Version tested PC
It seems so unfair that Grand Theft Auto's birth platform has become second best to Sony's unstoppable monolith. It's almost as if Rockstar has been thumbing its nose at PC users, making us wait months and months to indulge in madcap driving and violence whilst our PS2-owning mates bask in the glorious Floridian sun-drenched climes of Vice City. But not for long, oh no, because now it's finally here - and you've probably already got a copy, haven't you?
Six months on, we'd actually forgotten how life-consumingly compelling Vice City was, but an hour with the PC version had us totally embroiled once more, quickly reminding of just how timeless it really is. Assuming you missed it first time around, here's what's going on: young Tommy Vercetti is fresh out of prison after serving a long stint for the mob, and has been sent down south by his former boss to Vice City in order to start a new life of crime. When a crucial cash/drugs handover goes wrong and the money gets pinched, Tommy is straight in at the deep end with a debt to pay on top of making a respectable name for himself in his new home.
And so it begins. Tommy starts off on the long road to finding out who stole his boss's money and paying them back, whilst making a few new friends and a tidy buck on the side. The first major difference between Vice City and its predecessor GTA3 is the drastically improved narrative; the player, as Tommy, is now a fully realised character with plenty to say for himself, interacting with the major and not-so-major players in town through a mostly amusing and well acted script, stuffed with amusing accents and even the odd series in-joke. The feeling of a large, gradually unravelling plot is far more obvious this time around, and getting to take part in the tale is a pleasure.
The other twist is of course the time and location. As a parody of 1980s Miami, Rockstar North has done a fantastic job of constructing a believable set of islands with appropriately garish neon-lined urban architecture, Cuban and Haitian-populated ghettos and disgustingly rich areas dotted with mansions - complete with golf courses and jetties, yachts and all. The look is familiar yet different - it feels like GTA3 but the glaring sun, large stretches of deep blue water, and overwhelming pastel of it all is unmistakably and almost perfectly 80s.
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Meanwhile the translation to PC has been in equal parts kind and unkind to Vice City. The shooting elements are vastly improved and far more fluid than their PS2 counterparts, thanks entirely to the mouse control scheme, but conversely the driving and piloting sections (the helicopter in particular) will have you fumbling over your keyboard and grinding your teeth with frustration. The higher resolutions afforded by PC hardware aren't kind to the overall visual quality either, giving you the impression that the almost-splendour before you isn't anywhere close to what could have been achieved - especially on the hardware Vice City demands.
Then again it's worth keeping in mind that Rockstar North has managed to craft this believable environment with what is frankly a pretty ropey-looking engine, and one that obviously wasn't designed for the PC. Despite horribly chunky characters, the animation is mostly beautiful, with body language playing an important role in the portrayal of the story, and cars are nicely constructed, even if they're also fuzzily textured, and the city architecture surrounding them is disappointingly boxy. However it doesn't get much better than that. Explosions are whimsical and scenery destruction is pathetic. There are many glitches too, with characters getting stuck in the scenery, flickering textures, disappearing textures and, on occasion, disappearing roads. But you live with it. You live with it because you're having so much damn fun.
So it's just GTA3 in the 80s right? Well, you could say that, but that would be missing the point. It takes the original formula and really gives it a shakedown. The objectives you'll have to complete range from the rudimentary to the utterly ludicrous, but they hardly ever become boring. Frustrating perhaps, but never really boring. And there are tweaks here and there that give the game a whole new dimension - leaping from a moving car, for example, adds another option to the fevered police pursuant as he careens through a busy slum, and brings another superbly cinematic element to the proceedings.
Then there are, of course, the motorbikes. From the scooters to the nippy little dirt bikes, right up to the thundering speedbikes, they lend a new dimension to the adventure. You can, for example, rev your way up a fire escape and onto the rooftops, leaping spectacularly from roof to roof attempting to locate those elusive hidden packages - of which another 100 have been crammed in. You can also fire a semi-automatic to the front while riding a bike, making short work of what could otherwise be a frustrating road chase. There are also controls for shifting your weight on the motorcycles, and corresponding entries in the statistics menu for longest wheelie and longest stoppy, just for fun.
And how could we possibly forget the soundtrack? This time out, the in-vehicle entertainment really knocks you back. There are hours and hours of licensed music here, all carefully handpicked to add to the 80s ambience - we couldn't help but smile the first time we pilfered a sports car and were welcomed with the sound of Billie Jean over the airwaves. The music is peppered with humorous banter from a host of new DJs, and even a few familiar voices from GTA3, albeit somewhat younger. When you stop the car and just listen to the radio as the sun turns the sky red and jets arc across the sky, with a gang having a shootout with the cops across the street, it's then that you realise the Rockstar had one hell of a lot of fun constructing this game.
Of course there are still times when you'll quit the main narrative-based missions in an absolute fury because you can't quite beat the particular one you're on, but the game offers so many different strategies for taking on most missions that you'll keep going back to formulate a new one - and you can usually just go and try another mission in any event. The game even offers you a taxi to take you straight back to the briefing should you get thrown in the clink or end up in the hospital.
The only problem is that it's actually quite easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer weight of stuff presented to you when you start the game, so much so that you may find yourself at a bit of a loss, not quite sure what to do aside from the main storyline missions. The few islands that Vice City consists of are quite flat and samey compared to their Liberty City counterparts, which doesn't help, and so when you unlock a new part of the island - which actually doesn't take that long - it's quite possible to be completely unaware of it, despite travelling back and forth between islands for a couple of missions. That never happened in Liberty.
We also miss being able to identify key landmarks to help us find our way around this time - like Liberty's massive suspension bridge, the dam, the military surplus depot and so on - as many of the areas and boundaries between them tend to blur and look a little samey. The enormity of your locale and the task ahead is present right from the beginning, and getting that completion statistic up to 100 per cent does at times seem like an absolutely impossible task.
But we know you'll persevere and hammer away at every last little side mission, finding every hidden package and trying to locate every single life-threatening leap of faith, because for all the hundreds of games we get through, we did. Hell, we still are and will be for months to come. You will want to tear open Vice City in the exact same way you did with its predecessor, and show all your mates your death defying motorcycle stunts. You will giggle at the missions that have you directing remote-controlled planes and helicopters with bombs strapped to the bottom, and at the Mexican telling you have "big cajones, man" as you fling yourself from the top of a ramp on board a speedboat. You may even start up mailing lists just to keep track of your latest and greatest feats, and share the joy of playing the latest GTA with a pool of equally enamoured friends.
Pin-pointing exactly what it is we love so much about Vice City is hard, simply because there is so much. It transcends the very genre it once created, encompassing driving, shooting, exploration, adventure, old-school point scoring and even collect 'em ups, what with the ability to buy up property across the city alongside the traditional package-finding. Sorry to have to go back to that old adage of having a complete "toy set" to play with, but it's hard to actually emphasise just how true that is. Even if there are a few kinks in this new PC version, it's still wonderful.
9 / 10