Grand Theft Auto: Vice City recently went gold, meaning the game is officially complete and in the process of being duplicated into millions of retail copies for release in the United States on Tuesday, October 29. The follow-up to last year's incredibly successful Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City is simply the single most anticipated game of the year. Yet people's excitement for the next Grand Theft Auto mostly comes from their extremely high expectations after having played its outstanding predecessor. Only small bits of the actual game have been revealed by publisher Rockstar Games, and details on Vice City's features, characters, and places have remained well-guarded secrets for the most part. But now, we've finally had a chance to sit down and extensively play Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and experience much of what it has to offer. And we're pleased to report that we came away from the experience more excited than ever about the game.
A couple of facts about Vice City have been known ever since the game was officially announced earlier this year: It will essentially be similar to last year's GTAIII, and it will place in a sprawling 1980s-era city styled after Miami, Florida. But there've been so many questions, some of them justifiably skeptical in nature: Is Vice City just a rehash of GTAIII? Is more of the same style of gameplay going to be nearly as compelling as it was in the innovative GTAIII? Is it even remotely possible that Vice City might be better than GTAIII? Based on our initial experiences with the game, we offer you the following answers to those questions: no, yes, and yes. In short, the game we played does indeed have the distinct feel of GTAIII, but it also has a number of clear-cut differences from and improvements on its predecessor.
Since the game was unveiled, fans of GTAIII have speculated on what Scotland-based developer Rockstar North might possibly do to improve the GTAIII formula with GTA: Vice City. The developers seemingly read their minds (or their many fan letters), as Vice City boasts a number of outstanding "wish list" options that were unavailable in the last game. You can look forward to new character abilities, such as being able to bail out of fast-moving cars, to crouch behind cover, and to move and attack with melee weapons simultaneously. You can look forward to entirely new gameplay elements, such as being able to go inside numerous buildings, ride motorcycles, and fly helicopters. You can look forward to substantially improved graphics, including much more detailed character models and a noticeably greater draw distance, meaning you'll see much further down the horizon than you could in GTAIII. You can look forward to player-friendly options like having a full map of the city that reveals all the relevant locations and main roads, as well as the ability to take a cab back to a mission area after getting busted or wasted during a mission attempt. On top of that, Rockstar promises that GTA: Vice City will be even longer than GTAIII (which was a long game to begin with) and that this new game will be loaded up with at least as many hidden extras. And, of course, there's the sound track: Featuring more than seven hours of hit '80s music, with tracks from bands like The Psychedelic Furs, Mr. Mister, Night Ranger, and A Flock of Seagulls, Vice City's musical score will surely be one of its great aspects. Voice talent from celebrities like Ray Liotta, Dennis Hopper, Luis Guzman, and Miami Vice's Philip Michael Thomas should also ensure that Vice City's production values are at least as impressive as the rest of the game.
In the following pages, we'll try to give you a sense of how all these elements finally came together, at least based on our first impressions of the completed game. We'll also tell you which of the game's new features we found especially satisfying.
We immediately noticed that the open-ended structure of GTA: Vice City is essentially identical to that of Grand Theft Auto III, as are the game's minimal onscreen interface and controls. As in GTAIII, you're free to run around on foot as much as you like, but to get around fast, you'll want to get a vehicle. Jacking vehicles is performed with the touch of a button just like before, and veterans of Liberty City's mean streets will note that Vice City's residents have a similar knack for never locking their doors, which makes carjacking awfully convenient. Besides just stealing cars, you're again free to do pretty much whatever you like in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. You can freely explore the huge city, take odd jobs, wreak havoc, pull insane stunts in motor vehicles, watch the sunset, or do whatever you feel like.
A number of GameSpot's editors got a chance to play the game, and in hindsight we noted that each of us went about things completely differently, naturally opting to test out whichever new features had us most intrigued. One of us immediately took to offending Vice City's ornery police department, and seeing just how many pigs he could get on his back while trying out the game's lovely new arsenal. How many? An awful lot. Another immediately took to sending cars careening off piers and into the ocean while bailing out at the last moment, and then switched to popping wheelies on motorcycles. Another headed indoors to see what the innards of Vice City's buildings looked like, and then started tackling some of the new story-driven missions.
You may be surprised to learn that, of all the new features, probably the most impressive is the addition of drivable motorcycles. Motorcycles were available in the first two Grand Theft Auto games, but they weren't implemented in Grand Theft Auto III for various reasons. The reemergence of two-wheeled vehicles in the GTA series may not seem like a big deal, but once you see them in action, you'll be quick to agree that they're an excellent addition and a real technical feat. Realistic motion-captured animations are used for every motorcycle-related action, and the incredibly nimble feel of these vehicles is not just completely different from that of the game's various cars and trucks, but it's also noticeably different from one type of motorbike to the next. The coolest aspect of driving motorcycles in GTA: Vice City is the fact that pushing down or up on the left analog stick causes you to shift your character's weight on the bike backward or forward, causing it to pop wheelies or endos (front-tire wheelies). You can also shoot either sideways or forward while on a bike, and larger bikes can even accommodate a passenger. Of particular note, high-speed collisions involving motorcycles look positively brutal in GTA: Vice City, as the motorbike and its rider are sent flying in different directions, each taking a seriously hard fall. Yes, you'll sustain some damage if you bail off a bike--as well you should, you reckless fool! And while we're talking about attention to realism, don't expect to be able to dive out of a moving vehicle and get away scot-free. The new ability to escape from fast-moving vehicles comes at the cost of sustaining some damage as you eat asphalt.
