Review: At this rate, the next game should be called Grand Theft Monopoly.
Grand Theft Auto 3 really came out of nowhere. While those in the know were under an impression the game would be something special, many people didn't really pay attention, given the low quality of the first 2 GTA games. But when the game came out, it immediately started selling ? and still hasn't stopped, racking up 7 million sold copies in the US and Europe, and still going strong to this day.
When the announcement that a sequel was on the way, there was little surprise. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is that sequel, and sits now as a game that won't surprise anyone, but instead became the most anticipated game in ages ? if not ever. With record pre-orders and record amount of pure secrecy before Rockstar North (formerly DMA Design) finally revealed their game, Vice City jumped to the want list of many a PS2 gamer.
But questions loomed ? given that GTA 3 was only released last year, how could the game be any different than that one, just in a different city? Despite the hype, a few were worried it would be more of the same. Thankfully, this is not the case. Vice City is a drastic improvement over GTA 3 in every way imaginable ? improved graphics, tougher, more varied missions, tons of new cars and motorcycles, and an audio experience that's second to none. Sure, it might not have that initial impact of GTA 3, but an hour into the game and you forget GTA 3 exists. It's a few missteps short of being perfect, but one thing is for sure ? Vice sure is nice ? nice enough to already have the PlayStation 2 game of the year all but locked up.
The story of Vice City begins in Liberty City, circa 1986 ? inside Marco's Bistro (where you eat until you explode ? just ask Lips Forelli), mob kingpin Sonny Forelli is talking with some stooges about what to do with Tommy Vercetti, who's due to get out of The Joint after 15 years there. They decide to get him off the streets of Liberty, in order to keep things on the up and up and to protect Tommy. Sonny decides to send him on a business vacation to Vice City, a city of glamour, but one with plenty of treachery and scum as well. Vercetti's first job is a drug deal ? one that goes horrendously bad. From there, we get to follow the adventures of Tommy Vercetti, and his rise to the top of the heap in the Vice City's crime world, as well as solve the crime of just who set up Vercetti in this drug deal gone wrong. Along the way Tommy meets up with dozens of shady characters, some friend, others foe, but all holding information that can lead to the justice he demands.
If anything, the story points all to evidently that Vice City is indeed a prequel of sorts, with all the intangibles mixed in considering some of the characters that make appearances and how they're handled. I won't spoil anything obviously, but once you see some of the characters that pop up, you'll see what I mean.
Like GTA 3, Vice City is a game that is made by you, the player. Half of the city is available for you to explore right away (due to a hurricane closing down the bridges across the water), and the rest of the city is unlocked as you go on ? first simple little islands, then the whole shebang of downtown. When fully unlocked, the game is probably double the size of Liberty City ? though that does include buildings, which you finally may go into and sometimes need to go into. Unlike GTA 3 though, it doesn't quite take as long to open everything. Once you do get the whole city open though, the game takes off from the admittedly slow start that could turn off the impatient sort.
But once you do get into the game, the possibilities are endless, and is all controlled by you. Nothing in this game HAS to be done outside of the main storyline, so if you're going around thumping innocents or doing drive-bys on gangbangers, that's your problem ? nobody is holding a gun to your head to do it. You can go the innocent route and do the side jobs that are a blast in themselves ? play cop in Vigilante mode, commandeer a fire engine and put out fires, take an ambulance and pick up injured people and take them to the hospital, or even borrow a Taxi and take passengers to destinations, like Crazy Taxi. New to the scene is the pizza boy missions, where you take a gig on a little motorcycle and deliver some pie to waiting customers. This is one that you might want to do, since completing it will give you 150 maximum health, so get to Well-Stacked Pizza and do their bidding!
