Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Review

  • First Released Oct 29, 2002
  • PS2

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City provides just about everything you'd want in a follow-up to an outstanding game.

Last year, Grand Theft Auto III took the world by surprise. While the first two games in the series had a small, hard-core following, their simple 2D graphics and lack of a focused narrative structure limited their appeal. On the other hand, GTAIII featured a massive, clockwork world that was really impressive to behold, and it refined its predecessors' free-roaming, nonlinear design and added a far more compelling story in the process. Those improvements, coupled with amazing vehicle physics, a surprising amount of variety in the gameplay, and a great sense of style, made GTAIII a runaway hit and one of the rare games that is accepted by both hard-core and casual game players alike. But as good as Grand Theft Auto III is, the next game in the series, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, improves upon it. Vice City expands on the themes and concepts found in Grand Theft Auto III, fixes a few of the minor issues in the last game, and adds a lot of new abilities and items to play with. It all comes together to form one of the most stylish and most enjoyable games ever released.

Vice City contains a good variety of fine automobiles.
Vice City contains a good variety of fine automobiles.

The new GTA game is set in a fictional take on Miami, Florida, known as Vice City. The year is 1986, and Tommy Vercetti has just been released from prison after doing a 15-year stretch for the mob. The mob--more specifically, the Forelli family--appreciates Tommy's refusal to squeal in exchange for a lesser sentence, so they send him down to Vice City to establish some new operations. Tommy's first order of business in Vice City is to score a large amount of cocaine to work with. But Tommy's first drug deal goes sour, leaving him with no money, no cocaine, and no idea who wronged him. The mob is, of course, angry over the whole situation, and now Tommy has to make up for the loss before the gangsters come down from Liberty City to clean up the mess. As Tommy, you'll start the investigation, figure out who ripped you off, take care of business, and set up shop in Vice City in a big, big way. Oh, and you'll also drive taxis, get involved in a turf war between the Cubans and the Haitians, befriend a Scottish rock group named Love Fist, become a pizza delivery boy, smash up the local mall, demolish a building to lower real estate prices, hook up with a biker gang, run an adult film studio, take down a bank, and much, much more.

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Here's Tommy Vercetti, modeling his fresh Miami Vice suit and matching M60 machine gun.
Here's Tommy Vercetti, modeling his fresh Miami Vice suit and matching M60 machine gun.

While Grand Theft Auto has always been a violent, mature-themed series, it has always balanced the violent crime with an equal amount of tongue-in-cheek humor and style. Vice City is no exception, presenting an exaggerated view of the 1980s that makes use of a number of the kitschy pop-culture stereotypes found in film and television from the decade. The drug-laced tale recalls such films as Scarface and television shows like Miami Vice. The humor comes mostly from the radio, which really drives home the sort of form-over-function mentality that most people associate with the '80s. Some of the game's major characters are also a source of comic relief, from the Jim Bakker-like Pastor Richards to the Steven Spielberg-like porn director Steve Scott. The game's large cast of characters is colorful and memorable. For instance, local drug kingpin Ricardo Diaz is always hilariously breaking something and cursing wildly whenever you happen to see him. Ken Rosenberg is your fidgety coke-fiend lawyer pal, and he gets you started in town by getting you connected with the city's major players. Lance Vance, appropriately voiced by Miami Vice alum Philip Michael Thomas, becomes your sidekick of sorts, as both of you chase vengeance for your own reasons. Your Cuban gang contact, Umberto Robina, is constantly reminding you how much of a man he is, and most of the Cuban gang members you'll run into are similarly inclined.

Stylistically, the game presents an accurate depiction of your average '80s crime saga. Like in Miami Vice, many of the characters are dressed in pastel suits. The game's vehicles also fit the bill, with a lot of basic sedans mixed in with cars that look enough like Porsches, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris to pass for the real thing. None of the cars are licensed, of course, though in a nice touch, some of the cars are actually earlier models of cars that appeared in Grand Theft Auto III. Fans of the previous game will undoubtedly appreciate little things like this and the other occasional ties to the world of GTAIII, which really help this new Grand Theft Auto game feel like part of a cohesive universe.

