A recent Rockstar bundle provided the perfect means to revisit some of the older Grand Theft Auto games, beginning with the first 3D entry, GTA III. After the huge success of that game, the developers chose to produce a prequel, moving the action to the sunny streets of Vice City in 1986.
Ready your hairspray and mirror shades for a revisit of the middle entry of the "3D trilogy", which truly established Grand Theft Auto as a powerhouse series.
One of the first things to notice is that Vice City is a more interesting place than GTA III's Liberty City; streets feel a bit more alive and areas are more diverse. There are some odd zones of dead space behind city blocks, however - might these be due to a lack of development time, or system resources? Vice City is also fairly easy to navigate, even taking into account the continued omission of an in-game map.
'80s nostalgia is almost omnipresent in today's culture, but that doesn't detract from how well it is done in Vice City. The GTA games aren't often praised for their subtlety, but Rockstar didn't just cover everything in synthesizers and neon. A lot of thought went into skewering the political and social culture in 1986, as well as trends like hair metal, glossy cop shows on TV and the era's home videogame consoles.
Tommy Vercetti's rise to power is lifted right from Scarface but provides a better framework for mayhem than GTA III's vague motivations. However, there's still little that resembles a real plot. Most mission threads still end almost at random, and interesting characters rarely appear in more than a couple of missions. Lance's betrayal doesn't mean too much when he's barely been a presence beforehand.
Few of the missions are genuinely challenging; while GTA III occasionally felt unfair, Vice City is somtimes too undemanding. Outside of the final battle, the only missions which are difficult are made so only by awkward boat and aircraft controls.
Having a speaking lead character lends the game much more personality than previous entries - Ray Liotta is perfect as Vercetti, a defiant and upwardly mobile gangster who is left amusingly exasperated by the bizarre characters he meets.
The assets that can be bought and profited from are a major improvement over GTA III. It's satisying to drive from business to another, collecting money - activities like this lend a very soft role-playing feel to Vice City, making players feel like a rising criminal rather than merely an aimless psychopath.
Money is somewhat significant for the first time in a GTA game; assets require cash, and the weapons needed to tackle the tougher missions can be costly also. The need to spend money makes earning it feel much more satisfying than before.
The shooting mechanics have been improved significantly, and combat is a far larger part of Vice City than it was GTA III. Driving, by contrast, is a little less important in missions.
The introduction of motorcycles and particularly helicopters is a welcome step forwards in terms of mobility and freedom - it's a shame that the latter are almost never used in missions, but presumably this was due to concerns over the controls.
The radio stations are a revelation. The music selection is excellent, of course, but the most impressive thing is the interstitial chatter, adverts and talk radio interviews. It's superb and extremely funny satire which is as relevant now as it was in 2002 - it may even be some of the best videogame writing ever.
Unfortunately, the final mission is one area where Vice City is inferior to GTA III. The attempt to rehash the iconic gunfight from the end of Scarface provides quite drab gameplay - an indoor shooting gallery which serves as a sour footnote to a tremendous game.