Version tested: PlayStation 2
Rockstar should be applauded for getting Vice City finished this quickly. Although you could (and, ahem, we did) spend more time playing GTA3 than most of the rest of the PS2's back catalogue put together, DMA Design's, sorry, Rockstar North's inspirational genre-blender was ripped to shreds by fans within a matter of months. They wanted more. We wanted more. Now we have more. And we'll make no pretence otherwise: Vice City lives up to the hype.
Everyone needs one Vice
Before we get into the whys and wherefores though, we'll take you on a short (and probably rather unnecessary) refresher course in what to expect. After guiding a nameless, muted escaped con through the streets of Liberty City, this time we've been given control of a character with something to say for himself. Tommy Vercetti is fresh out of the clink, and mob bosses in Liberty have sent him packing to Vice City to try and get a handle on the drugs business (and keep him out of the way). When that goes awry, Tommy is forced to press his connections with a crooked lawyer and various local kingpins to try and eke out those responsible for his misfortune. On the way, he'll handle work for a number of bosses all over town, whilst causing untold mayhem on the city streets and playing all sides against one another. No surprises there.
The plot that runs through the game is a lot stronger than GTA3's, mostly thanks to Tommy's inclusion. The narrative is nicely scripted, the missions forming a cohesive part as always, and like GTA3, allegiances change with the wind. Characters from GTA3 are woven into play here and there - you'll hear Toni manning Flash FM (the cleverly named precursor to Flashback FM), Fernando plying his trade on Emotion and there's an amusing entrance for a young Donald Love. And it's not just the characters - you'll still be searching for unique jumps, standout weapons (like the sniper rifle) and even hidden packages, of which there are the requisite 100. We had thought these were absent from Vice City, until we found one the other day - the realisation of just how much more there was to find and do was quite startling.
On the whole, Rockstar has done plenty to catch the attention of GTA3 fans, whilst filling the game with extras. Gary Penn, formerly of DMA Design, often used to bang on about a Digital Toyset, and to extend the metaphor, Vice City offers a Christmas morning's worth of additions. The most talked about are motorbikes, which range from the amusingly named scooter-alike, the Faggio, to some monstrous Harley Davidson types and speedy superbikes, and helicopters, which also play a larger part, with Tommy taking up the role of passenger in an early mission, sniping cartel members from their rooftop perches, before grabbing the controls later on for himself. Choppers are a fantastic addition, and you'll enjoy the build-up prior to getting hold of them. In one mission, you get to practice the controls you'll later rely on by guiding a remote control version with bombs attached to it - very clever.
Other, lesser additions which have perhaps slipped us by include the ability to take over small businesses to supplement your income and act as safehouses, to acquire your former bosses' tenements having offed them, the ability to leap from moving vehicles (incredibly useful, and roaringly cinematic as you charge, engine blazing, into certain death only to scramble aside at the last minute), and the chance to swap rags. Like dumping, switching or respraying cars, changing clothes at one of the various boutiques around town will give you a better chance of evading John Law. You'll also have to dress in various get-ups for certain missions, perfect for convincing the Haitians that the Cubans just whacked their leader, or conning your way onto a golf course to perform a golf buggy-riding hit.
And as you would expect, there's a greater arsenal of weapons, from melee additions like the hammer, meat cleaver and golf club to heavier duty tools like the Ruger assault rifle. The police continue their six-star assaults, although they seem a lot smarter in this incarnation, causing untold trouble even at a 2/6 wanted level. We're also a bit concerned about Ferrari-driving cops, who drive like lunatics and pack machine guns. Ouch.
Like GTA3, you start off with a small environment and have to branch out by completing a number of missions. Come away from the first chopper-based mission and you'll have the city's second island to play with, and various new bosses to talk to. Some will call you on your cellular phone (which is suitably chunky for the day), which you pinched earlier on, whilst others will request a private audience. However the cut-scenes that once served so uniformly as mission briefings now edge closer to cinematics, with actual (and, brace yourself, amusing) dialogue between Tommy and his employers, who all seem rather taken with his masochistic tendencies. This is largely thanks to the work of a team of sterling voice actors, which includes such luminaries as Ray Liotta, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, er, Jenna Jameson, hrm, that Tubbs bloke out of Miami Vice, and plenty more.
And for once, the main character isn't alone in his pursuit of, well, money. Various non-player characters (including the charismatic, sports car-driving Lance 'Quentin' Vance) will work alongside Tommy, showing up at odd moments.