As great as the game's presentation and use of its source material are, without a collection of gameplay improvements, it would have been little more than a mission pack with a touch-up job. But Rockstar North has definitely been hard at work in this department. The most obvious addition is the inclusion of various types of motorcycles among all the vehicles on the road. There's a decent variety of two-wheelers in the game, including mopeds, street bikes, dirt bikes, and big hogs. As you'd expect, the bikes handle a lot differently from one another. Your basic street bike is a good mix of speed and maneuverability. The big choppers are harder to steer, but have ludicrous top speeds. You'll get tossed off a motorcycle in almost any collision, which costs you a little bit of health or armor. This makes them pretty much useless in any situation that involves dodging the police. But they're incredibly handy in any mission that requires speed, and since you can pull a lot of fancy tricks on them, they're also a lot of fun to drive around.

While there are a lot more weapons in Vice City, the available arsenal hasn't really changed that much overall.
While there are a lot more weapons in Vice City, the available arsenal hasn't really changed that much overall.

You'll also do a bit of flying in Vice City. After moving through a few major plot points, you'll open up the west half of Vice City, which is locked away at the start due to hurricane warnings. After that, you'll encounter missions that let you fly a seaplane around the city. You'll also find a few different helicopters here and there. Flying around the city is pretty impressive, and it showcases the game's engine quite well--you can see for miles when you're up in the sky. While some of the city's skyscrapers are too high to get on top of, you can land the choppers on most of the game's buildings. Expect to find a few of the game's hidden items stashed away in these sorts of difficult-to-reach areas.

A few new player actions have been added to the game as well. Pressing L3 will lock Tommy in a crouched position. This lets you take cover behind objects and improves your shooting accuracy. You can also dive out of moving vehicles, which handy for ditching cars or bikes into the ocean, escaping a burning vehicle, or just ramming empty cars into other cars for kicks. Like wrecking a motorcycle, bailing out of a car causes a little bit of bodily harm. You can also enter certain buildings now. While the interior settings are few in number and mostly extraneous, they look great and are used to effectively create a city that's even more realistic than GTAIII's Liberty City. You'll be able to go into your hotel and run all the way upstairs to your room. You can also enter a nightclub, a strip club, the Vice City mall, and a handful of other buildings. There are load times associated with entering certain buildings, but they're pretty brief.

Many of the game's story missions are more involved than those of GTAIII. GTAIII had a lot of missions in which you needed to get something or take someone somewhere and then return for your reward. You will find those sorts of missions in Vice City, but most of the new game's missions are multiple-part affairs that involve more than just moving from point A to point B and then back to point A. Some of these parts are simple extensions, such as maybe having to visit a respray shop after pulling a job. However, other missions are more involved and require the use of more-advanced tactics. For instance, one mission requires you to plant a bomb inside a mall that is swarming with cops. To do so, you'll first have to get a little heat chasing after you. You'll then lead the cops into a garage, where you'll ambush them and take one of their uniforms so you can pose as a cop, which makes getting into the heavily guarded mall possible. Once you've taken care of business at the mall, you'll then have to escape and get all the way back to your hideout.

Tommy Vercetti's voice is provided by Ray Liotta, who does a great job of bringing the character to life.
Tommy Vercetti's voice is provided by Ray Liotta, who does a great job of bringing the character to life.

The missions are well designed for the most part. The noticeably longer average mission length is great, though it can become a source of occasional frustration, since failure in a mission means having to replay every part until you get it right. Getting back to a mission area is easier than ever, though. In GTAIII, you'd restart at a hospital or police station and be forced to steal a car and hightail it back to a mission area, which could take a while. In Vice City, a taxi appears near your respawn point, and, for a small fee, it will drive you back to the last mission briefing area you visited. Unfortunately, since you're generally going to want to pick up some arms and some armor before going back into most missions, you'll still have to drive over to the local Ammu-Nation first. It would have been nice if you could have used the taxis to handle this step of the process as well. At any rate, while the game definitely has its share of difficult missions, the average mission difficulty seems a notch or two easier in Vice City than in GTAIII, so you shouldn't have to repeat too many missions too often. Though, overall, Vice City's degree of difficulty is similar to that of the previous game, thanks to increased tenacity on the part of the police in their efforts to thwart you.

Besides the changes to the missions themselves, the game's mission structure is pretty different from that of the previous GTA games. In previous installments, you were given a pretty clear-cut path to follow--you may have had multiple mission options at any given time, but you consistently knew what to do next and for whom. In Vice City, you'll spend the first portion of the game undertaking missions for other people, much like in GTAIII. But once the town is yours, you'll be working for yourself, going out and keeping your protection racket in line and establishing yourself as the town's new boss.

Armed with an MP5, Tommy prepares to take on Vice City SWAT.
Armed with an MP5, Tommy prepares to take on Vice City SWAT.