Of course, if you want to get anywhere in Vice City, you occasionally have to be an asshole to do it. Thus, there are well over 100 cars to commandeer, and a ton of weapons at your disposal. Many of the cars are older-modeled versions of the cars in Grand Theft Auto 3, but there's still a ton of brand new rides to take out for a spin, including a small array of motorcycles with glorious names like the Faggio and the dirt bike called the Sanchez (if you don't know, just don't ask). Also, the ability to fly comes into play, as you can take control of a few different helicopters and a Dodo lookalike seaplane. The weapons include different sorts of handguns, shotguns, and a couple different sniper rifles ? all the weapons vary depending on what Ammu-Nation you decide to visit. Also on the bad-guy side are the Ice Cream missions ? odd certainly, but it's because you're not really selling ice cream (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). Finally, you can now rob stores and get some extra cash ? as simple as holding a gun and knowing the best way to beat a 2 star wanted level. There's 15 total places to rob, scattered all over the city.
Brand spanking new to the GTA world is the ability to buy businesses in Tommy's quest to own Vice City ? sorta like bringing Monopoly into the GTA world. While you can't buy everything in town, you can get some of the more prominent businesses, like Inter-Global Films (a...cough...adult film studio), The Pole Position (a strip joint), Sunshine Autos (car dealership, if you're stupid), a print shop, and a few other novelties that actually have missions to do before getting the ball rolling ? but once you do, the businesses will start rolling in money every single day for you in your quest to get rich fast. There's also some property to buy as means for a hideout, since you only are handed one hideout at the beginning of the game and getting more is your own responsibility. Each hideout and business also is your place to save your game, and like GTA 3, you can't save during a mission, no matter what mission it is.
Finally, there's some extra fun missions if you choose ? from ?Assassination? missions where you gun down assorted slime, to street racing missions (complete with a humorous cheap shots towards Project Gotham Racing), even some dirt-bike racing off away from the city, behind some buildings. There's even a stadium (called Hyman Stadium?for those who understand) where you can do some more racing, murdering stuff. Add in the rampages and the hidden packages from GTA 3, along with some RC missions as well, and you have a game that's stacked with loads of different things to do ? if something gets daunting after a while, there's usually a handful of things to fall back on, especially as you open up more of the city.
At this point, I haven't even gotten into the main game yet! The main game is chock full of challenging, unique missions that blow away those in GTA 3. There's about a half-dozen different bosses to answer to, each with a bone to pick and sometimes the treachery really hits home when you have to do certain tasks. The story though is consistent and full of twists and turns to keep you playing.
What makes all the missions stand out is the multiple set of ways to beat them ? sometimes it might take a lot longer to do it, but it might be painless and easier once you set it up, but other times you might be able to just slam through them and beat it a bit easily. Despite that, Vice City is definitely a challenging game. Sometimes the missions can get very frustrating, but not in that ?hey, this shit is cheap!? frustrating, but more like ?damnit, I will beat this mission if it's the last thing I do!!!? frustrating. Usually it just involves sitting back and thinking out a strategy before going into it and you get it beat then.
The range of the different missions is a lot better than GTA 3 ? very rarely do you get the same mission theme twice. Some involve going to a golf club and taking out some scum, or ripping off the fastest boat in the docks and bringing it to your boss, even a very, very intense rescue mission that leads to one of the bigger plot twists in the game. Considering this is a sequel, the mission variety and lack of repetition when it comes to them really stands out here, and makes the game really fresh at all times. Sure the side missions can get a bit repetitive, but that's the theme of them, and since they're side missions, they're not necessary unless you want 100%?but who doesn't want that?
Another nag about GTA 3 was the lackluster targeting system ? something fixed here, but not to perfection. Using weapons with a scope (sniper rifle basically) is tough when it comes to lining up a shot ? either that or I have really shitty aim. The other weapons use a different, automatic system that targets your biggest threat, but sometimes it's really wonky and can get frustrating when you want to aim for the guy right in front of you, but goes to the guy a few paces ahead, simply because he has a shotgun and the other guy has a baseball bat. You can shift targets with the triggers, but it's still difficult to get the right guy, and the time it takes can mean life or death for poor Mr. Vercetti. The rest of the controls are perfect though ? they flow very well and make you forget you have a controller in your hands most of the time ? except when someone shoots your tires out, then you'll be praying for your life as the sparks fly.