And missions are a lot better in Vice City. Some of the missions in GTA could be quite boring, if it's now safe to say it, but you never get that feeling in Vice City. You can of course continue with vigilante, fire-fighting, ambulance and taxi missions in your spare time, and there's even a sniff of pizza boy about some of it, but that's only if you're bored. And you won't be. Some of your objectives are absolutely ludicrous, but there's always huge diversity in what you can do - to take an arbitrary point as an example, you could find yourself faced with a turf war mission. This has you killing lots of Haitians (including a mean sniper) and hauling their drugs van back to base camp. However, you could instead opt to work for the Haitians by retrieving their drug stashes from around town before the police get there. Or you could just work for one of the mansion-bound drug bosses with a golf course for a front garden, who wants you to whack somebody. Of course, you'll only find yourself in this position if you can get round a number of checkpoints in two minutes to impress the locals. In a speedboat - did I mention that?
Missions are spread all over both islands, and your hotel (the game's only save point early on) is located on just the one, so you'll often find yourself with a hefty drive to pick up some work. Indeed, if you find yourself wasted and left outside a hospital, you could have to travel for five minutes to pick up some hardware from Ammu-Nation, five more minutes to go get the job and a further five to get to the battle. However, buying up one of the many properties that are available for sale and the save points begin to open up, while taxis park outside hospitals to take you straight to the mission you've just failed. It's nice touches like these that make Vice City even more compelling.
There are definitely criticisms to be made, and plenty less incidental than the above, but then that's hardly surprising. The islands are perhaps a bit flat compared to Liberty City - you'll never fly 200 feet straight down off the top of a dam, for example, and you won't hurtle down bendy avenues with the cops in tow, but there are some tremendous hidden (and not so hidden) jumps to enjoy, not to mention a plethora of multi-storey car parks and countless humpback bridges to fly off.
But you can't make something this big this quickly without a few rough edges showing through. Significantly, there are some beastly load times in there, but then we can put up with a dodgy waiter when the main dish is so delicious. We could also point an accusatory finger at the cameraman from time to time, and it's a little maddening to see that character animation and models haven't been smartened up at all. Still, it takes more than a few flies to spoil a broth this good. One such fly, or bug, though, is the ability to get stuck in terrain whilst on the cell phone, and you'll also spot a few glitches, like odd character behaviour in the opening split-second of cut sequences, and occasional clipping issues - such as when a whole road vanished beneath us when we drove. Ugly, but of little consequence.
But the good outweighs the bad by miles. It may look almost identical to GTA3, but it builds on the game in almost every way. (And in strict fairness, the visuals are very nice in places, and everything looks suitably '80s, particularly the clothing, and the way the sun flits in and out of your eyes is genius, with rain spots on the camera too). But dialogue is indeed richer, the soundtrack is much, much better (and well worth buying for £29.99, we'd say), the radio banter is just as funny and there's more of it, the cars are often juicier, the bikes are speed demons, there are seamless new additions like the way your body hurtles over bonnets as you crash, and the way you leap out of cars in mid-air, the missions objectives are much more diverse and there are in the region of 80 of them, the weapons are meatier and the targeting's slightly better (albeit still fiddly). All that and it took us about 30 hours to top off all the main missions. That put us at about 40 per cent complete on the 'stats' page, with loads more to worry about.
However, the pièce de résistance is, in our opinion, the developer's clearly rebellious nature. As you edge past cars on the highway by night, glancing up at the phallic skyscraper in the near distance, you'll realise it's even more phallic for the giant meat and two veg implied by the illuminated windows. And it's Rockstar North's obsession with detail that will see Vice City emerge as another big winner. Most of the fun you'll have in Vice City is down to what you can find off the beaten track - beach balls, destruction derbies, and much more. Hopefully temptation won't get the better of them, and we will get a proper sequel next time, but as far as one-year-mission-packs go, Vice City is the finest of all. And since you've already bought it, we'll simply wish you bon appétit.
Tom's Rating - 10/10
The Editor's Take
When Vice City was first announced to the world, it sounded like it would be a nice stopgap release to keep the millions of GTA3 fans happy. Little did we know just how far Rockstar would go to make this 'filler' become the most anticipated new release of the year.
But there is a massive difference between how you'll feel playing GTA3 and Vice City for the first time. For one thing, when GTA3 came along it was a bolt out of the blue, and a heady voyage of discovery as you realised just how deep the game really was. There was no hype, no build up, no hysterical previews, no review code, just a finished game, in a box, you and your PS2.
