into creating it is almost unimaginable. There are gun shops, pizza parlors, as well various residents that span all price ranges. Rockstar also seems to make a point of having hospitals, police departments, as well as a military base, because not having them would be a terrible oversight.

Vice City is also littered with cars and pedestrians. The cars are an absolutely integral part of Vice City. Because of how expansive the game is, traveling any other way would simply be impractical. Well, I shouldn’t say that, as you’ll also come across various motorcycles, helicopters and boats, which all work quite nicely. The point is that walking generally doesn’t cut it, and more often than not, you’ll have to “borrow” some sort of vehicle (which is usually a car) to get to your destination in a reasonable amount of time. And it works out wonderfully, because the vehicular physics are simply a dream, and quite realistic for the most part. Sports cars tend to handle the best, while big trucks can endure more punishment. The boats and helicopters take a bit of practice to use proficiently, and this is perfectly fine, as the game seems to take the difficulties of piloting such vehicles into account.

And while you’re driving or flying around, you can tune in to any of Vice City’s various radio stations to pass the time by. Most of these are categorized by what type of music the individual station plays, but personally, I’m not very fond of much of the music of the decade. The real fun comes from listening to the brilliant, satirical radio talk shows and commercials. In particular, the station called Vice City Public Radio is a wildly amusing political talk show between extremely caricaturized stereotypes. None of this is really essential to the game, but Vice City would really be missing something if it didn’t have this much personality.

Though your name becomes increasingly notorious as the game progresses, it is important to keep in mind that you are not the law. You can and will be involved in many illegal and deplorable acts, but they will rarely go unnoticed. Vice City has law enforcement institutions, and they do a decidedly good job of enforcing the law. How they choose to enforce it depends on your wanted level. If you stir a little bit of trouble, cops in patrol cars will come after you. If you continue to be a problem, you’ll soon be facing SWAT teams, helicopters, and tanks. It’s a system that is both practical and adds a certain sense of realism.

It's really quite wonderful, but in between all this fun and wonder, there are quite a few gnawing problems that stand out.

If I could ask for only one thing in future Grand Theft Auto installments, I would ask for better on-foot shooting mechanics without even giving it a second thought. There’s more to Vice City than opening fire with an automatic, but combat is still an important part of the game. With that said, it’s disappointing that the game’s shooting sequences just aren’t incredibly entertaining. Firing usually requires you to stand still, as the only weapons that allow you to move aren’t very useful anyway. The controls don’t help all that much either, as Tommy can be a bit difficult to maneuver at times, and strafing is completely nonexistent.

Now while there’s plenty to do in Vice City, not all of it is that fun. Many of the optional quests and missions are more frustrating than they are fun. Sadly, this can also apply to quite a few of the mandatory missions as well. Unfortunately, even throughout the course of game, very few of the missions are incredibly well designed. Most of them are merely decent, some are occasionally good, but to say that any single mission in Vice City is fantastic would be giving it far too much credit. Better mission design would also improve the series immensely, besides better on-foot mechanics of course. On a more trivial note, the much-vaunted drive-by shooting aspect is incredibly cumbersome.

When I tell people that I think Vice City is overrated, I think they get the wrong impression. I don’t hate this game at all – I merely see an enormous amount of room for improvement. This is a great concept, but it’s not being executed nearly as well as it could be. It certainly provides one of the most unique gaming experiences around these days, but not one of the best.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 02/28/04, Updated 02/29/04

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