• GTA Vice City Review - Sony PS2

    (First published in 2002) Casuals, eh? They’re the foundation of the games-playing industry, it’s their wallets the publishers are aiming for, yet some would argue that the massive influence they wield is as dangerous and undeserving as the man who currently sits across the pond, in the White House, and on top of a large nuclear arsenal.

    Who can trust them? They don’t buy ICO, they don’t buy Rez, they consistently reward the weakest franchises and clog up our treasured interest with stale and uninspiring rubbish. They don’t know what it’s like to love games, they just dip in and out, like someone who insists on playing golf yet has no idea what club to use. They regard importing as a dark art and insist on filling the domestic industry coffers, despite being treated like outcasts with listless release schedules and shoddy conversions. They’re intolerable.

    They like Vice City, a lot.

    The sequel to the acclaimed GTA3 sold over a million copies in it’s first day of release in America, the UK’s reception has been similarly enthusiastic. This is the game that would fill a lot of Christmas lists this year – that is if most people didn’t already have it. Teenagers discuss it on the bus home from school, the Internet is crammed to the brim with forums debating new strategies and secrets, and despite the 18 certificate adorning the front of the box it seems even children are insistent on securing a copy.

    It would be nice, you know. To stand back and laugh at them, to dismiss the GTA series as a poor, ramshackle concept, and to stand proud with your unappreciated import gems.

    A word of advice, don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.

    Even though a stalwart slice of the gaming community may never appreciate Vice City, it is well worth trying it however you can, and knowing for sure. Ignore the frenzied hype, which Rockstar barely has to bother stoking up anymore, avoid the message boards where people obsess over how to acquire a certain package or hidden vehicle, disregard your preconceptions.

    For someone who is open to it, the gaming world of Vice City can stretch before you like a toy-laden sandpit, just waiting for you to jump in and stir things up, build your own castles out of the raw material or dig for hidden treasure beneath the rough, densely layered surface.

    Some have argued that Vice City, and it’s predecessor GTA3, are the products of cynical minds, a playing on the fashionable persona of movie-style violence and crime, and that they amount to little more than virtual ‘gangster’ simulations. It’s true, you can pull someone out of their car and beat them to death, you can go on a machine-gun rampage, mowing down innocent pedestrians and Police officers alike in a period of mindless carnage, you can take someone’s head clean off with an accurate sniper-shot.

    The simple fact is, if you buy the game to do these things alone, you will tire of it after several hours play and it will probably leave your PS2 forever. Violence does sell video games, but the violence here is little more than a superficially entertaining front. A split-second decision to go on a killing spree is merely a nod, and a connecting axis towards the freedom present in other, more satisfying elements of Vice City.

    Rather than spending their time scratching madly away at the surface of the game, and scoffing in derision when it finally begins to peel, some gamers may prefer to take a helicopter trip over the city, to engage in a thrilling dirt-bike chase through winding back-alleys, to see if they rode their Harley up those stairs would it really make it onto that roof?

    This freedom will come as no surprise to those who played GTA3, but here it has been refined and tweaked to provide a superior experience. Even though we are still a far way off from creating a totally immersive world within games, the sheer scale of VC cannot be underestimated, and although this breath of exploration comes at lesser sacrifices within design – it is still impressive to behold.

    Mission-based play, as in GTA3, is the order of the day. Once again, a lowly hoodlum working your way up in the crime syndicate world, you’ll find yourself undertaking tasks for a number of people which vary from assassination to car racing, intimidation, sabotage, and a number of things besides. Subtle improvements over GTA3 lend slightly more form to VC’s world; cars can now be damaged with melee weapons, tyres can be shot out, the driver of an enemy vehicle can be sniped through the windscreen.

    Such refinements shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, the ability to bail out of a car while still moving at speed, for example, breathes a measure of new life into gunfights and chases. Similarly, trying to keep your car on a straight path, with pursuing vehicles, when all four tyres have been spiked by Police ‘Stingers’ is both tense and exciting, such things genuinely do add to the game.

    Motorbikes, in particular, have their own distinct advantages and disadvantages, and handle just as you would expect a Low Rider or performance bike to in real life. While their inclusion may be just another feature which didn’t make it into GTA3 due to time constraints, learning their subtleties and getting a feel for how each one rides is nonetheless rewarding.

    The slightly erratic targeting system of the first title remains, but it is now thankfully far less likely to lock onto a passing civilian as opposed to an Uzi-wielding Columbian, it still doesn’t feel smooth and natural but it is understandable and, more importantly, workable. The main arsenal of weapons available reflects the 80’s era, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that most armaments have merely had a facelift for VC, but the new assortment of melee weapons does, to some measure, make up for this.

