Publisher: Rockstar Studios
Like almost any other mortal with an Xbox or Playstation recently, I’ve been engrossed in Red Dead Redemption 2 for the better part of a month. It’s something of a masterpiece to be certain, but it also got me thinking about Rockstar’s other major series: Grand Theft Auto (GTA). More specifically, about how much Rockstar’s particular brand of gameplay has evolved over the years. I decided to revisit my introduction to Rockstar in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and the results were intriguing. What I returned to was a game that was on the cusp of what we now recognize to be modern gaming.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a blatant love letter to the world of classic mafia films. Set in Vice City (a stand-in for 80’s Miami), you take on the mantle of as fresh-out-of-jail gangster: Tommy Vercetti (voiced by mob movie alumni Ray Liotta, no less). After a drug deal to bring the mob’s reach into Vice City goes sideways, Tommy is forced to find out who caused the snafu. What starts as the premise of a fairly basic mafia story expands into something far greater.
For its time, the game gives you an interesting degree of freedom. While you’re not immediately able to access the entirety of the map (or the myriad of items and buildings in the game), you’re still able to engage in a metric ton of mayhem from the word go. In my first few hours playing the game, I was personally having more fun progressively testing limits than engaging with the story (and this was before the use of cheats). In rather stark contrast to Rockstar’s later offerings, Vice City also does a great deal to empower you. In keeping with the power fantasy of mobster films in general, Vice City is Tommy’s oyster. The only real limitation is your own imagination and capacity for destruction. It also helps to have the game’s aforementioned cheat codes handy for some additional fun.
Considering the era in which it debuted, Vice City still has some impressive graphics. While somewhat quaint compared to the games we see today, the graphics on the Playstation 2 were revolutionary. While time has withered away some of that potency, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of the city. Not unlike Rockstar’s later games, there is a great detail of detail and life to Vice City itself. This level of detail adds a lot of authenticity and flavor to the game — even if you’re setting out to destroy that environment.
It also doesn’t hurt that as with any GTA game, there is a great deal of effort to pack the radio. The choice of tracks such as Thriller are quite impressive. This also extends to the absurd talk shows that play when you’re listening to the radio as well while you’re ripping through Vice City. Either way, you’re guaranteed a good time when you step into a car.
The controls to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, are an altogether different story. Given the evolution of both the GTA series itself and gaming in general, the control scheme here has not aged well. It’s hard not to feel like they’re relatively haphazard. The problems here are evident when you’re driving through the streets, or even just running around; and that’s even when compared to Vice City’s immediate successor: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The same also applies to the game’s run-and-gun system. While shooting mechanics can be a bit hard to get right in any game like this, it’s hard not to feel like the shooting controls are a bit of an afterthought. While it doesn’t stop the game from being fun, it does build up a strange tension when you’re fighting against the controls in order to keep up with what’s happening.
All of that being said, the game is strange to look at nearly two decades later. At the time, Grand Theft Auto was (and still is, honestly) one of the leaders in the mass hysteria surrounding the idea of violent video games being harmful. Given how video games have evolved with regard to content — as well as commercially and as an art form, so much of what you can do in Vice City is rather quaint. This doesn’t necessarily make the game’s writing bad, but it certainly does change how it looks in a different time, where games (and gaming) are being taken more seriously.
So how does Vice City rate? Having played this so close to Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s hard not to want to draw comparisons to see how we got there. All things considered, this is definitely a game of its time. While it hasn’t aged well in certain respects, it still is a game deserving of the praise it got in its heyday. It’s an important landmark — both in Rockstar’s own personal history and for gaming in general. I am glad I took the time to revisit it.