Reviewed: December 21, 2002
Released: October 30, 2002
Finally, almost two months after its release, I am finally able to bring you my review for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. While my review might be a bit dated, I can guarantee you a complete and thorough tour of Vice City like no other. I’ve dedicated a significant chunk of my gaming time to this title over the past two months and after logging almost 120 hours I can now give you the skinny on what may be the 2002 PS2 game of the year.
PS2 owners are no stranger to the Grand Theft Auto series; especially after last year’s mega-hit release of Grand Theft Auto 3 and its subsequent PC port earlier this year. Whether you are skilled carjacker who thrives on this game, or a bitter senator trying to get this “electronic trash” banned from your local software store, everyone has heard of this notorious franchise and millions have played it. We all know that when software developers stumble on an award-winning formula that sequels are sure to follow, and now Rockstar North takes us on a crime-filled romp through Miami…err..Vice City.
GTA3 broke new ground on open-ended gameplay. It was one of those few games, if not the only game, you could spend dozens or even hundreds of hours playing and never even tackle the scripted missions within the game. Even if you did approach the title from an “I just want to play through it” perspective you were still in store for 30-40 hours of quality gaming.
Proving that you cannot get too much of a good thing, Rockstar ups the ante in Vice City in almost everyway possible. Vice City is nearly twice the size of GTA3’s Liberty City, there are more than 50 indoor areas to visit and explore, 40 weapons, and more than 100 vehicles including boats, motorcycles, and helicopters. More doesn’t always mean better so the designers also made sure to address several issues gamers had with the last game. Graphics have been dramatically improved, there is a new targeting system in place, there are more than 100 missions that are tightly integrated into an engrossing story, and there is a soundtrack of licensed 80’s music so massive that only a portion of it can be found on the 7-disc CD box set sold separately.
Despite the improved stuff and even the new stuff there is still a feeling of déjà vu after you have jacked your hundredth car. There are certainly plenty of memorable “wow” moments like the first time you fly your helicopter around the city or the first time you purchase a piece of income property, but in the end, not a lot has changed in the basic design or premise of this game, and that alone is the sole reason this game falls just short of perfection.
I’ll have to admit that my review copy of Vice City sat on my desk for over a week before I dared to insert it into my PS2. I knew, and rightly so, that once I started this game my life would be over, or at least put on indefinite hold for the next month. And while I did manage to limit my Vice City sessions to 8-10 hour increments, I had no trouble racking up 120 hours in just a few weeks, and I’m still only 93% finished – damn those unique jumps!
Vice City is massive, both in sheer scale of the city and in game content. The missions only constitute about 66% of the game. There are 100 Hidden Packages stashed around the city and a dozen or so stores that need to be robbed. There are unique jumps, both land and water, and all sorts of side missions like taxi driving, firefighting, police car vigilante missions, etc. that all need to be finished to get a perfect 100% score.
While this lofty goal is attainable I would highly recommend a good strategy guide, preferably one with good maps. Finding and collecting all 100 of those hidden packages would be an impossible task, and even with the aid of a poster map of the city and screenshots of each package location it still took me over ten hours to get them all. And for those of you saying “I don’t need no stinkin’ strategy guide”; don’t kid yourself. Unless you plan on never playing another PS2 game ever again go get a guide.
Vice City took some getting used to. For the first several hours I actually did not like this game. The city was huge and different and scary. I’ve moved several times in my life, once even to Miami, and for any of you who have moved to a new city, especially a large one, you know how overwhelming the experience can be. You are leaving a familiar area where you know your way around and you must now learn a new city. Where is the store, the bank, the gas station?
By the time I had completed GTA3 I could take you to any place on any of the three maps. I knew that city better than my own. Vice City only spans two large sections but the complexity of the maps are much more intense than Liberty City. Even into my hundredth hour of gameplay I was still learning shortcuts and new ways to get to places. Having the use of the helicopter is a great way to get a birds-eye view of the city, but once I could fly I found I used choppers for 90% of my travel unless a mission required me to use a car. This kept me from learning the city and perfecting my driving skills, which really hurt in some of the later missions like “The Driver”.
