Chances are, if you owned a Playstation 2 and/or were alive during 2002, you came into contact with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. A critical and commercial powerhouse, Vice City continued the franchise’s rise to global infamy after the success of its predecessor, Grand Theft Auto III, and helped validate the fledgling open-city genre after a number of early imitators almost declared it dead in the water (funnily enough, including Rockstar’s own publishing effort, State of Emergency). It may not have reinvented the wheel, but given Vice City’s reception, you could be forgiven for assuming that it had.
So unless that ‘2002’ bit up there tipped you off, it might come as a surprise to learn that – as of today – Vice City is ten years old. Ten. Years. If you’re anything like me, you might have just felt a sudden burst of a condition commonly known as ‘feeling old’; symptoms of which include a sinking feeling in the chest, and a tendency to imagine yourself in a mystical place known only as ‘back then’. Scary, right?
Rockstar have commemorated my newfound old age with a special edition re-release of the game, which is available on the app store right now. Despite being well aware of its impending arrival, I returned to the shores of Vice City over the course of the last week and played the game through one more time, if just to see what’s changed over the last ten years, before Rockstar inevitably retconned the whole thing and coded in a working flashlight.
Looking back, one thing becomes clear immediately: this is a game that hasn’t aged gracefully. Blocky hands, blocky textures, and a general blocky-ness in the architecture and effects-work renders Vice City a lot uglier than it was back in the day, and this is compounded with controls that have, quite rightfully, been left in the past. For its time, Vice City was perfectly serviceable, but in light of recent developments comes across as overwhelmingly stale, boasting a whole host of design decisions that seem unfathomable in the context of 2012.
If – and this is a big if – you can clear these barriers to entry, the namesake city is still as engaging as ever – even now, in an age where open-world environments are a dime-a-dozen; and as far as I can see, this is the main reason why you’ll want to return to it with the recent re-release. Whereas Grand Theft Auto III chose Goodfellas as its major design inspiration, Vice City leaned heavily on an amalgamation of Scarface and Miami Vice, and as a result delivered a world evocative of the glitz, glamour and grotesquery most would associate with 80’s-era Miami. Instead of gunning for realism or grit, the game gave us a disjointed playground of images; areas ripped from or inspired by movie scenes and book descriptions, and stitched them together into something coherent, and just a bit magical.
As an environment, Vice City is deceptively high-concept. It’s a microcosmic approximation of a real-world place, based on its depiction in the media circa 1985 – so many steps removed from the norm that it just about bridges on fantasy territory, just one step away from the likes of Bioshock. I think it speaks volumes about the development team over at Rockstar North that so many people should take the game’s world for granted, without questioning its relevance. If you decide to revisit the game as part of Rockstar’s anniversary celebrations I’d suggest you focus your adventure on the city itself; revel in its absurdities and leave the full tour to the other poor schmucks, like me.
The idea of revisiting a game like Vice City for its aesthetic value might seem strange, too, considering that at its core, the game was designed as a vehicle for the player’s most debauched designs (to which the city itself was, quite literally, a backdrop). As distinctive as the locale may prove itself to be in every release, its never been the marquee selling point. Ever since that first maniacal spree was executed in Grand Theft Auto, I’m sure that Rockstar have known exactly what they’ve had on their hands; namely, the blood of the innocent.
As puerile as it may seem to the non-enthusiast press, Vice City, like every other game of its ilk, was a murder simulator, and a massively successful one, at that. Players are unleashed on the City of Vice like a Viking with a sub-machine gun; free to rape, pillage and kill to their heart’s content, and as much as we may shuffle our feet when it comes time to admit it, this is always where the main appeal of the franchise has rested.
While Rockstar may have washed up on darker shores with the Manhunt series, Grand Theft Auto stands testament to their ability to contextualise mass-murder in such a way that it comes across as no more sickening than your average Sunday morning cartoon. The game’s environment doesn’t strive for realism so much as authenticity, and this goes a long ways towards distancing the player’s actions from those of their avatar, and to an extent justifying whatever they may inflict on the world and its denizens. The thinly veiled pastiche of mid-80’s America portrayed here isn’t a nice place; it’s darkly comedic, with such a high contingent of sleaze that it can’t help but sign its own death warrant by gun, blade and grenade alike.
