Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – PC
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: May 12, 2003
Nerd Rating: 9 out of 10
About time that Action Zero takes on a bona fide action game, right? I figured I would get the hang of hitting the ball before swinging for the bleachers, but I’m making up for lost time by diving straight into my favorite chapter of the Grand Theft Auto series, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The second installment in Rockstar’s open-world staple that would come to inspire such titles as Saints’ Row and Sleeping Dogs, there’s almost too much to say about it, even at first impressions. Beyond the fast cars, easy money, and pixelated ladies just littering the streets of Vice City, you’ll find an open world of nigh-limitless potential just ripe for the exploiting. Put on your dated Hawaiian shirt, elbow that guy off of his motorcycle, and ride with me as we drive-by the reasons why this game still stands out as a masterpiece today.
The story is set in 1986 and follows Tommy Vercetti, a Mafia hitman released from prison just in time to do a small favor for Sonny, his Mafia boss. It seems like the perfect deal, deliver a bit of money for a few innocuous kilos of what the Vice City locals refer to as “snow”, but things quickly go south when the feds bust the deal and mow down everyone not wearing a gaudy shirt. Out the money and with not a kilo to show for it, Tommy has to earn back the million that was lost before Sonny decides to throw him in the ocean with cement shoes. Thankfully, he’s in the position to make a lot of that money back and then some, working with the power players of the city and climbing up the criminal ladder while taking steps to build his own empire in this island slice of underworld heaven. This kind of story is so definitive of the series that Grand Theft Auto V literally points out how formulaic it is, and yet it works no matter how many times we see it. Why else would there be similar games out there if it didn’t? Anyone who works for a living and earns an honest wage has a lurking desire to make a mint selling illegal substances, stealing cars, and robbing banks. Games like this are how we cope with that buried impulse. It stands to reason.
Needless to say, the appeal of this kind of open-world game is undeniable, tapping into our primal urge for taking power with our own hands and letting us actually reap some real rewards from our dirty deeds. If you see someone driving a car that you like, you don’t have to scowl at the driver and hope that his head blows up so you can surreptitiously claim his car by the ancient right of “finders-keepers”. You can just pull him out of it and drive off! The most you have to do is pay for a coat of paint, maybe some repairs if you bump it into walls on the way to the spray shop. Repairs you can pay for by beating people to death with your bare hands and taking their money! But you don’t HAVE to hurt your hands — you can just shoot them! It’s a world of endless possibility, guaranteed to feed the needs of your inner sociopath (which is a much better option than ignoring it and hoping it just goes away).
“But Action Zero, this is true of any open world Grand Theft Auto game,” I can hear you thinking as you read the sentence where I tell you to think that, “but what does Grand Theft Auto: Vice City do to evolve and refine that gameplay formula?” It brings back the diverse range of optional missions that featured in the previous title, letting you deliver pizzas, bring wounded people to the hospital, apprehend criminals (in stolen police vehicles, of course), take people on taxi trips through the city, and many other fun diversions besides. You can go on Rampages, which give you money for killing a set amount of gang members in a fixed amount of time with an assigned weapon. You can hunt through the city for Hidden Packages, which not only give you money, but unlock free rewards at your main safehouses. You can even knock over certain stores by pointing a gun at the cashier and waiting for him to start throwing money at you!
However, among the gameplay changes introduced in Vice City, the biggest one is the ability to purchase “asset” properties after a set point in the game, unlocking them as save points and opening up their own mission arcs. Once you complete these missions, you’re able to collect money that the business racks up as time passes, topping out at a cool amount that you can pick up whenever you’re in the neighborhood. Naturally, some of these mission arcs are tougher than others (people who have played the game traditionally think “The Malibu” when they read this), but all of them are definitely worth it, if not for the money, then for the experience of it. It’s admittedly one of my favorite things about this game, really knowing that you own big parts of the city and being able to drive around town knowing that you’ve got a ton of nest eggs just lying about and making you a mint every hour. It’s a white-collar kind of pleasure that I revel in, and I don’t care who knows it.
I would be remiss if I left it there, however. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a game that would be nothing without guns to shoot, cars to drive badly, and police to avoid while you try to sweat the wanted levels away. The weapons, for the most part, are very nice to use, with no real problems caused by the controls themselves. Any discomfort can mostly be caused by lack of experience handling with the weapon, and the wide variety of killing implements across a number of weapon slots will likely more than make up for any one weapon grievance, in any case. The cars are out in force with over a hundred different cars and motorcycles rolling around on Vice City’s streets and sitting in its iconic parking garages, boats moored at the docks and marinas, and even helicopters waiting for you on the city’s helipads! Every vehicle handles uniquely, from the sporty Cheetah to the dependable Sentinel, and you’ll find your own favorites as you jump canals and run over pedestrians with them. And when you get in trouble from the law, you’ll find that the police of Vice City have a few more resources to spare to keep law and order, with spike strips, SWAT teams, and undercover cops making pursuits even more hairy than before! Better hope there’s a Pay-‘n-Spray around!
Now that we’ve dealt with the pure crunch of the gameplay itself, let’s turn our attention to the elements of Vice City that don’t get as much acclaim yet would spoil the game were they not done right, more specifically the sound and music. The voiceacting is pretty high-budget, with Ray Liotta lending his trademark friendly menace to Tommy Vercetti, giving him a much stronger presence as our protagonist, and other noteworthy names as Burt Reynolds, Danny Trejo, and Gary Busey feature among the extensive cast list. The sound quality is excellent, especially in cinematic scenes, with the words and actions they do syncing up very well with what we see on screen. And the music playlists for the radio stations are very well-chosen, with a healthy selection of some of the decade’s biggest songs in many genres blasting out of your car speakers. It helps reflect the multifaceted culture of Vice City while still giving you a lot of great tunes to listen to. (My personal favorite? V-Rock. I won’t go on a mission without it if I’m in charge of the radio. Which I usually am.)
Of course, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is not without its cons, and even if I love this game, I’ll bring them up for the sake of fairness. You can’t swim, so any time you land in water deeper than a swimming pool, you’re dead. Sure, you only lose a bit of money to the hospital visit and get right back in the game, but it does make me less likely to rely on boats for safe transportation (especially when you jump and miss the jetty). Police chases can be fun until you pass the two-star wanted level, after which point their habit of spawning in means that you’re likely to be hounded all the way to the Pay-‘n-Spray, if you even make it that far. And of course, everyone’s likely to run into That One Mission that makes them tear their hair out. My personal “favorite” example is the one at the garbage dump, given that it stands in the way of the more interesting second half of the game and that getting through the mission without failing it at the drop of a hat is very difficult. They’re not bad missions, they’re just very difficult ones, and I’m sure that anyone who plays Vice City will have their own opinions about which of the game’s story missions can go drive off a bridge.
Now that we’re at the end of both sides of the cassette tape, what else can we say about Grand Theft Auto: Vice City? It not only further advanced the open-world formula introduced in Grand Theft Auto III, it also set the tone for the future of the franchise. Vice City is larger than life in nearly every aspect, and anyone who starts to get good at it may find it very hard to stop playing. I can speak from experience, as this game has given me a lot more than many games have since. I’m not saying that it’s the best Grand Theft Auto game out there, of course. I can’t compare this to games I haven’t played and pass judgment, and even if I could, I know that people would beat a path to my door just to tell me in fine detail how wrong I am. What I’m really saying is that every moment I’m playing Vice City is a blast, and if you haven’t played a game that gives you that many kilos of fun, I suggest that you head down south, take the ferry to paradise, and start racking up the wanted levels. Your inner sociopath will thank you.
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