Version tested iPhone
Rockstar's neon-drenched 2002 opus Vice City deliberately calls many pop references to mind. The title, the logo, the suits, the sports cars and the ostentatious colour palette all combine to evoke Miami Vice, of course. The plot, meanwhile, draws heavily on that other classic tale of 1980s excess on the Florida coast: Brian DePalma's Scarface. The presence of Ray Liotta in the lead role, all laconic New York swagger, adds a welcome dash of Scorsese's rich and salty Italian-American flavour.
Yet, for me, the thing that most immediately springs to mind when thinking about Vice City is not a gangster tale at all. It's Goldfinger.
The third Bond movie saw the 007 formula click into place, finding a blend of gadgets, girls and glamour that would endure for another 40 years. So too does Vice City crystallise the fledgling GTA formula for 3D, as the gaudy debauchery of the 1980s collides with Rockstar's arch millenial irony - an alchemical reaction that results in the perfect balancing of tone and humour, bad taste and great wit.
Whether roaring down sun-kissed streets on a motorbike with Toto's Africa ringing in your ears, getting up to bloody mischief in a tacky nightclub or meeting up with some of GTA's most memorable characters, it's such a leap forward in terms of world-building and storytelling that GTA3, so remarkable and forward thinking just 12 months earlier, was instantly left looking like little more than a crude preparatory doodle.
And now, like GTA3, it's available on your phone. Also like GTA3, it's a compromised transition, with the thrill of holding such a classic in your palm constantly tarnished by the fact that the game is such a poor fit for the hardware.
It's not as if Rockstar hasn't bent over backwards to compensate for the format shift. Not only is the touch-screen interface as flexible as before, with virtual buttons that can be moved around and resized to accommodate any preference, but there have been improvements as well. This is most noticeable in combat, with the automatic lock-on now even more automatic. You no longer need to press down on the attack icon to bring up the crosshairs - they pop up as soon as you equip a firearm and glue onto the closest NPC.
That solves the problem of accuracy, but is hardly conducive to any kind of tactical play. Any situation that requires you to pick your targets carefully, or prioritise one enemy over another, becomes a frantic scramble of random shooting. Similarly, any attempt to be efficient in your fighting by aiming for headshots is doomed to failure. So it's an improvement and a drawback at the same time. One step forward, one step back.
Driving handles better than in the iOS version of GTA 3, though that's at least partly down to the evolution in mechanics between the original PS2 games. The iOS version still defaults to the clumsy two-button driving method rather than the superior virtual joystick used for on-foot movement, but even with the very best control set-up, precision remains elusive.
So while the improved controls are enough to make Vice City's sandbox an enjoyable place to stumble and rattle around in provided there's nothing at stake, tackling the game's missions quickly becomes a joyless chore. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that famously tough missions such as the RC helicopter ordeal that is Demolition Man - a mission that presented a brutal difficulty spike even on the dedicated controller of the PS2 - are actually impossible on an iPhone.
It's worth pointing out at this point that the game is better on the iPad, as the larger screen means less gameplay space is taken up with virtual buttons and gauging distances for turns is less of a dice roll. It's even better when played with a third-party controller peripheral, but once you head down that road there comes a point where you have to ask why you're not just playing it on a console or PC as intended.
All of this leaves Vice City in a peculiarly contradictory place. It's a wonderful game - one of the best ever made - yet this is a version that can't help but obscure much of its brilliance. It's been improved from GTA3's mobile version, but it remains a somewhat futile endeavour. It's a game that's always fun to mess about with, but in this format the resistance to anything more than that is prohibitive. No matter how hard you hammer it, navigating GTA's complex world is a square peg that never comfortably fits into mobile's round hole.
Provided you just want to romp around in Vice City's giddy sandbox, then £2.99 is a small enough price to pay. However, this ongoing quest to force the GTA series into touch-screen play, replicating multiple joypad controls via transparent buttons, feels like a wasted effort when we could be seeing what Rockstar's boundless imagination and ambition could do with a game specifically designed for this sort of platform.
They may not be mobile titles, but games such as Hotline Miami and Retro City Rampage have shown that the DNA of Grand Theft Auto works just as well when wound back into the 2D top-down model Rockstar worked so hard to escape from. Getting Vice City to run on an iPhone is a victory of sorts, but by continuing to follow this route, rather than striking out in new directions, Rockstar seems doomed to swim against the tide.
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