We’re now five and-a-half years and 5 games in to the 3D Grand Theft Auto series, and whilst they might not be as fresh or innovative as they once were, I still found myself having to ‘drag’ myself away from the damn game to write this review…
Last autumn we got to go back to Liberty City and now Vice City (think: Miami), the neon crime hub and beach resort gets a revisit. Vice City Stories is set in a time just before Vice City, so some buildings haven’t been built yet, some empty lots are now built up and some properties that were dilapidated in VC are new or pristine. In addition to the slightly different look and layout of the place your character can now swim for a limited distance, meaning that crashing in the sea is no longer certain death, which is a huge improvement – unfortunately you still have a limited swimming energy bar that means sometimes you’ll die simply because they forgot to put a ramp or steps anywhere near so you could climb out (but you can do “beach patrol” missions that’ll give you unlimited swimming time).
Obviously as the game is set close in time to Vice City most vehicles are familiar looking, but there are a number of new vehicles (all with the trademark GTA physics and handling that puts many serious ‘sims’ to shame), side missions and challenges too, and the game feels like a partial “San Andreas upgrade” of Vice City rather than just a data disk. The all-new soundtrack is full of 80s classics by the likes of Blondie, Roxy Music, The Commodores, The Cure, Marvin Gaye, Alison Moyet and Phil Collins (who even plays himself in the game), and naturally the irreverent sexist and dangerously stereotypical radio banter by the DJs (a young Lazlo and Fernando are present and correct) are a ‘must-hear’ - at least once, just don’t let Granny hear.
The story has you playing as Vic Vance, a young army private who joined up just to pay his family’s bills. Vic needs the money and a crooked superior officer soon finds his weak spot – as usual in GTA games you’ll do anything for money and he uses you to the point where you get drummed out of the Army and return to more familiar street hoodlum style of life and play. Vic’s hapless brother Lance (your sidekick in Vice City) soon joins him and gets you into more trouble as he wheels and deals with varying results. As before the game starts confined to one Island (the western one this time though) and you unlock the entire area and many more vehicles and activities by advancing the storyline.
The key to GTA’s massive appeal and longevity is all still there – a massive sandbox to play in as you wish, plenty of challenges and fun and multiple ways to achieve the “must-do” story missions – it’s a simple formula that GTA III aced the first time around and few games have managed to capture. There are odd times when the AI seems to take a complete “vacation” and the game engine comes grinding almost to a halt for no apparent reason. But even with a few flaws and so many glossy next-gen imitators the franchise still leads the way, this despite an aiming and “auto lock-on” mode that appears to have been made awkward and unnatural on purpose, and play tested by evil monkeys with knife-wielding squirrels in their heads. In fact accurate target selection has been made even harder than before (the game seldom seems to care whether you shoot the gun-toting gang member 10ft away and would rather lock on to the little old lady across the street). Yes sadly, the half-brained lunatics on the playtest team who said “yeah this is fine” should be given the full lobotomy they deserve, and I have no idea why no one said “let’s sort the aiming out once and for all”, as many of GTA’s wannabes have perfectly acceptable aiming and targeting. It’s the only real flaw in an otherwise hugely enjoyable and varied gaming experience. Lesser but still disappointing flaws include disappearing vehicles, and a gameplay structure that invites you to take over the city and make millions of dollars, and then gives you nothing that you need to spend it on apart from weapons and ammo.
Still a cracking game and a must play for fans of the series, GTA Vice City Stories shows that in 2007 the PS2 can still hack it (just), but also reveals that GTA IV needs a radical rethink regarding some vital gameplay issues and maybe some more thought regarding the game’s overall structure and aims. This much freedom might not be a bad thing, but sometimes a game needs an aim too, and aiming definitely isn’t VCS’s strong point.