One of the big complaints of GTA3 was the lack of a good linear story. The missions all seemed to be cobbled together but didn’t really relate to anything or anybody in any significant way. With more than 100 missions waiting for you in Vice City the designers took great care to craft an excellent story that kicks off in the opening movie and carries you through to the end of the missions.
You play Tommy Vercetti, recently sprung from prison and sent to Miami…err…Vice City to take organized crime into the next generation. Shortly after arriving, Tommy’s first drug deal goes bad and he loses the drugs and a whole lotta cash. Now he must find out who is responsible and exact his retribution or face the boys back up north. This leads into a massive set of missions where Tommy starts off as a lowly wheelman and rises through the ranks to one of Vice City’s major kingpins.
Admittedly, a lot of this stuff is very cliché. You have your typical betrayals, deals gone bad, henchmen wanting a bigger cut of the action. You have strippers, prostitutes, and even a porn industry that sparks an interesting set of missions. Vice City borrows heavily on plot devices and characters from The Godfather, Scarface, and of course, Miami Vice yet it manages to stay fresh and original.
Vice City is designed to put you in an 80’s version of Miami, even though we aren’t calling it Miami. I lived in Miami in the 80’s and 90’s and I can easily spot key locations such as South Beach, Fisher Island, and many signature skyscrapers not to mention the art deco district and the colorful neon glow of the Strip (as seen in the movie, The Bird Cage). But in reality, the only thing that dates this game is the music. You could substitute any musical era and the game would play the same.
Those of you who have played GTA3 can skip this paragraph and move on to what’s new and improved in Vice City. For everyone else, this is a game about criminals who do bad things. They steal cars, rob banks, sell protection to store owners, sell drugs from an ice cream truck, deal in illegal weapons, and even kill people. The city is yours to be explored as you see fit. You decide when you want to take a mission, and often you will have several missions to choose from ranging in complexity and difficulty.
There was a metric ton of new features added to the GTA formula to create the Vice City experience. There are over 100 missions in Vice City but only 21 of them are directly related to the main story. In keeping with the tradition of non-linear gameplay, Vice City allows you to create your own criminal empire at your leisure. With the exception of two key missions that unlock the bridge to the mainland and Tommy’s ability to buy income property, you have no real limitations in your approach to playing this game.
As the name, Grand Theft Auto implies, there are a lot of cars to be stolen, driven, and crashed. More than 100 vehicles make this year’s release including several new two-wheel rides ranging from the Faggio scooter to the speedy PCJ 600 crotch rocket. Motorcycles are fast but a bit unstable and not nearly as forgiving as a car when you hit something. They are great for the unique stunt jumps but just a bit too dangerous for anything else. Of course nothing impresses the chicks like landing at the Malibu club in your own private helicopter.
Buying property is one of the coolest new features to be added to the GTA formula. There are two types of properties you can buy; save properties and income properties. Save properties replace the garages from GTA3 and you can now purchase homes on both the island and the mainland. These range in quality from the sleazy biker shack to the Hyman Condo complete with helipad and your very own re-spawning helicopter. These locations allow you to save your game and replenish your health, but only two of these residences actually allow you to rearm yourself with the weapons you have earned by collecting the hidden packages.
One of the best properties in the game is your mansion on Starfish Island, and you don’t even have to pay for it, although the mission to take it from the existing owner is one of the harder ones in the game. Once you become the master of this estate you will have at your disposal, two helicopters (one with machine guns), an Infernus, and a stretch limo, all of which re-spawn when destroyed.
Income property becomes available to you after you are about halfway through the main story missions. You can buy businesses like the Pole Position strip club, or the Malibu nightclub, or even your own movie studio or taxi business. Once you purchase these buildings you can use them to save and replenish your health, but their true value is in their earning potential. Each business will generate a fixed amount of daily revenue provided you complete the necessary tasks to unlock this feature. These tasks can be as easy as tipping a Pole Position dancer $600 or undertaking a series of taxi driving missions or executing a daring bank robbery. Generally, the more missions it takes to unlock the revenue, the more money you can make.