This time around there's a reputation to live up to, and not only that, Rockstar has oiled the PR machine so that magazines everywhere have been devoting huge sections to preview coverage, and subsequently have thrown around 97 per cent review scores like confetti. There have been spoilers literally everywhere, so essentially a lot of the element of surprise that you had playing GTA3 will be replaced by an excited sense of expectation.
Your initial experiences of Vice City will reveal only a few subtle changes from its predecessor, but this is most definitely not just GTA3 with new missions. For a start, the frame rate and speed of the faster vehicles is noticeably quicker, making car chases even more insane than before. You can explore indoor locales (albeit with a small load delay), the weapon and vehicle count is mind boggling, the visuals have a smarter sheen to them, (with cars shimmering with a heat haze that looks gorgeous), the scripting is even better (and at times hilarious), while the seven Radio Stations are simply stupendous.
The licensing of over 80 tracks from the 1980-86 era is a masterstroke. It sounded good in theory, but to experience it in practise elevates the game even further. If Rockstar had merely licensed a few old duffers, it might have been good, but somehow it has managed to pull classic after classic out of the bag, most of which have dated sufficiently to really make you feel like you're driving around in the Summer of '86. There are, of course, some absolute howlers in there too - plenty of execrable soft rock that were only hits in the States (The Outfield, Night Ranger) but even these make you chuckle, because they came from the era that not only fashion forgot, but irony forgot.
It's all very easy for us to laugh at the clothes and the music from that pastel shaded time, especially if you're old enough to remember buying said items. But the thing that was so utterly hilarious about the '80s was that all these fashion, musical and cultural faux pas were conducted with a seriousness and an attitude that has long gone. Now it's all knowing winks, kitsch and irony, but you only have to check out A Flock Of Seagulls to realise just how completely ridiculous the era really was - because they really were being serious, although they'd doubtlessly deny that now…
With this in mind, the attention to detail on the cut scenes, combined with the most well realised dialogue and scripting ever witnessed in a videogame make the game all the more enjoyable for it. And with such a heavyweight voice cast, is this the shape of things to come? Games with real voice actors in it, rather than some geezer who makes the tea at the developer? Thank the lord.
Reap the rewards
But this is all, ultimately, window dressing. What about the game? Vice City delivers here too - in obese portions that it would take the best part of 40, 50, maybe 80 hours of your life to gorge upon. 10 hours through and you think you're making headway, but check out the stats and you're, like, 15 per cent through! But as with GTA3, much of the game's completion lies in off the beaten track sub missions that you may or may not wish to hunt down. Whatever. It's all there if you want it, which is the important point. Vice City doesn't force you into doing anything, but you'll reap the rewards if you do.
And believe us, you'll want to reap the rewards, because Vice City has the same compelling, addictive qualities of GTA3, albeit with some of the more glaring flaws dealt with, if not ironed out completely. Targeting is finally somewhere near fixed, with the ability to use a first person mode on some of the weapons, which is a welcome addition. Combat will still get on your nerves from time to time, let's not kid ourselves here, but it's a big step in the right direction.
Another slightly irksome issue that has followed GTA3 is the camera system, which when close up against buildings can go completely berserk and leave you not knowing where the hell you are, which when you're in the midst of a mission can mean the difference between success and failure. Fortunately it doesn't happen all that often, but when it does you'll be cursing, especially if it's the third part of a mission and will cost you another ten minutes to get back to the same point.
As we mentioned in our first impressions piece, certain aspects of the engine are looking tired next to recent advances in technology, especially the rather rudimentary approach to texturing - in particular plants and bushes. Stand up close to any of the many bushes populating the city and you'll know what we mean, as they obscure the screen in a vile blurred green mess.
Meanwhile, we're sorry to see the wonderfully realised train/underground system be stripped from the game, while the lack of any sense of persistent state has been inherited, so that often wrecked cars will disappear if you go away and come back, likewise pedestrians, etc, but really, in terms of affecting your enjoyment, it won't make a jot of difference. That said, we're certainly looking forward to playing a Grand Theft Auto in an environment that is as advanced as the gameplay. Maybe GTA4, eh?
Nit picking technical grievances aside, Vice City is every bit as good as we thought it would be - if not better. When a game can keep you as consistently entertained as this one, you'll be glad of the depth, and you really won't want to stop playing it. But don't expect to be constantly surprised, for much of Vice City is a retread of old ground, and if you didn't like the last one, then Vice City probably won't change your mind. But bear in mind that's rather akin to being a footballer and deciding that you'd rather not play with a ball today. Do yourselves a large favour and buy this game, or as Rockstar once advocated, steal it.
Kristan's Rating - 9/10