Eventually, you'll even be able to go out and purchase various properties, which opens up new missions. For instance, when you buy the taxi company, you'll open up a series of taxi-related missions that are separate from the side missions that you can take on by entering any taxi. Once you've completed a property's missions, that property will start earning money for you. This fact means that money eventually becomes a nonissue--as it should be for any self-respecting crime lord--since your various properties will always have some cash for you. All you need to do is drive around to all of them and collect from time to time. There are several other properties to purchase, including the film studio, the Malibu Club, and a car dealership. All the secondary-mission types from GTAIII have returned, such as vigilante missions, taxi missions, fire truck missions, and ambulance missions. New to Vice City is the ability to hop on a specific kind of scooter and deliver pizza. Pizza is delivered while in motion using the same mechanics you'd normally use for drive-by shootings, only in this case you hurl pizza pies at customers.

While the control in Vice City is largely the same as that of GTAIII, the handling of the game's various cars feels really different, as the game's frequent driving sequences seem even more exciting and dangerous. Perhaps in part due to the change of time period, a lot of the cars feel a lot looser on the road and seem to get knocked around quite a bit easier. This provides much of the game the sort of car-flipping, explosion-filled quality you'd expect from an episode of The A-Team. And when you factor in the new ability for you--or other in-game characters--to shoot out tires, handling becomes an even larger problem. Cars with blown tires are really hard to control, making car chases that much tougher when you have a flat (or several). And as if cars weren't dangerous enough, a motorcycle with a blown tire is practically useless, as it usually spins out and throws you over the handlebars every time you try to attain any serious speed. One of the tougher missions has you trying to get a bike with flat tires back to a biker bar while being chased by angry thugs.

The game has a lot of different pedestrian models.
The game has a lot of different pedestrian models.

Cars break apart in an even more spectacular fashion this time around. Along with taking out tires, you can smash up cars with your melee weapons now. Running up and caving in a car's hood with your baseball bat is usually a good way to get the occupants to vacate the vehicle in a hurry. You can also shoot out car windows and even hit the people inside the car with your shots. This makes a huge difference when it comes to taking out cars, as you can now target the tires to slow the vehicle down and then take out the driver with a well-placed rifle shot.

As mentioned, the police have become a much more formidable threat than they were in GTAIII, especially now that they have the ability to take out the tires on your getaway vehicle. Attempting to jump in a vehicle and leave the scene of a crime usually gives the cops enough time to take out one of your tires. At higher levels of response, the police will set up spike strips to take out all your tires. Of course, they'll also set up standard roadblocks and do all the things the GTAIII cops did, including ignore most standard traffic violations. However, in Vice City, stirring up a serious ruckus will get both the cops and the FBI on your case. Helicopters will also chase after you. This time around, SWAT teams will actually rappel out of the helicopters, making them even more dangerous. If you can manage to get a clean shot at a chopper's cockpit, though, you can take one down with one hit. At the highest level of law enforcement response, the army once again rolls tanks onto the street, making your chance of survival slim. All this means that, as in GTAIII, many encounters with the authorities in Vice City can be extremely exciting. However, one blemish on the police record is the fact that the cops still don't deal with elevation changes particularly well. If you run into a parking garage and leave the first or second floor, the cops aren't smart enough to find their way up to face you. They'll even keep firing in your general direction, even though there are several walls and ceilings between you and the officers. But you'll encounter this sort of thing very rarely amidst many, many memorable and intense chases and shoot-outs.

While there are a lot more weapons in Vice City, the available arsenal hasn't really changed that much overall. The most obvious additions are in the melee weapon department--or, rather, the hardware department. You can head to a hardware store and pick up a screwdriver, a hatchet, a trusty baseball bat, or a machete. You'll also find additional melee weapons in different parts of the city. Hitting the golf course, for example, makes it easy to find a golf club. You can also get a chainsaw, which is great in theory, but surprisingly unsatisfying in action. Weapons are broken up into different classes. Your first assault rifle will be a Ruger, but later on you'll be able to get an M16. You can carry only one weapon in each class, so picking up an M16 will replace your Ruger, getting a golf club will replace your baseball bat, and so on. The selection of weapons closely mirrors GTAIII's set, only now with more types of pistols, submachine guns, rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, and thrown explosives.

