Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
The Lights dim and Mr. Mister’s Broken Wings thumps into action as a man in a sharp suit plunges his flared nostrils into a pile of coke so big it would have cost Daniella Westbrook more than her septum. Cut to a couple of bouffanted blondes In pink skirts on roller skates, and back to Nice Guy Eddie explaining that he doesn’t know who’s dead, who’s alive, who’s caught and who’s not. The action switches to more drugs, violent shootings, more roller skates and a few more lines of the finest Peruvian.
If you asked most developers to name the inspiration behind their latest game, they'd go slightly red, look down at their feet and mutter something about a teacher back in school who gave them shelter in the computer labs from the bullies who made their lunchtimes hell. But this is different. This is Rockstar and I’m in their New York headquarters to check out how the latest game in the Grand Theft Auto series, Vice City, is coming along. Sometimes, life is sweet.
(I Just) Died In Your Arms
As is becoming the norm, Vice City has been out on PlayStation 2 since Christmas, but if you’ve got any sense you've kept yourself well away from it. I had to force myself into a quick three-hour razz around just so that I didn't come across as a clueless tallywhacker in New York, but even that was enough to convince me there's only one version of the game worth playing. Vice City might be identical in content between the two platforms, but visually they couldn't be further apart. The best analogy is pirate films. You can’t wait for Star Wars 3 to hit the cinemas over here, so you buy a grainy DVD copy filmed from a digital camera perched in some obese American's bulging crotch. And in doing so effectively ruin the experience you could've had if you'd been patient.
You might not think visuals are that important, but the revamped DX9 engine adds to the experience immeasurably. This is something I discovered as soon as the game was fired up on a huge presentation screen by Devin Winterbottom, Vice City's product manager, leaving me struggling to maintain my cool in the face of one of the most stunning games I've ever seen. The official line on why the game gets released on PC after PS2 is that the developers have to go back in and buff the city up until it's gleaming (though we suspect the truth might have something to do with a company called Sony, and the word 'exclusive').
Either way, Devin looks as proud as any father clutching his newborn as he runs us through the visuals: "Oh yeah. The new engine is a definite evolution over GTA III. It's all DX 9 stuff, and we’ve gone back in and re-done I all the textures,” he says.
Switching from day to night, the game suddenly explodes in a mass of neon shop fronts and street lamps. Pedestrians ditch their swimmers for suits and smart party clobber. Standing in the middle of the road, an oncoming motorbike blinds me with its headlights. Dazzlingly bright at the core, the light diffuses round the edges creating an amazingly lifelike effect - the first of hundreds of subtle effects I was going to get unnaturally excited about as I played through the game on the enormous screen they had rigged up.
Kids In America
The next thing that grabbed me by the balls was the draw distance. Unlike the PS2 version, Vice City on the PC stretches almost to the horizon. If you can’t see something clearly, it’s more likely that it’s your eyes that are defective. And to make the most out of all this, you can use your mouse to look around and take in every little nuance. Something Devin points to in highlighting differences between playing the game on either platform: “When you’re a console gamer you’re always looking at what's ahead of you. You never take the time to look around you, look behind you.”
Which means you won’t get to see some of the pedestrian antics the team has been lovingly slaving over. Antics made all the more amusing and convincing by Rockstar’s decision to motion capture the movements of professional stage actors. “All the pedestrians have their own mannerisms, and things they do and say. And, where Grand Theft Auto III is like the dirtiest, worst place on earth, Vice City is like a sun-kissed vacation spot. The pedestrians reflect that, walking around in bathing suits, or roller skating in tight pink spandex and headbands.” Right on cue, a skater who wouldn’t have looked out of place in the WWE in the mid ’80s tries to skate round us only to fall on his pert, pink arse. As he gingerly gets to his feet, the room dissolves in hysterical laughter, much as it would if we’d seen his slapstick fall in the real world. “It’s great demoing the game, because the same thing never happens twice.”
And The Beat Goes On
But the improvements in Vice City aren’t just cosmetic. Rockstar might not be giving Vice City full sequel status, but there’s enough new to make it a huge evolution from the last game. First off, where Liberty City might as well have been a cardboard film set, giving the appearance of a city without anywhere for you to go except the streets, Vice City lets you move around inside buildings, and even buy your own properties when you get enough cash. You can’t go in any building you want (we presume they’re saving this for the online version of the game, when, or indeed, if, it comes to fruition - see the Gangbang boxout below for more info) but the various hotels, discos and shopping malls help extend the illusion of the city, and provide some pretty funky backdrops for the shady deals and gunfights you get into through the course of the game.
And this is no lazy add-on. The two entities co-exist, which means that although there’s a short loading time when you move from outside to indoors, everything carries on in the city as if you were still out there. So any pedestrians hanging around outside will still be there doing their thang when you come back out. And any cops on your tail might not give up the chase just because you've ducked inside a building - a quick peek out of the window should tell you if this is the case.
