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Grand Theft Auto III is a groundbreaking game. It throws players into a 3D urban playground as a criminal and lets them run wild. There was nothing else quite like it before. It’s a landmark title and was very controversial for its time due to its violence and sexual content. After Grand Theft Auto III took the world by storm, it was followed up by a sequel that would feature more violence, more sexual content, and more of the same fun gameplay. Developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was released for PlayStation 2 in October, 2002, PC in May, 2003, and Xbox in October of that same year. For this review, I played the PC version.
Vice City was a parent’s worst nightmare and I’m guessing it’s because most of them didn’t read the back of the fucking game box. I don’t remember if it was an interview or segment from a talk show I saw, but the host was talking to some mother who bought the game for her child. The host was, of course only pointing out the seediest aspects of the game, and as a surprise to no one, the mother was shocked. The game was to be returned immediately. Something like that. Ignorance really is something.
If you were around when the game came out, I’m sure you’re probably familiar with the story and/or heard similar stories. Honestly, the attention the game received in the news is what introduced me to the franchise. It’s what caught my attention. Vice City is the first game in the series I played. I was only twelve or thirteen years old and it was the forbidden game. The one adults were saying I shouldn’t be playing. And like a lot of other kids, I think ignorance worked in my favor. I played the game for the first time at my aunt’s house and it captivated me. Less than a year later, she actually bought me a copy. I don’t know why because I knew she was familiar with some of the content but I didn’t question it. My uncle was the one who primarily played it so I’m guessing she just didn’t know enough about it. So when she brought me back home, I put my new copy of Vice City into my PlayStation 2 and so began my journey into the 3D universe of Grand Theft Auto.
I did install the game from the disc and did not install any official updates. I maintained version 1.0 because, as far as I know, that’s the best version for mods and some mods and fan patches are highly recommended to get the game running properly on modern systems. If you plan on the playing the PC version, I would recommend consulting the game’s PCGamingWiki page. It will provide what you need to get it running properly and how to downgrade certain versions. I did install the SilentPatch which fixes numerous issues, ThirteenAG’s Widescreen Fix which fixes the issues present with the normal widescreen presentation, SkyGfx which restores the visual aesthetics of the RenderWare engine from the console versions, and GInput which adds support for XInput and DualShock 3 controllers. I did not install anything that would change the vanilla gameplay.
Set in 1986 in the fictional Vice City, Florida, players are put in the shoes of Tommy Vercetti who was recently released from prison after serving a fifteen-year sentence for murders he committed while working for the Forelli crime family in Liberty City. His boss, Sonny Forelli, sends him to Vice City to oversee a drug deal and after the deal is ambushed, Tommy sets out on a quest to recover the drugs and money. And as he makes connections in the criminal underworld, he starts building a criminal empire.
Personally, I think Vice City is an excellent crime tale with solid writing. It touches on subjects like greed, loyalty and betrayal and much like its predecessor, the game has a cinematic quality to it and is clearly influenced by popular movies and shows like Scarface and Miami Vice. It features a large cast of major Hollywood and other notable talent including Ray Liotta, William Fichtner, Fairuza Balk, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, Robert Davi, Danny Trejo, Luis Guzman, Philip Michael Thomas, Jenna Jameson, Lawrence Taylor, Gary Busey, and Lee Majors among some others. I think the performances are great and because the game features a protagonist that’s voiced, the interactions often sound more natural and believable than those of Grand Theft Auto III. The writing showcases a good mix of seriousness, wit, humor, and drama.
Vice City is a satirical look at a fictionalized version of a 1980’s Miami and its criminal underworld. From the way people look and dress, to the bright neon and pastel colors, the city proves to be extremely atmospheric and immersive and perfectly captures the stereotypical look and feel of the city during the time period. This fictional and stylized version of Miami comes complete with glitz and glamor, sex and violence, and drugs and degradation the city was often known for during the Miami Drug war era. Speaking of which, I would highly recommend checking out the documentary Cocaine Cowboys if you’re at all interested in learning more about the subject.