This leads to my first of several minor complaints with Vice City. You are required to visit your business ventures to collect your daily cut of the profits. Each business has a certain daily cap on earnings, and if you don’t collect the money when it’s full any additional money earned is lost. This task is made easier with a chopper but it is still a major inconvenience to “make the rounds” every day. Somebody in Tommy’s position should have people to do these menial tasks for him and the money should just get added to my bank account every 24 hours. I will admit though that there is something hysterical about me stopping by my strip club in mid-police chase to pick up my $4,000. I’m screeching down the street at 100mph and realize, “Oh yeah, I haven’t collected from there in days.”
The asset property missions along with several sidebar missions make up another 37 challenging assignments that range from playing both sides of a Haitian-Cuban gang war to making a daring series of motorcycle jumps to realign a spotlight to promote your latest porno movie. There is a series of assassination missions that are given to you from an anonymous caller at select phone booths around the city and you even get missions from a cell phone you take off the body of one of your very first “victims”.
Not only is Vice City huge on the outside you can now go inside more than 50 locations. Some of these are as simple as the one-room pizza parlor, but they can also get as complicated as your multi-level mansion on Starfish Island or the huge Westside and Northside shopping malls. Some missions take place indoors such as the bank heist and store owner shakedown missions and others take place both indoors and outdoors like the daring jailbreak mission where you disguise yourself as a cop to break a buddy out of the slammer or rescue Lance from kidnappers at the junkyard.
There are a few missions that take place “on rails”. You might find yourself firing a machinegun as Lance pilots a chopper or shooting down choppers and blowing up the harbor patrol from the deck of the Colonel’s yacht as he tries to flee the city. There are plenty of racing missions, both in cars and boats, and even some cool RC missions where you get to control RC choppers, biplanes, and dune buggies.
Mission objectives are as diverse in their structure as they are in their complexity. This leads to my second complaint about the game. By design, you are going to fail many of these missions your first time. Some missions are insanely difficulty and will take you hours to figure out the best strategy, which makes the process of failing and restarting the mission just that much more painful. The designers tried to be nice and if you die or get busted you are offered a $9 cab ride that will take you back to the start of the previously failed mission. The only problem with this is that there is often a lot of prep work required before some of these missions making this cab ride a bit premature. Often, you will need to visit one of your two save locations where you can rearm and get a suitable ride. Plus, if you weren’t fortunate enough to die or get busted you will need to take suitable action to rid yourself of any Wanted Level before reattempting the mission. A change of clothes will rid yourself of up to two stars but anything more than that requires a trip to the Paint-n-Spray.
I can appreciate the dilemma the designers probably found themselves in. If they allow you to save anywhere (like just before a mission) then people will say the game is too easy or too short. But given the choice of using willpower to resist such temptation or being forced to perform ten minutes of prep work for the same mission for each of the 20 attempts it takes before you finally succeed, I would much rather have a prompt come up that says “Hit X to Retry Mission”. I’d even be willing to pay a premium fee for such a service.
The true trademark of great game design is when you can play a game for dozens of hours and never be working toward the main goal of the game. I spent nearly ten hours just finding and collecting those hidden packages – a task I highly recommend once you have access to the chopper. For every ten packages you collect a new weapon pick-up is placed at your two primary save houses, and if you get all 100 packages you get a cool $100,000 and access to a fully loaded Apache attack helicopter armed with rockets and machines guns. Of course, you will have to steal it from the Army Base first.
Weapons are an interesting commodity in Vice City. Early on when you are poor and first starting out you will be reduced to buying a screwdriver or hammer to mug the population and get a few bucks. Later on you can buy bigger and better guns from the Ammu-Nation stores scattered about the city, but it always seemed that the good weapons were always sold out and even then, who wants to pay for guns. Every weapon can be had for free if you know where to find it. Some are located in multiple areas while others like Molotov’s and the Rocket Launcher are only available in a single spawn point.
Combat has been significantly improved with the new targeting system. Pressing R1 now targets the strongest enemy in your current field of vision, but you still need to release and press R1 to retarget or you will get stuck on a dead body. Priority targeting is a great help, especially in missions like the bank heist where you need to pick off SWAT guys that are mixed in with bank hostages.
A few weapons can be fired from a first-person view and while the crosshair is now larger and brighter than before, aiming with the Dual Shock is still a bit shaky. In the Guardian Angel mission you are told to get on the fire escape and protect your three buddies by sniping gang members as they rush into the alley from all sides. After a dozen failed attempts at sniping I simply resorted to my auto-locking Uzi and fought the gang at ground level at close range.