Does this mean the player is morally sound in their actions? Well, no, but Vice City saw the beginnings of the franchise’s steps towards a finely-tuned middle ground, exchanging the bare minimum of compromise for a game that didn’t leave you feeling dirty afterwards. You could intellectualise it, sure, but there’s no need – Vice City was dumb fun, plain and simple.
Although I’d like to emphasise the ‘was’ in that sentence. Needless to say, one of the game’s biggest problems after ten years is that the open-world genre has proven to be highly iterative in its wake. When it comes to wreaking havoc on a large-scale (or even a small one), everything done in Vice City has been done better since, with such a degree of familiarity that it feels redundant going back.
Similarly, the events that bring avatar-of-the-hour, Tommy Vercetti, to Vice City, and subsequently to the top of its food chain are suspect. Looking at the story, especially in terms of what else was coming out at the time, it’s hard to see anything but a disjointed mess. Back when the game was new, an intrinsic connection to the city – having spent hours roaming its streets in awe – facilitated a base appreciation of the game’s narrative, but now that that particular boat has sailed, it’s hard to find any enjoyment in Vice City’s storytelling. Characters appear and subsequently disappear in rapid succession, clearly introduced for no reason other than to play into whatever ideas the writing staff happened to have for the next cutscene, and it plays havoc with the title’s clear aspirations to narrative grandeur. Taken independently, the game’s missions still prove somewhat entertaining, sure; particularly when Danny Trejo takes his turn as a heaving tower of sexually insecure machismo towards the game’s middle section, but the glue holding it all together is nigh-on non-existent. You could cut out about ninety percent of the game‘s content and still be left with a serviceable narrative, a problem that the series has only recently started to address with GTAIV’s final expansion, The Ballad of Gay Tony.
Regardless, if taken as a series of vaguely interlinked vignettes, the story remains impressive, and even with some of the more noticeable visual quirks on full display (the dreaded block-hands) the animation and voice work still stand on par with the best that today has to offer. If there’s one thing to be said about Rockstar, it’s that they know how to do audio right, having consistently wrangled stellar voice performances from great casts since long before the advent of ‘cinematic’ gaming. Of course, if this is your interest, then you’re perhaps better served by a Youtube highlights reel, free of the game’s archaic restraints.
As a matter of fact, it’s hard to identify what Vice City brought to the Grand Theft Auto formula outside of a pretty new locale. III after all, was the ground-breaking hit that laid the groundwork for almost every open-world game to come, and San Andreas had everything and then some, not short of dance-a-thons and jetpacks. If I kept coming back to one question over the last week, it’s what did Vice City even do for the series?
Not too dissimilar to a new Call of Duty or Halo, Vice City just added more. More guns, more missions, more mayhem, with minor tweaks made to the underlying systems in order to support any and all changes. It’s funny that it took me all these years to realise, but Vice City’s questionable reuse of assets and mechanics from III strikes me as more of a cop-out now than it did back then; it’s more of a ‘point-five’ than a fully fledged sequel.
As much as it pains me to say this, especially in light of the game’s age, Vice City just doesn’t stand up anymore. Value that statement as you may, but given the game’s recent re-release, I can’t help but feel that it needs to be said. Drowning in the murky waters of the app store – where poking a dragon ten times a day, or sampling the continuous recreation of Newgrounds’ 2001 portal entries equates to a best-selling experience – I have no doubt that the game will find a healthy audience, but I don’t necessarily think it deserves one anymore. Anyone looking for even a semblance of the same magic that the game captured ten years ago will walk away disappointed.
I don’t deny that Vice City was revolutionary, if not quite in the same way as its predecessor, but in retrospect, it’s little more than the awkward middle ground bridging III and San Andreas. If you don’t have a nostalgic connection to the game’s story or diversions, then the unique environment is the only thing that it has going for it.
It doesn’t hold a candle to what it once was, a problem raised by more than its aging graphics. If it hadn’t been so clearly ahead of its oeers we might have recognised some of its more glaring flaws on release, and saved ourselves from having to return back to it and have our hearts broken by the dawning realisation that, maybe, it just wasn’t as good as the games it came in between.
Outside of the purposes of nostalgia, the tenth anniversary re-release should hold little appeal to anyone unfamiliar with the title. Heck, I loved Vice City when it came out, but I only barely managed to see it through to the end over this last week; an experience that was tinged with regret every step of the way.
Let the anniversary release stand testament to a game that was once-great; to a title that deserves its stay in the record books, but has clearly had its time in the sun.