Much of the controversy surrounding this game and the franchise stems from the violence and sexual content. You are encouraged to break laws and kill people and you are rewarded in some fashion for all the criminal activity you participate in. During the game’s heyday, I knew a lot of kids who enjoyed playing Vice City because they, and I quote “enjoy driving around and shooting people”. To be honest, when I played it for the first time, that’s all I wanted to do as well. But when I finally owned a copy, I actually dove into the plot. Context is important. Yes, you can be a mass murderer, have sex with hookers and then murder them, visit a strip club, rob stores, and commit numerous acts of violence. But the freedom to do whatever you want is what makes these games so much fun. There are no heroes in these games. Only villains. And that’s always made clear. All the characters are bad or shady and in a world and universe full of gangsters, corrupt politicians, crooked cops, sociopaths and other terrible people. Right from the get-go, it’s established Tommy is a criminal and bad guy. The characters are clearly not people we should look up to. And this is clearly not a game designed for young children.
All of the same basic mechanics from Grand Theft Auto III are present in Vice City but with refinements. But that also means some of the same problems have been carried over. Playing the console versions or the PC version with a controller highlights how bad the camera and targeting can be. However, the camera does instantly snap to the target you lock onto which is helpful. Playing with a mouse does allow you to aim and shoot in any direction without the need to lock-on. Personally, I prefer a controller when it comes to driving and flying.
Much like the previous game, nobody in this world can swim, including Tommy which I find more odd in this game than the last. Vice City consists of several islands surrounded by water and the game kind of place a focus on water. At least more than GTA III did. The city has a large beach, boats play a bigger role and the game even features a seaplane and helicopter that can land on water. But if Tommy ends up in the water, he dies. It just seems odd that the developers didn’t implement swimming mechanics. Tommy can crouch which is something the previous protagonist could not do but, unfortunately, he can’t walk or move while crouching. He can only turn and he is more accurate with guns when crouching. As you progress through the story, you will unlock new outfits but they are not stored in any central location. You have to travel to different places around the city just to change clothes which seems odd when playing the game now.
Vice City brings a lot of new stuff to the table. There are more vehicles, you can now ride motorcycles, there’s more boats, and there’s different types of aircraft including planes and helicopters. Flying is a lot easier here than it is in GTA III and having different types of aircraft gives you fun new ways to get around. Some helicopters are equipped with weapons so you can gun down people from skies. Back in the day, I used to love flying to different rooftops to pick people off to initiate a police response and then engage them and use a sniper rifle or rocket launcher to take down police helicopters. The game gives you plenty of ways to kill people. Vice City features a larger arsenal of weapons compared to its predecessor and Tommy can only hold one of each type. Tommy can beat, stab, and slice people with numerous melee weapons, mow them down with a minigun and M60 and even blow shit up with remote grenades.
The only weapon I find underwhelming is the Chainsaw which only feels like it’s included to be a direct nod to Scarface. One of the easter eggs in the game is an apartment with a bathroom with blood splatter and a chainsaw which is an obvious nod to the film. The chainsaw can kill someone pretty quick but, like every other melee weapon, it usually results in the NPC simply falling down. It does come with a cool animation showing Tommy shoving it into a downed NPC but it doesn’t result in as much gore as you would think a chainsaw would. Plus, Tommy slowly lumbers around when carrying it so it’s not like he can easily chase anyone down or run from cops with it in his hands.
Vice City is another game that once again shows the developer’s have a knack for detail and world building. Rockstar has created an extremely immersive and detailed world. From the fictional brands and advertisements to the radio stations to little things you encounter in the city, it all comes together to make the world feel somewhat realistic. You can enter several buildings, receive private dances from strippers, gunfire can pop tires, you’ll see cops chasing down perps on-foot, come across scenes of accidents like vehicles that hit pedestrians, and different parts of the city are populated with different types of people.