The draw distance is a lot farther out this time around, meaning you can see a greater distance down the road than you could in GTAIII.
The draw distance is a lot farther out this time around, meaning you can see a greater distance down the road than you could in GTAIII.
You'll work your way up from basic weapons up to deadlier versions. For example, the Tec-9 is a decent submachine gun, but later on you'll be able to buy an MP5K, which has a much faster rate of fire. Later still, you'll be able to wield rocket launchers, a flamethrower, an M60 machine gun, or even a Gatling gun. Different weapons have different weights, and your movement speed may affected by the weapon you're holding. Wielding a pistol or a submachine gun lets you run at full speed. Busting out the shotgun or rifle prevents you from sprinting, but you can walk normally. And the heavy weapons cause you to lumber around sluggishly. The targeting system from GTAIII has been reworked a bit for Vice City, making it easier to target enemies and keeping the camera from getting too crazy when you're locked on to a target.

Vice City also improves on GTAIII graphically. The only problem with the graphics is the frame rate's tendency to bog down when you've got a mess of police swarming all around you, making escape that much harder. But considering that this problem is no worse in Vice City than it was in GTAIII, and that the game looks quite a bit better overall than GTAIII, it's not really a big deal. The entire look of the game is quite different from its predecessor overall, but technically, this new GTA game has a significantly cleaner appearance. The character models are better looking, and the animation--some of it reused from GTAIII--looks great. Some of the highlights include jacking a motorcycle from the front, which causes Tommy to execute a flying jump kick that knocks the rider clean off the bike. Jack a bike from the side, and he'll deliver an elbow to the face of the rider.

The draw distance is a lot farther out this time around as well, meaning you can see a greater distance down the road than you could in GTAIII. This is even more noticeable when you're flying high above the city and can see almost all the way across to the other side of it. But you'll still notice when simply driving up the street, especially when you abandon a moving car and watch it cruise off down the street on its own. Beyond that, the game's textures are bright and colorful, properly reflecting what '80s-era Miami should look like. Nearby buildings are laced with neon that glows nicely at night. You'll also notice lots of great little touches, such as the glint of sunshine off the windows of nearby cars.

GTAIII's sound played an important part in setting the tone for the entire game. The voice acting used throughout the story segments effectively conveyed the crime story, and the radio provided the soundtrack to go with the action. Vice City's sound is a dramatic improvement on GTAIII's already amazing sound. The game's cast is top-notch. The main difference in the voice work is that, unlike in GTAIII, the lead character in Vice City speaks. Tommy Vercetti's voice is provided by Ray Liotta (Blow, Muppets From Space), who does a great job of bringing the character to life. The rest of the voice talent--which includes Gary Busey, Dennis Hopper, David Paymer, Danny Trejo, Luis Guzman, Philip Michael Thomas, and retired adult film actress Jenna Jameson--also does an excellent job. The game's sound effects are top-notch. Everything from explosions to gunfire simply sounds outstanding.

Tommy can bust up car windows in a hurry with that billy club.
Tommy can bust up car windows in a hurry with that billy club.
The radio stations in Vice City are amazingly well done. The '80s music found on the stations really helps set the tone for the entire game. You'll find tons of bands and artists, including Quiet Riot, Michael Jackson, David Lee Roth, Herbie Hancock, Judas Priest, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. There are hours and hours of music in the game, and once you get tired of one genre, flipping to the next is as easy as pushing the L1 button. You'll find a rock station, a pop station, an underground rap/electro station, a quiet-storm-style love song station, a new wave station, and more. The rock station, which is hosted by a younger, more idealistic version of Lazlow from GTAIII's talk radio station, is probably the funniest of the lot, mostly because Lazlow does such a great job of claiming to be a hard-rockin' rebel while coming across like a total wimp in the process. Vice City also has twice as many talk radio stations as GTAIII. K Chat is a fluff-filled celebrity interview show hosted by a complete airhead. Vice City Public Radio features a public debate show called Pressing Issues, which is broken up by frequent pledge breaks. Overall, the talk radio and the various radio station commercials are funny, though at times they seem a bit too self-aware. Of further note, the game defaults to stereo sound, but it also features DTS encoding. The game doesn't really go overboard with the surround effects, but the DTS mode definitely sounds cleaner and richer than the default stereo sound.

In the end, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City provides just about everything you'd want in a follow-up to an outstanding game. It's bigger, badder, and better in almost every imaginable way. The game tells a compelling story and adds enough gameplay content to the formula to engage players who've already played the previous game to death. And if by some small chance you somehow missed out on last year's GTAIII, Vice City will clue you in on what all the commotion was about. In short, if you're old enough to purchase Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, then you absolutely should, and fast.

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About the Author

Jeff Gerstmann has been professionally covering the video game industry since 1994.