Of course, in real life, diving out of a moving car would likely get you killed, and so would hitting a truck head-on while going 80mph on a motorcycle. As in GTAIII, Vice City's realism is largely superficial, as above all, the game seems squarely intended to be fun to play. Once again, superficial damage to vehicles has little real bearing on their performance, and local cops will turn a blind eye to even the most flagrant disregard for traffic laws--though they'll still come after you if you do anything violent in their midst. But plenty of realistic touches abound, both in the gameplay and in the environment, creating the sense that the world of the game really is alive, or as close to alive as you'd want it to be. Put another way, we enjoyed just touring the town, commenting on all the types of vehicles on the road, all the different storefronts, and all the different types of people and admiring the realistic new weather effects and other new graphical details like the subtle glow of sunlight dancing off all the vehicles in the daytime.
So what's it like being indoors, out of way of the harmful rays of Vice City's sun? Find out about that and more next.
Push It to the Limit
Grand Theft Auto III was by all means a visually impressive game, both because of its technical achievement in rendering so much realistic onscreen detail at any given time, and also because of its stylish use of lighting, motion blur, and other effects. GTA: Vice City takes the previous game's presentation up a notch. The harsh, gritty look of Liberty City is replaced with soft pastels and a gorgeous blue sky in Vice City, giving the new game a much more pleasant appearance, despite the fact that Vice City is every bit the den of corruption that Liberty City was. The greater draw distance is one of the more impressive visual feats, as you can now seemingly see miles of the city from any point and distinguish much more detail at long distances. For instance, GTA: Vice City offers the entirely new and exhilarating experience of bailing out of a fast-moving car and watching as it shrinks toward the horizon, perhaps wrapping itself around a palm tree a hundred yards down the road. As mentioned, GTA: Vice City also lets you venture inside various buildings, from a drug lord's mansion to a multistory shopping mall.
The game retains its third-person perspective indoors, and the interiors of buildings are impressively detailed, with reflective tile surfaces and other fine touches. Smaller buildings, such as stores, can be entered and exited seamlessly as part of the gameworld. For some of the larger buildings, such as mansions and high-rises, there's a brief loading time as you enter or exit the place. We didn't notice any particular issues with the game's camera perspective while indoors--we suspected we might find some, since interiors are new to the GTA series--but we didn't get to engage in any fast-paced action sequences while indoors, either, so it remains to be seen exactly how much fun it is to be inside in Vice City. The fact that you can actually furnish your home and acquire a wardrobe over the course of the game certainly seems like a nice touch, though, and another point of interest is the fact that you can take small vehicles like motorcycles indoors with you. Shopping malls plus motorcycles--take a moment to think of the possibilities.
Among all these other things, we got a good look at the game's slick, new cutscenes, which feature lifelike motion-captured animations and highly expressive 3D characters. Actually, the cutscenes in GTAIII looked great, so we were expecting nothing less on this front from GTA: Vice City. It's important to mention that this game, unlike GTAIII, has a clearly defined protagonist: Tommy Vercetti, a tough guy whose voice is provided by Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, Hannibal). In GTAIII, you played a silent, almost faceless character who was entirely open to interpretation--was he a greedy crook, a self-righteous vigilante, or a savage killer? That decision was the player's to make, because GTAIII's leading man had neither a name nor a voice. Tommy is much more straightforward. He's not exactly an upstanding citizen--early on he declares his intentions of finding and killing whoever stole a large shipment of cocaine he was supposed to deliver to a client--but Tommy's bad attitude and charismatic demeanor make him quickly likable in the way that audiences can appreciate a good antihero, like Tony Soprano from HBO's hit series The Sopranos. We really liked what we heard of GTA: Vice City's decidedly profane but certainly appropriate dialogue, including many of Tommy's lines. After an intense shootout with the feds, we once heard Tommy sarcastically exclaim, "I'm innocent!" Wait, did sarcasm even exist in the '80s?
The change of setting and the presence of a new main character really add a different sensibility to GTA: Vice City when compared with GTAIII. Considering all the negative press that last year's game received in the wake of its astonishing commercial success, for a while it seemed like Rockstar North might have bent under the pressure and set out to make a kinder, gentler GTA in Vice City. But let us assure you that that's definitely not the case. If anything, the distancing of GTA: Vice City from the here and now afforded the designers the opportunity to take even more liberties with portraying the sorts of sordid or violent acts that we've all seen before in movies or television but have never really experienced in games. And given that the game has all of GTAIII's great qualities, as well as many of its own, who knows? Lightning can strike twice. And there's no law to prevent GameSpot from giving its Game of the Year award to a Grand Theft Auto game two years in a row.