Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto III and its follow-up Grand Theft Auto: Vice City have become seminal releases in the current generation of consoles that showcase the potential for developers to fully realize ambitious visions for games that were once simply impossible, given the past limitations of technology. The games also show off the timeless appeal of running around and shooting things. The upcoming Grand Theft Auto Double Pack brings the once PlayStation 2-exclusive games to the Xbox in a two-disc set that should please fans who had hoped the franchise would one day hit "the box." We had the opportunity to check out the games and will be offering some impressions on both in the next two weeks. First up, though, is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
For the, roughly, two people who are unaware of the Grand Theft Auto phenomenon, we cheerfully welcome them back to civilization following what must have been a lengthy stay in a subterranean cave with no access to popular media and/or the Internet. The series started out as a modestly successful PC franchise and has exponentially exploded since coming to the PlayStation 2. Grand Theft Auto III marked the first 3D entry in the franchise, and it marked the first time an installment debuted on a home console (the PC version of the game followed a few months later). Developer Rockstar North's impressive and fully realized, open-ended gameplay stayed true to the core mechanics that made the series a hit, but it also opened them up for an evolutionary leap forward that set a standard of quality that many games have attempted to imitate. Following Grand Theft Auto's massive critical and commercial success, Rockstar served up a sequel in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The sequel focused on recently released felon Tommy Vercetti. Vice City improved on its predecessor in nearly every way--which is where our look at the Double Pack begins.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for the Xbox boasts a number of technical improvements over the PlayStation 2 incarnation, and it offers a few new bells and whistles in the features department. Rockstar's newly minted European studio Rockstar Vienna is the shepherd in charge of the game's conversion from the PS2 to the Xbox, and it has worked hard to enhance the game with the Xbox hardware. The most significant changes in the game are in its presentation, thanks to beefier visuals and audio. In the visual department, the polygon models for just about everything have been increased, resulting in a more robust look. Every single vehicle has gotten a polygonal makeover that's been enhanced by specular lighting and reflection maps that have been tailored to each specific type of vehicle. For example, a sports car will look far shinier and sexier than a plain old station wagon. This is especially apparent in Vice City, as the Floridian neon--rampant throughout the city--reflects off of cars quite dramatically.
Along the same lines, you'll notice that every major character has also had some significant work done. The character facelifts reflect more than just a simple increase in polygon count. You'll see individual fingers now, as well as lip synching during cutscenes. Other visual perks include higher resolution textures and a new particle system that enhances explosions. This dramatically enhances the appearance of fire from your flamethrower, as well as improving the look of drops of water that stick to the screen. The whole package is further enhanced by including HDTV support for 16x9 widescreen and 480p progressive scan. While the version of the game we saw wasn't completely finished, the enhancements were looking good. We noticed a few textures that weren't terribly attractive, but, overall, the game looked sharp. The frame rate was fairly solid, although there were occasional inconsistent hiccups when things got crazy, but it wasn't that bad.
The audio has also been enhanced, thanks to Dolby 5.1 support and the ability to import your own custom soundtracks into the game. In a nice nod to maintaining the cohesive presentation the franchise is known for, your soundtracks will be read as tapes in your tape deck.
As far as content goes, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City will be an exact conversion of the PlayStation 2 adventure. However, the controls in the game have been tweaked, presenting a first-person shooter-style approach for the third-person sequences and a standard Xbox racing layout for the driving segments. You'll move Tommy with the left analog stick, clicking it in will have him crouch, and will actually use the right trigger to attack. The left trigger will answer you cell phone or lock on to targets. The right analog stick lets you look around, clicking it in will let you look behind you. The A button lets you run in short bursts. X lets you jump. The white button lets you cycle through camera angles. The d-pad will let you cycle through your weapons. The Y button lets you forcibly "borrow" a car from any passerby. When you've taken possession of a car, you accelerate, or ascend in a helicopter, with the right trigger and brake or reverse, or descend in a helicopter, with the left trigger. The B button is your emergency brake, and the black button lets you cycle through your music selections. The left thumbstick triggers your horn while clicking in the right thumbstick looks behind you. The X button will toggle vehicle missions on and off. Overall, the layout feels good and should be easy to pick up.
From what we've seen of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the game is looking good on the Xbox. While it doesn't look 1,000 times better than its PlayStation 2 counterpart, it still looks very slick. The improvements are cool--especially the custom soundtrack feature--and the actual game certainly holds up to repeated playing. The Grand Theft Auto Double Pack is slated to ship this November for the Xbox. Look for more on the game soon.