The next tick on the checklist is the addition of new vehicles, most notably helicopters and motorbikes. There are six flyable helicopters in the game (plus a radio-controlled model), and although they take a bit of getting used to, they're nowhere near as hard to fly as the Dodo from GTA III. You can land on secluded rooftops for an afternoon’s sniping, or use your blades to chop up a group of pensioners enjoying a round of golf. You’ll also see choppers if your wanted rating gets too high, though these will be the ones the SWAT teams sent to bring you in are abseiling down from - if you’re quick enough, a burst from your uzi or sniper shot to the pilot can take them down.
But the addition of motorbikes is an even more significant change to the way the game plays. Ranging from the ultratrendy, but ultimately ultra-slow Faggio scooter, up to the classic Hariey-types, the first thing you notice is how well they handle. You can pull wheelies (and fall off the back if you get a bit carried away, as I did), and do some serious damage to yourself if you crash, with your body flying through the air and coming down in a crunch of bone and tarmac. But the coolest thing is that you can also shoot while you’re riding, a feature that alters the skew of the previous game, enabling you to shoot left, right, or directly ahead. Other changes include the ability to shoot out tyres, causing vehicles to slew, or shoot through windscreens to take out the driver. Play it right and you can take the head off a driver with a well-aimed shot (yep, it’s more violent than GTA 3) and then watch in glee as the car crashes and the decapitated torso flops out. Sick? Sue me. Of course, all of this means that you’re not as safe as you used to be in a vehicle, as Devin was quick to point out. “In GTA III, when you in a car you felt pretty invincible, but now cops can shoot your tyres out or turn on tyre spikes, so things are a bit tougher.”
Running With The Night
In a less specific sense, Vice City seems to have more of an adult feel to it - not that there’s more unnecessary language or content. I might only have had five or so hours to get acquainted with the game, but right from the off you get the feeling Rockstar has been watching all the right films. In jail since Liberty City went tits up, you’ve been sent up to Vice City by the The Forelli brothers to scout out the new turf and see if you can start making money. The only problem is that within seconds of the game kicking off you’re involved in a drug deal that goes very sour. You lose the drugs, you lose the money, and your boss, Sonny Forelli, is not a happy chappy as you find out in one of the first cinematic cut-scenes.
Tommy: “We were set up. The deal was an ambush.”
Sonny: “You’d better be kidding me. Tell me you’ve still got the money.”
Tommy: “No Sonny, I don’t have the money.”
Sonny (turning a bit psychotic): “That was my money Tommy.
Mine! Mine! You’d better not be screwing me Tommy, because you know I don’t like to be screwed with."
Tommy: “Hey Sonny. You’ve got my personal assurance I’m going to get you your money back. And the drugs. And I’ll mail you the dicks of those responsible.”
Sonny: "Hey, I already know that. If it was anybody else you’d be dead already. But because it’s you, I’m going to let you handle this."
A fairly typical exchange, but it took a while to click that this is the first time in a GTA game that you've heard your character (Tommy Vercetti, voiced by Ray Liotta) actually speak. One of the few criticisms we had about the last game was that your character was a bit of a dick, just moving from boss to boss, taking orders without displaying any personality. That's all changed now, and you start the game as a playa - someone who commands respect and is well known throughout the criminal fraternity, all of whom you’re introduced to early on, Goodfellas-style.
And The Beat Goes On
As for the way the game plays, it's Grand Theft Auto III, but buffed, polished and improved. The freeform nature and mission structure is the same, but using feedback from people like you, Rockstar has opted for bigger missions where you feel like you’re doing more than just taking something from A to B.
“The feedback we got from people about mission structure was that they liked the multi-tiered missions in GTA III, such as the Bomb The Base level," says Devin. “We wanted to do more of this in Vice City, so the missions are longer and more involving." To illustrate, he launches into a mission which starts off with you on a roof, protecting a drug deal. When it inevitably goes wrong you have to jump on a bike and chase the gunman, firing and riding as you go. And what about bugs? The room falls silent for a moment, so I explain that Grand Theft Auto III suffered from the PC nightmare of having about 675,000 different combinations of hardware. We didn’t actually have any problems with the game, but going on the forums around the time of release a lot of you did. Devin replies candidly: “We learnt from GTA III. We’re going to spend more time testing on as many different systems as we can.”
And to the cries of ’but it’s just more of the same', I'd reply that when it’s this good, what’s the problem? In essence the game might be the same, but the improvements are real. It’s GTA III, polished to perfection and wrapped up in the same unique humour, a fantastic '80s soundtrack (which gives instant lie to the claim that Rockstar is targeting children with its sick games), better visuals, new vehicles and weapons (including a chainsaw!) and a playing area that's more than twice as large as Liberty City. Can you tell that I'm just a wee bit excited?
Download Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Screenshots and Media
- Grand Theft Auto
- Grand Theft Auto 2
- Grand Theft Auto III
- Grand Theft Auto IV
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
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