The A.I of the game is still slightly wonky, but again very much improved from GTA 3, especially the cop A.I. Now, the cops don't always go after you, but will attack other criminals as well (and beat them to death, as I've witnessed a few times). At first you might freak when the cops are around, but they're not always after you, so no worries. However, the cops are much easier to piss off this time ? if you kill one, it's automatically a 2 star warning, and there's definitely less police bribes around than before, so either be careful or really haul ass and find the pay & spray. Even the P&S is different ? instead of automatically losing your wanted level, you're on ?probation.? Your warning will flash, and if you behave and do nothing wrong, you'll get away ? but run someone over or do another bad thing, you're right back at your previous wanted level. So be careful! The pedestrian A.I is pretty much the same, including the funny little trick where they jump out in front of you (apparently they heard the same commercial in Liberty City about jumping into traffic netting you a lot of money in a lawsuit). The gangs run in packs and will wage complete war (especially the Haitians versus the Cubans), so watch your ass and don't get caught in the crossfire. However, they won't really shoot at you unless you're in one of the opposing gang cars, so it's not too difficult to evade.
But really, no matter what, there's little doubt this game is golden, a masterpiece. The game is about as open-ended as you get, and there is just so many things to do that it can get daunting at first. One of my favorite parts of the game is something I grew to love ? the little trick stuck in by Rockstar North that forces you to play other parts of the game to progress the story. Cheap? You could say so, but it makes you explore the game instead of rushing like a moron to beat it and then bitch about how short it is. The possibilities of this game are endless, and is only done how you want it to be. Want to be the best taxi driver ever? You can. Want to just be a paramedic? You can. Want to just kill everyone in a safer way after a tough day in the real world (and no, you don't get points for killing people), and then get every officer in Vice City after you? Sure, go right ahead. The missions border on being a basic form of clever to downright ingenious and sometimes unforgivingly challenging, and the game maintains the best quality of all ? it's just impossible to put down once you get hooked in. The little aiming flaw is annoying, but it's a small thing when you look at the big picture ? and yeah, that picture is really freaking huge. Plus, if you want atmosphere, VC delivers a perfect rendition of the 1980's, poking fun at so many trends of the era (cheeseball rock rebels, guys with makeup, Michael Jackson, communism, and lame-o action flicks that are rated PG for Patriotic Garbage). If Rockstar's goal was to hit the 1980's right on the head, it's a direct hit.
Vice City is a huge area ? and is represented well by the visual presentation. While not radically different than GTA 3, the graphics are decent at first look, but once you get into the game they really shine. VC is a very unique city ? the fancier areas are glamorous with plenty of pretty neon lights and well-kept buildings and other things like greenery, vehicles, and fancy businesses. However, the 2nd island is a very gritty, grimy feeling area ? beat up homes, run down buildings, the slums of Little Havana and Little Haiti, and much more lower-budget cars and motorcycles around. The differences between the 2 are astounding, and Vice City does both excellently. It even manages to make you imagine that the other island is even more beautiful than the 1st ? but the look is deceiving once you get there.
The buildings you may enter are typically a bit on the bland side, but do a pretty decent job. Main rooms like your hideout at the hotel and places like the airport terminal (as in, places you might visit a time or 2) are fully detailed and arranged, giving you a place to change your clothes (yeah, Tommy Vercetti Barbie?1 or 2 star wanted levels can be removed with a change into one of the many snazzy outfits), and take a rest (check out the poster of the GTA 3 guy on the wall in the Ocean View Hotel). You can't get into every building though, so just look for the places with open doors before trying to enter and maybe escape the police.