As detailed and immersive as the world is, sometimes I was pulled out of the immersion by various oddities and annoyances. Some things are just minor. Strippers at the Pole Position club do not actually strip or dance nude. All the pop-in can be an eyesore, the streets often felt too empty and I can’t tell you how many times I needed a car and none would spawn on the roads. That actually becomes really annoying during missions. Also annoying is when my vehicle would disappear which happened on more than one occasion. Tires seem to pop way too easily and this can make completing the Vigilante mission in a vehicle annoying. You don’t really have to aim at tires, just unleash a barrage of bullets and more often than not, you’ll end up popping one or more tires. But the same goes for enemies. All they have to do is shoot at your vehicle, and one of your tires will most likely pop so I always try to keep my distance. It’s also a little strange to see that NPCs and NPC passengers won’t perform drive-by shootings. Missions may have them in the back of vehicles acting as gunners but most of the time, they get out of their vehicles to fire at you.
Vice City does feature a new set of radio stations, most of which play licensed music that was popular in the 80s and one station in particular is entirely in Spanish which is a fantastic touch. In my opinion, as of this review, Vice City features the best selection of music in the series and features two of my favorite stations, VCPR and V-ROCK which happens to be hosted by Lazlow Jones, the host of the Chatterbox station in GTA III. The station plays tunes from three of the big four thrash bands along with Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, and Quiet Riot among others. It’s an incredible selection. And if you’re like me and want more Slayer, the PC version does come with a custom radio station/MP3 player that will play custom music. The other stations also feature some great tunes from artists like Hall and Oates, the Pointer Sisters, Michael Jackson, Kool & the Gang, Laura Branigan, REO Speedwagon, Toto, Foreigner, and many others. VCPR is one of two talk stations in the game. It’s home to the show Pressing Issues hosted by Maurice Chavez and I love listening to him and the other characters on the show talk and banter. K-Chat is the other talk station and features interviews with various in-game celebrities including characters you interact with in the story.
The wanted system returns in the same structure with police, S.W.A.T., FBI, and military responses depending on how many wanted stars you’ve accumulated. You can reduce your wanted level by collecting police bribes, driving to Pay ‘n’ Sprays, and changing outfits. A Pay ‘n’ Spray no longer eliminates your wanted level immediately. Instead, it’s suspended for a brief time and if you commit any crimes during the suspended period, the stars are immediately reinstated. Other than that, the system is basically the same with some new features and details. Police will lay down spike strips, undercover cops in Cheetahs will join in the chase, and SWAT guys will come rappelling down ropes from helicopters. The only thing I think is odd is that all it takes is one bullet to force a police car to stop chasing you. One bullet hits their car and they stop and get out to fire at you.
There are several gangs present in Vice City and just like in GTA III, they have their own unique character models and vehicles so they’re easily identifiable and most of them do play roles in the plot and side missions. Luckily, none of them feel as overpowered or as deadly as the Mafia in GTA III. There’s no gang that makes navigating around a specific portion of the city extremely dangerous but if a gang dislikes you, they will attack you so you still need to be careful. Several gangs do dislike each other and the game does place a focus on the rivalry between the Haitians and Cubans and you’ll frequently see them getting into shootouts on the streets.
One of the big elements in Vice City is building a criminal empire. You can buy various safehouses when you have enough money and at a certain point in the story, Tommy can starting buying up businesses so money plays a much bigger role here than it did in GTA III. Tommy’s goal is to take over the city and businesses comes with their own missions and/or objectives. You can buy any business in any order and this essentially allows you to complete a lot of missions in almost any order which is cool. You can buy a car showroom, Print Works, film studio, boatyard, and strip club among others and some of these businesses are simply a front for illegal activities like the Print Works which is used to create counterfeit money. Others are more let’s use the word “legit”, or are for a more exotic purpose like the film studio which is used for shooting porn. Some businesses come with perks. Buying Kaufman Cabs will give you the option to take one of your cabs back to the mission start after dying or getting busted during a previous attempt. After completing the missions for a business, it will generate revenue that you can collect. Unfortunately, you have to travel to each business individually every time you want to collect your money.