Control is nearly flawless. The cars all have unique handling and a realistic weight to them. Some cars are great for fishtailing around turns while the top-heavy van will simply roll and explode. Tommy can crouch, run and even sprint. The more you run the longer you can sprint before having to catch your breath. New to Vice City is the ability to bail out of cars or even the chopper. This is a great way to escape a burning vehicle when you don’t have time to come to a complete stop. Prepare to take damage to either body armor or health when you tumble across the pavement, but it’s better than dying in the forthcoming explosion.
Unfortunately, our hero (as was the case in GTA3) cannot swim. This will result in plenty of untimely, accidental, and inconvenient deaths. One mission had me meeting my contact on the dock. I ran out onto the dock and stopped on the pink shaft to trigger the conversation but my momentum carried me the two additional steps beyond the pier into the ocean. Gurgle…gurgle…gurgle… The next GTA game better have a hero who can swim or at least offer to sell water wings or a life preserver. I can use those items more than a screwdriver.
Piloting the chopper is a skill that takes a bit of practice. In order to move forward you have to push forward which also lowers your altitude. You need to find the perfect mix of tilt and rotor speed (holding down the X) for level flight and then mix in the L2/R2 tail rotor for turning. Driving the various boats in Vice City is even more challenging than the choppers. You need to maintain some sort of speed to turn these boats and each type of craft handles differently.
You will find yourself getting lost for hours doing the craziest stuff in Vice City. I had a competition going on where we would take turns stealing the tank and seeing who could do the most amount of damage to the city (in dollars) before getting busted or killed. Once we unlocked the military chopper we took the battle to the skies to see who could shoot down the most police choppers or those airplanes flying around with the streaming banners.
If senseless violence is what you’re after check out the dozens of new rampages scattered about the city. These challenges usually require you to kill a certain amount of people or blow up so many cars in a short amount of time. The rampage system has been greatly improved over GTA3. In last year’s game if you failed a rampage you might have to wait several hours before the icon would reappear. Now the icon spawns immediately upon failure allowing you to keep trying until you succeed or give up.
There are other diversions that round out the entire Vice City experience. You can earn money driving a cab or bus and collecting fares. You can become a fireman or a paramedic or how about delivering pizza or ice cream? There are RC challenges, street racing, and even an indoor shooting gallery at the Ammu-Nation. You can also find special cars, boats, and choppers that trigger checkpoint challenges allowing you to compete for the best time. You can even search the beach and find the beach ball to do a little head bouncing. It keeps a count going for each bounce off your head without hitting the ground.
Of special note is the improved AI of the citizens, both the ones driving and the ones on foot. Cops seem to be a bit more alert and will react to any crimes committed in their presence, either by you or others. It is not uncommon to witness muggings and even all-out gang warfare with dozens of Cubans and Haitians unloading on each other. Tommy will receive different reactions based on his clothes and the car he is driving. If he is dressed like a Cuban and walking through Little Haiti prepare to be abused. Likewise, driving the Voodoo (a hydraulic Haitian ride) through Little Havana will attract plenty of unwanted attention.
Some people don’t take kindly to being carjacked and will fight back if you don’t make a quick getaway. You can hold up a variety of stores throughout town. In fact, you need to rob 15 of these establishments in order to get that perfect 100% ranking. Money will keep being added to your total for as long as you hold the clerk at gunpoint but the longer you do the higher your wanted level goes. If you fail to “silence” the clerk, he/she will sound the alarm as you make your escape.
There is a nice sense of progression with the mission structure of Vice City. You generally have at least two or three sources of missions available at all times and about the time you wrap up one scenario another is made available via cell phone or through a new contact from a previous mission. The mission difficulty is all over the place at times but for the most part is on a consistent and gradual rise. There are a few missions that are real “stumpers” but nothing that patience, practice, and planning can’t overcome. I spent nearly two hours on the “Sir, Yes Sir” mission and when I finally stumbled on the solution it was so simple and obvious I was kicking myself for days.