    As always, audio is impressively strong in Vice City, not so much the serviceable sound effects but rather the voice acting, fantastic music and satirical conversations which fill several of the radio stations. Many players admitted to just pulling over to the side of the road in the first game, putting down the controller, and enjoying their time spent listening to the amusing banter on Chatterbox FM. Most will be doing the same here, although the addition of a lushly realised 80’s soundtrack, featuring such classic bands as Nena, Spandau Ballet and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, make just cruising while listening to the soundtrack a similarly pleasurable experience.

    Ray Liotta, along with a slew of other stars such as Dennis Hopper and the infamous Jenna Jameson, lend their voices to the game’s characters. This is a welcome break from the usual, uninspired acting in most video games today, and while it is admittedly just window dressing it can make cut scenes more entertaining than they have a right to be.

    Despite praise for a more well rounded experience, with attractions such as the Dirt-Bike track and the Stadium a natural progression of GTA3’s living, breathing city, those expecting an evolution will come away disappointed. Despite the inclusion of properties to purchase, with their revenue and attached missions to fulfil, the whole experience will regrettably still feel very ‘mission-pack’ to those who didn’t at least enjoy GTA3 moderately.

    Graphics, rather than advancing, seem to have taken an odd step sideways. The ‘trails’ present in the first game, which blurred car headlights and streetlamps, and were used, to an extent, to coat the rather bland visuals, are overpowering in Vice City. Distortion is everywhere, from the almost constant sunlight to the harsh, primary colours surrounding the player, making the whole look sit uneasily between a next-gen title and one produced on a memory limited format such as the N64. It does give the game an 80’s feel, of overpowering garishness and soft focus, but most will find themselves turning the trails off in the options menu – leading to VC looking clearer, but feeling oddly cold and soulless.

    Any direct compromise between these extremes seems to elude Rockstar, and it does make you wonder what their vision may have become had it been built from the ground up on the Gamecube or XBox. The same problems may very well have occurred on these platforms, but the draw-distance and pop-up present in VC, while improved over the original, doesn’t stop the player from wondering.

    Controls are identical to GTA3, with the exception of L3 doubling as a ‘duck’ button for use in firefights. Airborne vehicles, however, such as Helicopters and, in particular, the Dodo have a steep learning curve in comparison to cars and motorbikes. Even though this is intentional it can become frustrating when you fail a necessary mission for the twentieth time, due to letting up on your tight reign of the Seaplane’s handling just for a second. It shouldn’t be overlooked that more than one person has given up on the entire game because of this utterly unforgiving mechanic.

    To Rockstar’s credit, there are only two real areas in which they have slipped up, although the nature of these is quite different. The first is their promise of the pedestrians interacting this time round, taking notice of each other and engaging in flowing conversation. Stand near two people, or a group, and you will soon see this isn’t the case. Any vocals are, as they were in GTA3, random sound bytes which are only slightly more relevant this time around, due to the better realised link of the type of person who is saying them and their subject matter.

    The second oversight is a disappointing one, and while understandable on a low profile release, it doesn’t make much sense for Rockstar to be using it here, if indeed it was their idea. Take a look at the back of the box and you’ll see crisp, clear screenshots, looking at these the graphics of Vice City seem to have been significantly cleared up over GTA3, but booting up the game itself tells quite a different story.

    High-resolution mock-ups are the bane of the console user, due to the sole format of our machine we can’t even expect a small disclaimer such as ‘screenshots taken from PC version’ like we scrutinised computer games for in the past. There’s nothing here now but deceit, and it is saddening that some clueless group of people decided that a game as good as Vice City couldn’t sell without being artificially touched up in some fashion.

    It is still a game of compromises, it has to be, to fully realise the vision of the Grand Theft Auto series would take an excessive amount of development time, a period which would just not be practical in today’s release-date hungry world. This is a series which will see gradual improvements over an extended period of time, it would be a mistake to dismiss this ongoing maturing as a cynical cash-in strategy however, it is merely an acknowledgement of the market as it stands today – quick fixes, with developers struggling to fit in their original vision wherever, and whenever they can.

    The most affecting thing here is an occurrence which forces us to stop and look at the grey areas in gaming, that not every game which sells phenomenally and is enjoyed by so many is limiting and tame. That sometimes violence in video-games is used merely as a carrier to enter the window of the average gamer’s attention, and to then offer them an ability to explore and discover which is lacking in so much of today’s Identi-kit software.

    Sometimes, the casuals get it right.

    A review by Ian Clements
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. charlesr's Avatar
      charlesr -
      Weird to look back at the language used in this review. Does the Casual vs Hardcore even exist now at all?