As Tommy builds his empire, he also builds a gang presence, the Vercetti gang. These are just a bunch of goons that hang around his businesses. They will defend Tommy if they’re near him when he’s under attack and they’ll frequently get into firefights with other gangs in the areas. It would have been cool if they served a bigger role like collecting the money from your businesses, reflected as an automatic deposit of sorts. One neat feature is that you can recruit some gang members to accompany you, but you have to beat the game to one hundred percent first.
Much like GTA III, the missions in Vice City will have you driving people around, following people, killing people, blowing shit up, and committing numerous acts of grand theft auto. You can ignore the story and missions at any time and do whatever the hell you want but you are somewhat restricted in the beginning. You have to advance the story to gain access to all the islands. I would say the story missions are more exciting than those in the previous game and several of the businesses you buy come with their own series of missions that make up small story arcs. For example, all the Malibu missions center on a bank heist. All the Kaufman Cabs missions revolve around a feud with a rival cab company. Some businesses come with simple objectives. The Pole Position is a strip club that will generate revenue only after Tommy spends enough money on private dances. Sunshine Autos has you delivering cars to a garage and is where you can initiate street races. The Cherry Popper Ice Cream Company has you distributing “special merchandise” and for the Boatyard to generate revenue, you simply need to complete a checkpoint race in a boat.
In addition to typical mission objectives, you’ll also participate in a some cool set pieces and scripted sequences. You’ll gun down foes from a helicopter, defend boats from enemies and enemy aircraft, use an RC plane to bomb gang members, and even pose as a cop to infiltrate a mall guarded by police and soldiers to plant a bomb. I think the bank heist is one of the best missions in the trilogy and the developers did a good job at building it up. The missions that precede it have Tommy getting a crew together and planning the job. Some missions are clearly nods to films like when you have to drive the rock band Love Fist around in a car rigged with a bomb that will explode if you stop or drive too slowly which is a nod to the film Speed. There’s a couple of shootouts in a mansion that share many similarities with the mansion in the film Scarface. Unfortunately, not every mission is phenomenal. Almost every mission and activity that puts Tommy on a motorcycle can result frustration because all it takes is one bump to send him flying off. There’s one mission you have to complete for the film studio that has Tommy riding a motorcycle off jumps across various rooftops and it can be a real test of patience.
Vice City does offer a lot to do and many of the same side missions and activities from GTA III are present here and you’ll have to complete them all to beat the game to one hundred percent. Hidden Packages return with one hundred scattered throughout the city to find. And I think finding them is still a tedious task. Stunt jumps and Rampages also return. On a positive note, you can reference an in-game map to see where you’re located in the city which makes all of these a lot easier to locate if using a guide.
The Paramedic mission is still too long and drawn out and, unfortunately, the Vigilante and Firefighter missions now follow the same structure. On the plus side, you can complete the Vigilante mission from an attack helicopter called the Hunter which I think makes it easier to complete. As a Firefighter, you’ll have to put out vehicles and pedestrians that are on fire. Just like in GTA III, the Taxi mission requires you to complete one hundred fares which I still think is excessive. Other than these, you can rob shops, try for a high score at the rifle range, deliver pizzas, complete Chopper Checkpoint races, off-road races, street races, different RC events, and stadium events. I can’t say I enjoyed most of these activities enough to want to replay them except robbing stores. Point your gun at the clerk and they’ll start dropping money and it does attract police attention.
I do think that several side missions and activities feel more like busy work than fun. Dropping people off in a taxi, putting out fires, and delivering pizzas all get old pretty quick. I think robbing stores is fun just because of the nature of it and how it relates to the whole criminal theme. The street races would be more enjoyable if the AI was more competent. They tend to cluster together and crash a lot as well as knock you all over the road which can be annoying. Luckily, the rewards for completing many side missions are beneficial like increased max health, increased max armor, sprint without getting tired, and completing the Firefighter mission makes Tommy fireproof.
