Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Five notches on Rockstar's belt for the GTA series, but is enough enough?

Obviously not yet, because Vice City has made record sales so far out of all the GTA games, and no small thanks in Australia to the censory board. Vice City is perhaps the most controversial game to date in Australia (and perhaps the rest of the world), it created more fervor at the beginning of this year than even the infamous carmageddon. It was released late this year (2002) by Rockstar and is now available for all to run amok in the streets of Vice City.

Unfortuneately, the engine hasn't been revamped at all, its exactly the same as Grand Theft Auto III, and while this is very nice, it does cause problems. Regardless, the highly detailed cars are back, this time with highly detailed bikes and helicopters to boot. The reflect the flurescent lights of the city, crumble as you smash your way through traffic, and look realistic while at it. A bit of extra work has gone into making the character models move more realistically, but without a graphics revamp, its gone to waste. As the characters slap each other on the back, link arms or make other physical contact the still blocky hands and arms graphics are made glaringly evident; but at least they still look good otherwise. The city scapes are beautiful also - especially so at night when the city glows with bright pinks, blues, greens and purples - not to mention the immensity of said city scape.

Yet, here is the problem with the now outdated engine - popup. This is a very obvious problem, made obvious because of the size of the city, thus nuch longer streets than previous games. As you drive along you will suddenly notice a blurred object on the horizon... is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! Its a very badly rendered distant car! Wait, you are now on top of the car because you're in a fast car - oops, crash. But now you decide like the car you just crashed into, so you chase it; alas, it goes out of pop up and is swallowed into the magical nether void of Vice City. Yes folks, the "memory" effect found in the previous games is back. It was virtually eradicated in Grand Theft Auto III, but it plagues Vice City due to its large size.

Sound definently deserves a mention, as it is back in all its glory. The numerous comedic radio stations are back, ranging from hip-hop, to pop, to talk back radio. The time period is the 80's, and you'll even find rocking 80's music on most of these stations! Cars sound good, as do the other vehicles, but the ambient sounds are somewhat diminished from the previous game. This is, once again, due to the size of the city. In the previous game the scuffle of pedestrians' shoes, the distant rumble of cars and the mumble of people could be heard as one travelled the streets; and while this has been retained it is not as realistic and does not feel as homey.

Don't despair, there is still hope! Car diversity has increased, and new vehicles have been added. Veterans of the GTA series will be hit with a dose of nostalgia as the bike is reintroduced to the game, which was excluded from the last game. Boat transport has been retained, but new to all is the helicopter! Available in both RC and regular size, you now have the ability to shoot from a stolen police helicopter, fly a helicopter solo or commandeer an RC van with a bomber RC helicopter. This really adds some great fun to the game and is a welcome addition. The time of day effect has been retained also, and you will find more of a certain type of car at a certain time, and in certain areas as per usual also. But another horrid problem plagues the game again, and it is another memory problem. In Grand Thef Auto 2, but especially in Grand Theft Auto, the player would sometimes walk out onto the street to find absolutely no cars in the street. This is back, and while it does not happen often, it does happen - and usually it is during a mission when memory is at a premium. This is terribly irritating, as sometimes you require a car to chase after a mission objective, but cannot find one, hence failing the mission.

The cops are back and better than ever! AI is, as expected, somewhat smarter than the previous (but don't worry, you can still laugh at their occasional stupidity as they dive into water and roll their cars trying to get at you). There are also increading levels of intelligence, cops being the dumbest, then cops on bikes, SWAT, undercover cops, FBI and finally the army. Yes - undercover cops are in this game, and they are tricky! They drive Cheetahs (a sports car), often catching you unawares and busting you before you can even figure out what happened! SWAT are a hell of a lot smarter too, and when you reach the fourth cop rating they start dropping down from helicopters on ropes! One must also be very careful when reaching the third cop rating, as tire spikes are used, and the cops can shoot out your tires, making for very difficult get aways. The cop ratings are now as follows: 1 Cops chase you if you come across them, expires after a time; 2 Cops actively persue you; 3 Cops use tire spikes and send undercover cops; 4 SWAT teams persue you; 5 FBI teams persue you; 6 The Army is sent to crush you.

Level progression has been dumbed down even more than in Grand Theft Auto III. This time, as the name suggests, you are in Vice City, which happens to be the second level from Grand Theft Auto (as Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto III was the first level from Grand Theft Auto). Its about thirty times the size of the original one, however, and has three major islands. There are bridges connecting the islands, and while all are closed to begin with (like in the previous game), you do not need to clear out the first island in order to progress to the next. All the bridges are opened in very short order, after completing a set amount of missions, but then the entire city is open to you - nonlinearity may ensue.

The game is still, unfortuneately, linear, as it was in the previous game. In GTA and GTA 2 the player received jobs from non-descript payphones, and had free choice from many missions. The level ended upon reaching a certain score goal, but in the previous game progression was ensured by completing set missions. This is back strongly at the beginning of the game, however after the first two major mission "strains" it picks up a small amount of non-linearity. You now have free reign over what real estate you buy (an awesome addition) and what mission "strains" you do. Yet it is still event based progression, in that once you have completed certain missions the final "strain" becomes available.

One great addition is a stronger themed storyline, set in the raging 80's. Tommy Vercetti, your character, is not a mute (praise the lord!) and actually responds with smart arse remarks and a heavy American-Italian accent that makes you feel like you're a part of the family. The story so far is that Tommy, recently released from jail, is given a job by his boss to go to Vice City and close a deal on some Grade A Columbian Cocaine so that the Mafia in Liberty City can break into the drug market. When Tommy makes the deal, however, it goes sour, and all involved are killed; excluding the hero of course. He now must recover the stolen money and drugs before he gets his balls cut off by his boss (literally).

The final aspect of the game that I must comment on is its controversy. In Australia the censory board delayed its arrival for several weeks in order to succesfully censor the game for Australian release, and the publicity it generated was immense. Pre-orders were massive and the game probably sold better than it would have if they had left it well alone. Yet I don't blame them, because this game gets nasty. Once again you can solicit prostitutes, however Australia doesn't reveive this privelege, but Rockstar has gone one step further. Among the weapons available for terrorism include a screwdriver, hammer, machette, knuckle dusters, baseball bat, golf club and a chainsaw. This provides for some rather gruesome beatings. Long story short - this isn't one for the kids. Hell, this isn't one for any morally upstanding person regardless of their age.

Despite its flaws, Vice City is a worthy succesor to the GTA bloodline. It will carry the torch on (though I believe that Rockstar may have just pushed the controversy a bit to far this time). I recommend it to fans of the series, and anyone with a bloodlust that they need to sate (better to do it in virtual reality than reality). I really don't recommend it for young people or upstanding citizens, but for the rest, great fun to be had!

Final Verdict:

Graphics: 4/5
Sound: 4/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Playability: 4/5
Overall: 4/5