After playing GTA3 I was somewhat disappointed with how many problems the game had. It was fun and all, but my enjoyment of it was hindered time and again by overly difficult missions, chance screw ups and, in the end, the general blandness. I was very hopeful toward GTA: Vice City, if only because of the terrific theme, taken straight from the cult TV series Miami Vice. This time around, I wasn’t disappointed.
The theme is Vice City’s biggest asset. Everything from the colour palette (a lot of pastel colours mixed with terrific light effects), through the character models, clothes, and cars, to architecture simply works. The great licensed soundtrack is also a very strong feature of the game. In GTA3 I found it hard not to listen to the MP3 Player instead of the radio stations, because out of the nine stations, three were unlistenable (drum&bass / trance / jungle music at its worst and bad hip-hop), four were ok but nothing special, one was a chat radio which was fun to listen but got old fast and the only one I actually enjoyed was the one playing classical music… but neither of these was actually enjoyable to listen to, which warranted a switch to my personal choice of MP3’s rather quickly. In Vice City I haven’t used this option once. Why should I, with such a great choice of listenable stations? Most of them are really great to have playing while you cruise around the city, if only because they compliment the 80’s theme so well. The choice of music is terrific. Even genres which I don’t usually enjoy, like hip-hop and pop, are so well represented, you just don’t mind it even if it’s not necesarrily your thing! Big kudos go to the rock / metal and the RnB stations. Listening to “And the Beat Goes On” by the Whispers while riding next to the beach toward the sunset? Awesome stuff. This game serves as a great guide to what 80’s music was all about, with a very good variety of music styles.
The humour in the game is also top-notch. Almost every dialogue line is funny in some way, even if it’s dark humour, the chats and commercials on the radio stations are both hilarious and, more often than not, ridicule a certain type of people or aspect of 80’s life in a very biting way. This makes the whole game a very tongue-in-cheek experience, which is good, because a ‘serious’ game about killing people and establishing a criminal empire would likely be a rather tough thing to swallow.
Gameplay wise things are also a lot better than in GTA3. There’s more stuff to do (even maybe too much to my taste, but then again I didn’t have to do all of it), and what you have to do to progress is much easier and manageable than in the previous game, which makes Vice City much more enjoyable. As you may recall, I haven’t finished GTA3 because the end-game missions are just ridiculously unfair. In Vice City they were somewhat challenging, but absolutely doable. My only gripe with Vice City on the gameplay side is that it took me ages to actually trigger the end-game, because as you get to a more open part of the game, you’re not really told what to do next. I spent time buying businesses and doing the side missions, but I then learned that I would have been better off saving that for later, and focusing on getting enough money to buy out the one location which actually matters. That, and there were some missions where a quicksave-in-mission would not go amiss, but since that’s outside GTA’s design philosophy, I can’t really hold it against the game that much (even though I still think that no quicksave or accessible saving in a 2003 game is just the designers being assholes). And yes, they didn’t exactly get rid of missions obviously based on luck (whether you get hit by a car or not, missions which are not really that dependable on your skills), but fortunately I could either get around them in some way or just don’t do them in most cases. Still, not cool, not in any way sensible.
Some stuff was carried over from GTA3 though, and one of them are the ridiculous physics. I have to admit, they have been improved from that game, but you can still spin out of control when slightly nudging another car, or end up on the car’s roof after a collision. Not to mention how you can apparently break through metal and concrete (lamps and streetlights) but not through wood (telephone line posts have you stop dead on them). The motorboats were not improved at all – they are as hard to steer as they were in the few on-water missions of GTA3 (and the protagonist STILL can’t swim). Some new additions include motorbikes, planes and helicopters. The former are fun to ride, but as little as a very slight hit on anything (and I do mean anything, maybe apart from the pedestrians, though that’s not a rule) has you ejected from the vehicle and into the air. The two latter have terrible controls which make them very hard to fly around, and take some of the real enjoyment you get from watching the city from above.
All the criticism aside, Vice City is a game very much superior to GTA3, in every way. A great setting, cast of actors, a lot of humour, terrific music and enjoyable gameplay make this game something everyone should play, even if the graphics haven’t aged that well (though they are still nice to look at). I’m not sure about San Andreas, as I haven’t played it yet, but from what I’ve seen (mostly gameplay videos), it’s theme is waaaaaay to serious to enjoy. Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t find afro-american gang wars very appealing or funny in any way. I’m going to guess that out of the three – GTA3, Vice City and San Andreas – Vice City is going to be the one I will enjoy the most. That remains to be seen. In the meantime, Vice City is a solid 8/10 and I heartily recommend it to anyone who hasn’t played it yet. Nowadays you can find a used copy in stores quite often, or Steam has it, and it’s often on sale. The few euro / pounds / dollars you’ll spend on it will give you more than 20 hours of gameplay for sure, and if you’re the completionist type, much more than that, I would assume.