Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Rockstar Games

PC Version, 2003, ~$65Can.

I don’t usually write computer game reviews because most of the time, I don’t play any. Though I was a grade-A gamer in high school (Ah, Sierra On-Line…) where I had ample time to channel my obsessive tendencies to such pursuits, college clearly showed me that I could either pass classes or play games. Aside from the occasional binges of Master of Orion or Civilization, I’ve stayed far away from gaming since then. Whenever I still indulge (Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid), I always end up feeling guilty of sinking dozens of hours in a game when I should be writing, reading or cleaning up house.

The reason why you’re reading this today is that I have spend way too much time playing Grand Theft Auto III, and its sequel. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first GTA, but thanks to my younger brother, I recently "discovered" Grand Theft Auto 3, losing myself in the game after-hours at the office (because my home computer was too slow) for many evenings and at least one weekend. GTA3 is one of the most addictive gaming experience so far, sucking time out of anyone’s life as if there was nothing else in the world.

The acquisition of a new home computer and the PC-port release of the acclaimed sequel Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was excuse enough for a day-one purchase and the wilful sacrifice of a long weekend. It turned out to be time well-wasted: Basically, almost everything that GTA3 got right, Vice City improved. Rather than presenting a bland and mute character supposed to represent us all as in GTA3, Vice City puts us in the shoes of Tommy, a Liberty City (read: "New York") mobster sent to Vice City (read: "Miami") to fulfil some mission. The exchange turns sour, money is stolen and pretty soon, Tommy is out on the streets of Vice City to build himself a crime empire before his bosses come down for a word with him. Tommy definitely has a personality and makes decisions for the player. In this regard, GTA:VC feels like a role-playing game and enhances our involvement in the storyline.

Alas, the clear narrative progression so obvious in GTA3 is far less compelling this time around. In what may be one of the only failings of Vice City, the game chooses to adopt a far more diffuse style of game play, allowing a broader, less linear game experience. Tommy doesn’t progress from crime lord to more powerful crime lord, but goes around doing various missions, buying buildings and waiting for the Liberty City bosses to come around to demand their dues. Fine and well, but this robs the game from a steady dramatic build-up. The last mission is ridiculously easy with the proper weapons, rather unlike the final mission in GTA3.

But playing this game for the plot is missing more than half the fun. As with the entire GTA series, Vice City is a playground rather than "an interactive plot", and what makes the game stand tall above anything else on the market is the incredible addiction of the virtual environment. You’re free to explore an entire city (a much bigger city than GTAIII‘s Liberty City), shoot pedestrians, drive more than a hundred different type of vehicles like a maniac, engage in open warfare with authorities and essentially do what you want. Drive emergency vehicles, fly around the city, engage in street racing, snipe gang members and sell ice cream. The sense of freedom offered by Vice City is a heady approximation of virtual reality, even as primitive as it is.

The only notable game-play deficiency is the set of controls for airborne vehicles. Even though the GTA controls are renowned for maximum playability, the keys used to control the helicopters and planes of the game seem deliberately designed by a sadistic madman for maximum frustration. I can’t say whether this is deliberate (as "an extra challenge", no doubt) or an accident in the process of porting the Playstation 2 game to PC format, but I can tell you it’s supremely frustrating. And this particular setup isn’t even customizable! Gaaah!

Otherwise, the game engine has been extensively tweaked and improved from the already-impressive GTAIII environment. Not only does the game now feel even more responsive, but even the details have been enhanced: Car throw clumps of grass and puffs of sand in the air when off-road. Hoods, when damaged, fly away at a certain speed. Damage rendering is improved. You can now enter buildings. Policemen can shoot your tires to slow you down. You can drive motorcycles, helicopters and real planes. Small trivial improvements, but they all add up to an experience that’s far more immersive than anything ever seen in video gaming. You can -you will, you must!- lose yourself in this game.

Is it fair, then, to complain about the violence? The core of GTA is the infinite capacity for mayhem offered by the game’s freedom of action. And yet, as we refine the virtual game play and bring it closer to so-called reality, some things aren’t nearly as amusing as they were when they were represented by blocky pixellized top-down views of the action. A mission involving the violent invasion of police headquarters left me a touch squeamish, especially given my own distinct preference for stealth, patience and graceful subtlety. While it would be unfair of me to condemn the GTA series’ gift for unsupervised chaos, well, maybe GTA: Dark Blue would be something cool to see? As long as I’m blowing up cars and shooting humanoids, can’t they be criminals rather than law enforcement representatives?

Far less forgivable, however, is the casual misogyny exhibited here. Unsurprisingly for a product of American culture, Vice City’s "maturity" in sexual matters lags far behind its shocking depiction of violence. While GTA3 was already quite nasty in its depiction of women (none of them survived the story, and that’s not even mentioning the representation of prostitutes), it at least offered strong female characters (crime bosses, even). None of this here, as the two main female characters are a porn star and a young woman only too happy to be pimped to rock stars and porn producers. That left a sour impression marring an otherwise pleasant game. I don’t need to re-iterate the usual clichés about how and why games traditionally appeal to boys more than girls. But what may escape Rockstar North is that this misogyny is handicapping their efforts to enhance the sexiness of their game: While the box art promises us the lush curves of Mercedes (Ah… Mercedes…), the game carefully avoid any romantic entanglement in favour of making her the city’s foremost slut. Suffice to say that there’s nothing even half as sexy as GTA3-Asuka’s purring "We have certain issues to clear up before we can continue any form of relationship, business or otherwise" this time around. (Granted, the game engine is made for cars and buildings, not curvy characters: To "unlock" the strip club, you have to spend time looking at what is supposed to be a scantily-dressed female model. The experience is more ridiculous than arousing.)

And that’s really too bad, because in all other aspects, Vice City is all about sexiness. This lush parody of eighties-era Miami is the result of way too much Miam
i Vice
, but -darn!- it just feels great. While I was initially dubious about the retro setting, it doesn’t really make any difference in pure fun: Vice City is all about gaudy neons, girls in roller-skates, hazy humidity, fast sport cars and miles of sandy beaches. It’s a wonderful place to spend a weekend, and certainly more than that. Far away from Liberty City’s grey drabness, Vice City is sin, sun and fun.

The noteworthy soundtrack does a lot to enhance this already fantastic atmosphere. A marvel of musical taste, Vice City‘s soundtrack liberally uses just about every single hit track from 1986, from Quiet Riot’s "Cum on Feel the Noize" to Michael Jackson’s "Gotta Be Startin’ Something". In-game "radio" has always been a hallmark of the GTA series, and it’s better than ever here. All told, the nine radio stations in Vice City total nearly eleven hours of pure audio goodness, from rock to rap to pop to Spanish to talk radio. Wonderful! You can even download a simple XOR decoder from the web to convert the proprietary audio file format (those pesky digital rights, you know…) to MP3 format for outside listening. Don’t feel surprised if you suddenly feel compelled to rush out and buy the game’s soundtrack anthology…

In short, Vice City is a marvel of technology and game design, marred by a few unfortunate choices that may not matter very much to the target audience. Don’t let those few flaws distract you from one of the surest entertainment choices available these days; you’ll be sinking so much time in Vice City that over the long run, those $60 to buy the game may end up being mere cents per entertainment-hour. Grand Theft Vice City clearly shows the way forward for interactive entertainment, and suggest a more mature threshold for video games. Say goodbye to friends and family, move the fridge next to the computer and don’t miss it!

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