In my 120 hours of play my game only locked up three times; two of these times were while crossing the bridge and the game was loading the other half of the city and once was when entering the diner in Little Havana after completing a mission. I’m not used to PS2 games doing this, so the first time this happened I lost nearly 4 hours of progress. In the early parts of the game save locations are few and far between, but even worse is that you get so caught up in the game that many hours will pass and you won’t even realize it. Save yourself some frustration and make a conscious effort to save your game often no matter how inconvenient. A five minute drive across town is certainly less painful than replaying one or more missions.
Vice City is simply gorgeous. It’s bigger than Liberty City in both overall size and complexity and you can tell it was designed with purpose and function. You have your poverty districts that are sectioned off from the nicer parts of town; your industrial areas, and your dock/warehouse district. There is a huge commercial airport and a smaller airport to the north along with a nearby military base. Starfish Island is home to the Vice City elite with multi-million dollar estates. You have a full-size golf course with driving range, golf carts that can be stolen and driven around town, and then you have the main strip down the coast. Designed after Miami’s famed South Beach, this strip is best viewed at night with every color of the rainbow represented in iridescent neon that lights and reflects off of the streets and cars.
The draw distance has been dramatically improved since GTA3. This was to be expected now that you have access to the chopper and can view the sprawling city from the air. Even though your maximum altitude is restricted you can still achieve dizzying heights that allow you to view both the mainland and the large island as well as the smaller connecting islands. There is a bit of fogging on the horizon but nothing abnormal and there is a surprising lack of pop-up. In fact, the worst pop-up is seen when driving the faster cars like the Cheetah through the more complicated sections of the city.
The game engine uses a technique called Radiosity to create amazing lighting and reflections. These can be as subtle as the reflections on the shiny floor in the Ocean View hotel to the blinding lens flares of the rising sun. During the course of the day the sun will travel across the sky creating realistic shadows. Driving down the coast at dusk is a breathtaking experience with the orange glow of the sky, long shadows, and glowing neon.
Cars, buildings, and even the characters have all been improved upon. Tommy now gets to change clothes frequently and each costume looks incredible whether it’s the preppy golf outfit, the jeans and white t-shirt of a Cuban thug, or the pinstriped suit of a professional criminal. The population of Vice City is varied with tourists, skaters, strippers, dockworkers, and just about anyone else you might expect to meet in a large multi-cultural coastal city.
When I first started playing Vice City there was something that just wasn’t “right” about the graphics. Everything seemed to have a washed out look with colors that bled over each other with weird shimmering effects. It was as if the entire game had a weird haze filter it was passing through. A quick trip to the options menu allowed me to discover a new graphics option that is turned on by default. Turning off this filter not only gave me a much cleaner and crisper presentation, but it also marked a significant improvement in my framerate.
Even at its best, Vice City seldom achieves a framerate greater than 30fps and quite often it dips dangerously low. It never gets low enough to become unplayable, but it does get a bit distracting and annoying since these dips take place in critical times of heavy cop activity or intense driving through congested traffic. When you are weaving through traffic at 100mph you need a consistently smooth framerate.
The camera is faithful to the previous games, although Rockstar did remove the overhead camera effectively eliminating any chance to relive those 2D days of the earlier GTA games. You can still look behind as you run by pressing R3, and the L2/R2 buttons still look out the car windows. There are a few clipping problems when you run along a wall and the camera has a few problems tracking the action in the tighter indoor areas. I never died because of a camera problem so I guess that says something.
The indoor sights are just as nice as the outdoor environments. The smoky strip club looks a bit seedy with dancers spinning around poles or giving private dances in the back rooms. The nightclub has a large dance floor with groups of people dancing and people drinking at the bar. Your mansion is huge with an office, indoor pool, bar, multiple outdoor pools, a hedge maze, private boat dock, and even a helipad on the roof. There are two large malls you can enter and explore with clothing stores where you can change your appearance and eateries where you can order food and restore health.
The best thing I can say about the visuals in Vice City is that they bring the city to life in a very convincing and realistic way. Everyone seems to have a purpose whether it is the bikini girls skating down the strip or the groups of thugs hanging out in Little Haiti waiting to mug anyone foolish enough to stray into their territory. There is a large selection of hookers working parts of the city but you are no longer allowed to pick them up for some back-alley lovin’.