The cars, motorcycles, and other means of transportation are modeled mostly after real cars ? such as Corvette's, Countach's, and some of the big pickup trucks of the day. All are fully destroyable and show, with parts flying off and dents, and the same effects as GTA 3.
Where the graphics take a slight tumble is in the level of other details. Character animations are extremely stiff, and really unresponsive, and lack any kind of details; improved from GTA 3, but not up there with the best on the PlayStation 2. However, with the sheer amount of people on the streets of Vice City, that's to be expected. Another flaw rides with the mass pop-up that circulates ? cars appear out of nowhere, as do some buildings ? yet oddly, others are always seen and the scope of the game is amazing.
And really, it's that scope that makes GTA: VC stand out graphically. While the overall look is a bit rough, especially compared to other games, it's the combination of things that makes it astounding. The hundreds of thousands of people doing their thing in town, the cars on the road minding their own business, and the ability to see the other side of the town from the opposite island is one of those things that makes you say ?wow, this is a really unique looking game?, and Vice City is definitely that.
Despite all the great things that makes Vice City the easy choice for PS2 game of the year, it's probably the audio that stands out the strongest to me. Simply put, Vice City has the most incredible audio soundtrack ever placed in a video game. Period. Everything about the audio is top notch.
Starting with Tommy Vercetti being played by Hollywood star Ray Liotta, the VC voice acting crew is a real line up of stars. Among the names you'll know include Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, Gary Busey, Lee Majors (the 6 Million Dollar Man), Lawrence Taylor, and porn queen Jenna Jameson, among many others. All do a perfect job in perfect roles (Liotta as Vercetti is perfect, as is LT as a wacko football player, and Jenna as Candy SuXXX), and really gives the game a movie-like feel that tons of games strive for nowadays.
The other half of the audio perfection is the soundtrack. Rockstar definitely did their homework, providing the definitive soundtrack to a very unusual decade. Spread around 9 different radio stations (2 are talk radio), the vast array of music is astounding, covering the old-school rap with Run-DMC and Grandmaster Flash, to hair metal bands like Motley Crue, to thrashers like Slayer & Anthrax, along with the new-wave tactics of Blondie, Electric Light Orchestra, and Mister Mister, and even regular old popular music from Hall & Oates, Lionel Richie, and the 80's drama queen, Michael Jackson. There's even an all-Spanish station that plays old-time Latin music, complete with a Spanish speaking DJ named Pepe (and no, not Chavo Guerrero's toy horse this time). Rockstar just covers all the bases and finds the perfect, defining music for the decade up to 1986 (to be accurate to the year the game is based in, of course).
Back to the DJ's ? most are familiar names to GTA 3 players, but others are brand new. Lazlow, Toni, and Fernando Martinez are the Liberty City names, along with a few new ones including the real life Mr. Magic on Wildstyle Pirate Radio. The talk radio DJ's include an omgosh, like such a valley girl named Amy on KChat, and some other wacko on VCPR, or Vice City Public Radio (where you can own the station, but not be allowed in the doors). Neither chat stadion can match the greatness of Chatterbox, though they do have their moments with some funny guests. The other radio extras like commercials are a hoot ? but those who don't remember the 80's (and thus are under the allowed age for this game?) won't understand most of them.
I could really go on all day long here, touting how much fun it is to play through all the missions, working to find just the right strategy to finally complete that tough mission, or how thrilling it is to get the cops really pissed at you and then shake them off, or even beating all the side missions to make the game a bit easier for you to complete. But I won't, because Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a game that just isn't easy to describe, because everyone on the planet will play it differently than the next guy. While linear games are still great, games like Vice City really define the direction that single player games are moving towards ? a game with endless replay and thrills. Don't come in thinking this is more of the same when compared to Grand Theft Auto 3, because you'll be cheating yourself. Just go ahead and buy it, and experience what is no doubt the best game on the PlayStation 2. While no game is perfect, this is about as close as it gets on the PS2 ? and completely cr