Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Submitted by: Retro Gamer
One year after Grand Theft Auto III steadily grew to be one of the biggest games on PlayStation 2, Rockstar turned around a sequel set in the Eighties but built on the same technology. With a world designed by a relatively small art team, the choice of era was determined because of its energy, visual potential and of course, its music – and since it had become cool again. The game was set in a much sunnier climate than GTA III’s New York-inspired Liberty City, too. Rockstar spent a week in Miami, snapping photos for inspiration in building the Vice City environment.
The thinking behind this, as well as creating a convincing period piece in an open-world videogame, was to give players more to mess around with in the city. So, motorbikes, helicopters and proper aircraft were dropped into 3D GTA for the first time, as well as an increased suite of silly weapons, most memorably a samurai sword. The city was built with flight in mind for the first time, too, while the cast was widely made up of celebrities, most notably Ray Liotta playing protagonist and rising criminal mastermind Tommy Vercetti. It was a bigger, bolder sequel that hit the game-playing generation of 2002 in its sweet spot, eventually selling over 15 million copies and surpassing the ambition of its predecessor.
If Grand Theft Auto III debuted the template of a modern open-world game, then Vice City explored its potential. By picking a very specific type of setting – one that would resonate with an audience in its twenties and over, who would recall the decade well – it plays smartly on nostalgia, with a timeless encapsulation of that era powered by Miami Vice, bad fashion and ludicrous excess. It’s the perfect setting for a videogame built on stealing vehicles and causing mayhem. While its character models may seem rough by today’s standards, the cartoon realism of the city is still a striking and extraordinary visual style, a homage to Americana that turns Miami into a pop culture-infused criminal paradise. The city is the star in any Rockstar sandbox game, obviously – but nobody had ever played around in a location quite like Vice City before, and it still holds up incredibly well.
With palm trees, bright lights and a rich level of variety across its four islands, the opening moments of driving through the city at night with Billie Jean on the car stereo forge the tone of the second 3D GTA: this game loves the Eighties, but enjoys poking fun at its stylistic nonsense just as much.
Whereas GTA III mixed music from unknown artists with established performers, Vice City’s loaded soundtrack packs in every notable mainstream Eighties musician, from Tears For Fears to Kim Wilde, presenting an ocean of possibilities where you can find yourself hovering over a crowd of firearm-toting police officers in a chopper while Crockett’s Theme by Jan Hammer evocatively plays in the background. Vice City creates those unique moments as remarkably as the other GTAs – but it’s the setting and music that provide that extra appeal.
The Scarface-but-funnier story matches the chaos of the gameplay ideas in Vice City, with a likeable protagonist in comedy Montana-alike Tommy, whose rise up the crime ladder is woven into the fabric of the missions. GTA III’s hero was a silent observer to the narrative; Tommy is a proper part of story, and that engages you as a player. It was a challenging transition for Rockstar to build a story like this, but the quality of the writing and star power of the cast helps make the whole thing enjoyable.
Mission highlights include ‘Publicity Tour’, in which perfectly ridiculous fictional Scottish rock band Lovefist have to disarm a bomb while Tommy drives them around above a certain speed, otherwise the bus will blow up if falls below that speed – we all know, of course, that this was clearly based on the hit movie The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down. Crime epic ‘The Job’ is a brilliantly conceived bank heist that acts as a pastiche of every Eighties caper imaginable; with the addition of helicopters and other dafter stuff, Vice City capitalised on its potential and delivered a game with the sort of ambition that turned the open-world genre into a multibillion-dollar trend. Yet this setting, this trip back in time to a scenario that is a composite of different parts of film and TV culture, illustrated that an open world could smartly capture a real sense of place in a very specific time period, as well as be a pretty backdrop to nicking cars and blowing up helicopters.
Why It’s A Future Classic
The open-world genre is still relatively new to games, really, but the very best sandbox environments – and we’d certainly count the likes of Hyrule from Ocarina Of Time in this – make you relate to the world in an entirely different way to that of a linear game. Vice City is a one-of-a-kind time capsule, an interpretation of the Eighties that feels familiar yet still fresh in its ironic take on its chosen era.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’s control system is a little antiquated, yet it’s still the coolest of the GTA games, even as they advance in terms of detail and technical polish via considerably more powerful current-gen hardware. Vice City is essentially a cartoon world – a love letter to Eighties America – and occupying it, by land, air or sea, is an unrelentingly pleasurable experience, 11 years later. It knows how to push those nostalgia buttons, yet under the blurry, colourful facade is a well-conceived, classily made title that deservedly found an enormous audience. Rockstar expanded the remit of what themes and level of detail we expect to see from games, bringing the kind of adult appeal to the medium that some have copied but only a select few have replicated in terms of mature execution.