This review originally appeared in E118, Christmas 2002.
It was never going to live up to expectations, of course. Nothing as hyped as this ever could. But Vice City remains one of the year’s essential games if only because its developer has listened to the feedback offered by many of the million or so buyers of the previous game, and in doing so has added much to the GTA experience.
Most importantly, perhaps, you’re no longer a nobody. Where GTAIII’s lead was two dimensional, your character this time around sweats charisma. Not only because he speaks (Ray Liotta is mostly perfect as a worldly wise scuzzrag) but because he has a real place in this world: whereas previously you were a relatively inconsequential thug-for-hire, now you carry gravitas, and those around you react to that. In addition, the acquisition of properties, which can generate revenue and also act as save points, proves a tangible measure of progress and serves to cement your position in the gameworld.
The raft of new weapons that comes into play has already enjoyed unprecedented attention, but in reality the most unorthodox among them, including the screwdriver and chainsaw, are largely novelty items, rendering their inclusion quite forgettable once you’ve put in a few hours’ play. More important in offensive terms is a tweaked targeting system for ranged weapons. There’s still no option to automatically move to a new target once an enemy has been downed, but the issue has at least been addressed.
On the tarmac of Vice City’s streets you’ll be immediately drawn to two-wheeled propulsion, and motorcycle manoeuvres prove as gratifying as you might imagine. The range of cars on offer, meanwhile, ensures that you’re rarely at a loss for something grunty: muscle can be found cruising around most corners, each example ripe for jacking.
Of course, you’ll play around with the gameworld and its many components like a child with a new Lego play set before embarking on the missions themselves, which is where Vice City really kicks into gear, offering up a diverse selection of concepts within just a short space of time. An RC ’copter level later gives way to more complex, drawn-out affairs where, for example, you’re charged with using a camera rather than a weapon in order to secure progress. Moreover, negotiating a passage across the city’s rooftops via motorcycle, dropping leaflets from a plane, and travelling via waterways present their own set of unique and rewarding challenges.
However, in putting together all of this, Rockstar North has left visible a number of cracks, rendering the environment of Vice City somewhat broken. Apart from crash bugs, NPCs walk through each other during cut-scenes, buddy AI can be execrable, early chases give you radar guidance while a later one does not – and so on. In fact, in terms of fallibility, consider the following situation: you’ve become aware of a fracas taking place on the pavement – a group of ten or so NPCs have taken it upon themselves to shoot each other. You watch to see how the situation will be resolved. A police car turns up. Yes, you think, the police have arrived in order to dish out the kind of justice you routinely find yourself on the end of having gunned down Vice City citizens. And then, suddenly, the police car simply moves away and out of the scene. It’s then that you realise that it had merely stopped at a red light; it was no more aware of the incident going on at the side of the road than the street upon which blood was being spattered.
Of course, in these respects Vice City is a victim of its own ambition, and while pioneers such as Rockstar North continue to push boundaries it feels churlish to criticise failings whose idiosyncrasies can be surmounted simply by playing and learning. (The process will be accompanied by much gnashing of teeth, but the genuinely thrilling soundtrack serves to temper such moments.)
If this game was a car it wouldn’t be an entirely new model, but last year’s with an ostentatious spoiler on the back and a clutch of other bells and whistles that would no doubt impress passers by. Like a TVR, mechanical faults are evident, but it remains a formidable experience.