There are all sorts of hidden things to be discovered if you look close enough. Flying high over Starfish Island you will see some interesting pool designs and if you fly toward the coast around 11pm you will see an interesting pattern of window lights on one of the taller buildings. You can also look for posters and other insider jokes that the designers have worked into the game.
One of the highly touted features of Vice City is the 80’s inspired soundtrack. I am the first to tip my hat to the geniuses responsible for licensing such an inspired and eclectic mix of music. From 1985-1995 I was a nightclub DJ and I even worked in a few clubs in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. The soundtrack perfectly captures just about every musical genre from that era and delivers one of the most comprehensive collections of 80’s tunes ever compiled on a single CD.
If you really dig the music you can purchase the official soundtrack which comes in seven individual CD’s, each themed after one of the radio stations from the game and each with a couple of commercials and an exclusive cheat code that can be unlocked by going online with the CD in your PC. There is also a limited edition box set that contains all seven discs but good luck finding it in stores. I’ve yet to find one in a store, but the single discs are readily available at most music outlets.
With more than 100 songs and commercials you will certainly find a station that is worth listening to. KCHAT is one of my favorites and features some of the most hilarious interviews and phone calls I’ve ever heard. There is even a pirate radio station that has some killer tunes and a DJ that sounds oddly familiar; at least to anyone who’s played Jet Grind Radio.
Of course the best part of the sound experience is the wonderful voice acting by the tremendous cast of professionals assembled to lend their talents to creating a cinematic experience. Ray Liotta is perfectly cast as Tommy, and you will recognize other talented actors including Gary Busy, David Paymer, Luis Guzman, Danny Trejo, and even Jenna Jameson. There are rumored reports of several anonymous actors lending their talents to the project. While I can’t confirm these rumors I must admit that Avery Carrington does sound an awful lot like Burt Reynolds.
The rest of the sound experience is basically the unique sounds of cars, boats, helicopters, and the fury of gunfire. These sounds all blend together to create a living, breathing world. Nothing is quite so spectacular as the sound of my loyal henchmen defending my estate from the local cops as they enter my front gate and try to arrest me.
All of this wonderful sound, music, and ambient noise are presented in a stunning DTS surround mix provided you have the sound system to hear it. Unlike Dolby Digital, DTS doesn’t require as much processing power and therefore is available throughout the entire game. It’s an amazing mix and really puts you in the middle of the action.
It seems that games are getting shorter and shorter with each new release. GTA3 broke all the rules of traditional game length and Vice City manages to surpass its predecessor. There are more missions, more cars, more weapons, more music, and a much larger city. Just playing the story part of the game will take you upwards of 40 hours, and if you want to find every hidden package, complete every side quest, jump every unique stunt ramp, rob every store, and do everything it takes to get a 100% completion rating you can plan on spending no less than 100 hours.
Without a doubt, there is no better game more deserving of your dollar. The open-ended nature of the game design almost rivals those persistent world games like EverQuest. You can literally lose yourself in the world of Vice City with mundane tasks like driving around and collecting money from your businesses, racing through checkpoint challenges, or trying to beat your best time at the RC racetrack.
While it’s true that controversy sells games, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is just as controversial as GTA3, the plain and simple truth is that Vice City is a great game. If a game stinks no amount of hype is going to make it a true hit. People that played GTA3 learned last year what makes a great game and Rockstar watched and listened to those players. They fixed most of the stuff that needed fixing and improved everything else. What we ended up with is a game that is bigger and better than anything before it and one that will set a new standard for action gaming in a free-roaming environment.
There are already rumors of a GTA sequel for 2004. The most popular of these is the Sin City rumor with the game being set in a 1970’s Las Vegas. I can’t imagine the trouble one could get into in Las Vegas, especially with Rockstar drawing on movies like Casino for inspiration plus all the wonderful show music that could be incorporated into the soundtrack. A little Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, and plenty of disco fever and you have another box set in the making.
Vice City is without a doubt one of the best games of 2002 and if you own a PS2 you should make this a part of your permanent game library. What few flaws I can find with the game design are more nuisances than actual bugs and easily overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Sony has an exclusive deal for this game until 2003 so don’t hold out for a PC port anytime soon. Grab your copy and start building your empire today.