Sometimes, just sometimes, you have to pinch yourself in this job. After seven hours of solid Vice City yesterday, a realisation dawned upon me that I was, in fact, being paid to play Grand Theft Auto. I shall make a mental note of this joy and remind myself of it every time I get a little pissed off about a dodgy camera angle or wayward enemy AI.
Let's get the conversion issues out of the way first, and it won't take long. In fact it's possible to sum up the 'enhancements' (for want of a better word) to the Xbox versions in a sentence: better loading times (especially noticeable on Vice City), no hideous road drawing glitches, smoother frame rate and the welcome facility for custom soundtracks, lest the novelty of hearing cheesy 80s tunes wears off. But apart from that, it's evident that this is the exact same game ported identically - but when you've got two games as good as this in your hand for £40, that's not really something to gripe about. You've easily got 100 hours-plus of gaming to enjoy between the pair, and what's more, they're the sort of games you can talk to random strangers about the way movies, music and books are discussed. In short, Grand Theft Auto is a cultural phenomenon, and the two games ought to form an essential part of anyone's collection - it's really that simple.
It's time to use a cliché. GTA 3 and Vice City are truly greater than the sum of their parts. Here's another one: they're sandbox games. They're digital toys [another -Ed] that - up to a point - let the gamer play them the way they want to. Their beauty stems from the fact that there are entire games tucked away within the pair that you can choose to ignore entirely or spend several hours messing around with. Taxi missions, Vigilante missions, stunts, Fire, Ambulance, Rampage, races, hidden packages, or just the joy of causing as much chaos as possible for the sake of it, be that beating people up, torching them, shooting them, running them over... The choice is yours.
And this choice even comes into play while the main meat of the game is going on around you. After the gentle introduction the game soon opens up, often providing the player with three or more concurrent storyline threads. If one mission is proving too tough, then simply moving onto another 'job' often provides a route to progress. If only other games provided this less linear approach - we'd most likely persist with many of the games we encounter if we weren't constantly shoehorned into too-difficult, too frustrating cul-de-sacs. GTA also makes it a more compelling experience by offering a suite of differing gameplay styles; sniper missions, timed pedal-to-the-metal insanity, melee carnage, the list goes on, and all the time battling the long arm of the law to the most inspired gaming soundtracks ever conceived.
Rockstar Ate My CD Collection
Ah yes, the radio stations. Who could have ever imagined that videogames would one day provide the user with literally hours of audio that has the listener constantly chortling to themselves weeks later, having discovered a previously unheard snippet? Daft adverts, masterful voiceovers, wonderfully appropriate tunes; it's a master class in how to do gaming audio that's still so far ahead that no other game developer has even come close to emulating what's on offer here. When Vice City emerged in 2002 with nigh on 90 popular '80s classics and obscurities, it seemed as if gaming had finally stopped being the geeky niche past-time that had dogged it for 30 years and entered the mainstream, with big name film stars doing the voices, and doing a superb script the kind of justice that makes 99 per cent of other gaming narrative sound like the amdram schlock that it so painfully obviously is. There are some elements of both GTA 3 and Vice City that are so joyously brilliant that it brings a tear to the eye. It's the sort of progress that the 11-year old boy in me that bought a Spectrum 20 years ago could never have imagined in a million years and is one of the reasons this 'phase' persists among myself and many others like me that would've otherwise become bored years ago.
After a decade of praying that game developers would realise that there's a market for adult-themed videogames, DMA/Rockstar North did that in style and arguably propelled Sony's console to the kind of heights it would have struggled to achieve otherwise.
Not without Vice
After such undiluted praise, let's not pretend that GTA 3 and Vice City are exempt from criticism - in a way its unprecedented success means it deserves to be pulled apart like nothing else. Despite being universally acknowledged as being arguably among the ten best games ever made these two games are - without doubt - blighted by one of the most infuriating combat/targeting mechanics I've come across in a modern videogame, and replaying both games on Xbox merely serves to remind me just how truly ill-considered and frustrating they are. Sure, you get used to them, but only in the sense that you get used to your old man's halitosis or that hairy mole on your granny's chin. You still love them, but you wish they'd bloody do something about the problem. Mercifully Vice City at least makes auto targeting slightly more straightforward, but it's still a ham-fisted system that should have been drowned at birth and results in the game's longevity being extended not by the desire to replay missions endlessly, but by the fact that the controls simply don't allow you to perform the (often straightforward) task at hand. The fact that they haven't been improved for these long overdue conversions is an insult, frankly.
Hand in hand with this issue is the game's inexplicable meanness that forces the player to go through hoops in order to nail a mission. Failure in GTA is a curse. Not only does the game often force you to re-arm yourself (often requiring a lengthy trawl to the nearest Ammu-Nation), but you're often spending several minutes just driving back to the start of a mission. Again, Vice City lends a hand by providing a cab back to your last mission should you mess up, but that's of no use when you're stripped of weapons every time. The solution would have been so simple and would have made the game an infinitely more enjoyable experience - surely checkpoint saving would have hardly rocked the boat? Ah well, it's not as if I had anything better to do than play the Death Row mission 27 times in a row eh? After all, I was being paid to do it. Reminder to self.
So, dodgy combat blighted by a ludicrously unhelpful camera system and a convoluted save system that will literally waste hours of your time and conspire to frustrate you into cursing two of the greatest games ever made. Ach, how could Rockstar North make such elementary mistakes? They're design gods that bestride a sea of mediocrity. Surely they'd fix such basic errors for the Xbox version having received endless feedback? Well, ah, no.
The conversions are pretty much the typical shovelware that Xbox owners have long since accepted as the norm. Graphically there's nary a pixel difference between the Xbox and PS2 version, which while no surprise is still disappointing after all this time. Even back in October 2001 GTA 3 hardly set the world on fire with its amazing visuals. It looked cool and had a stylised appeal that hasn't aged, but a sharp TV shows up its numerous flaws and the Xbox looks faintly embarrassed by such blurry texturing and cardboard cut-out scenery. But seriously, don't for one second let that concern you.
The game's appeal has never been about the eye candy or technical merit. It's about enjoying a cultural landmark that back in October 2001 sparked off a creative revival in videogames that is evident in almost every game produced since. Its influence is massive, its appeal enduring. It's everything a videogame should be; innovative, compelling, challenging, long-lasting. And spiked with controversy and a wonderful wit, it's also something that so few videogames can ever be - cool. It should be a punishable offence to not own this game, and although its flaws are never more evident than they are now, we should nevertheless cherish it as a masterpiece of ambition and remind ourselves why we're into videogames in the first place.