Vice City does look better than its predecessor but I can’t say it has aged all that well visually. The aesthetics definitely holds up but the rampant pop-in, noticeably blurry and low-res textures, and clipping can often be eyesores. Compared to GTA III, one of the most noticeable visual improvements is the more detailed vehicle models. It’s still obvious that vehicles will spawn near you and out of view and it’s not uncommon to turn around and then back again to see different vehicles than the ones that were present moments ago. As for the audio, weapons fire sounds pretty good, the pop of tires is satisfying and I would say Vice City comes with all the appropriate sounds you would hear in an actual city like NPCs talking and horns honking on busy streets. People will scream when bullets start flying and explosions sound booming. On the technical side, I did not encounter any major issues and the game ran smooth.
Vice City is special to me because it’s the first game in the series I played and it left a big impact. It opened my eyes to so many things. It’s the first open world game I ever played and I don’t think I had any idea what an open world game actually was at the time. I just wasn’t familiar with the genre but I knew I loved what I was playing. The amount of freedom the game gave me was unlike anything I played before and I didn’t want to play anything else. It initiated my love for the genre and for a while there, I became obsessed with playing open world games. Things have changed since then but back in the day, I was entirely captivated, immersed and mesmerized by the experience. Vice City is also the game that introduced me to the concept of satire and is the first game I played that put me in the shoes of a criminal. It was an entirely new perspective for me. It also kickstarted my interest in crime films simply because I was curious about what influenced the game.
After a while, I learned that I loved more than just the open-ended nature of Vice City. I did play other open world games but none of them were able to hold my interest like Vice City or Grand Theft Auto III. That’s not to say they were bad games, but it’s the worlds and universe, itself, Rockstar created that really impressed me. Granted, this is all subjective but everything ranging from the aesthetics to the little details to the story and characters help make the world feel alive. The realism is what immerses me and the action is what excites me. I love the plot and the mix of humor and seriousness, and the cinematic qualities found in the writing and voice work. Just the style of the game made me feel like I was participating in some action film in video game form.
There are so many things I enjoy about Vice City and the 3D universe as a whole, I just became entirely immersed. I wanted to learn more about what influenced them, find every easter egg, and was completely absorbed into the Grand Theft Auto lore. I would come home from school, fire up the game, and put on VCPR as I would do my homework. After I completed the game to one hundred percent, I would simply drive and fly around shooting people and causing chaos because I could. It’s funny because I find doing shit like that in open world games today can get boring pretty quick but back then, there was nothing else like this. I could do it for hours.
Despite being a special game to me, I’m not blind to its flaws and some of my problems with it now are simply due to its age. We need to keep in mind that the genre has introduced so many new ideas, features, and conveniences since the release of Vice City that certain aspects of it will undoubtedly feel dated and primitive in today’s world. The camera and targeting mechanics when playing with a controller have aged terribly, the lack of mission checkpoints can be frustrating, and I don’t really care for much of the side content. Although, I didn’t care for most of it back in the day, either. I used to really despise any RC missions but I can’t say I had too much trouble with them this time around. I do think the mission design is better than that of GTA III. Missions are more exciting and because Tommy is a voiced protagonist, interactions feel more natural and in general, he’s more involved in what’s going on and is more than just a mercenary, hitman and lapdog. As a result, I think that helps immerse the player into the plot and events a lot more.
I would absolutely recommend Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Overall, it feels like a big improvement over GTA III. It’s far from a perfect game but I think at the time it released, a lot of its issues could easily be overlooked and/or ignored. Like the other games in this trilogy, Vice City is surrounded by a large modding community and you can find mods that improve the presentation, address issues and even add new features and content. Definitely check it out.