Despite the surprise factor was inevitably lacking this time, the experience I had playing Vice City was absolutely similar to the one I had with Grand Theft Auto 3. I enjoyed both games in the same way, and the things I loved and hated in Grand Theft Auto 3 are the things I loved and hated in Vice City, with some slight differences.
But what's new in Vice City?
The first thing that immediately interested a fan of story-driven games like me was the increased efforts put into the creation of a more complex, more intriguing, more cinematographic story for the game. Vice City has a better script than Grand Theft Auto 3, and thanks to the work of voice talents like Ray Liotta, Dennis Hopper, and Burt Reynolds the dialogues are absolutely enjoyable and believable, despite the abundance of stereotypes and the grotesque, to not say happily gross, style of many characters.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City takes place in the Eighties, probably the kitschiest era in the troubled history of the human kind, in a city that's a sort of digital recreation of Miami. Vice City means long beaches, pastel colors, fast cars, girls in bikini, and corruption. Thanks to a marvellous research work, the developers made of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City a vivid anthology of the Eighties; but instead of taking the real thing as a model, Rockstar took inspiration from the image we have of that era through Tv shows, movies, and of course music - this gives Vice City a touch of unrealism and a style reminiscent of certain comic books that helps in creating a separation from game world and real life.
In the game, you are Tommy Vercetti, a Mafioso back onto the streets of Liberty City after 15 years passed into a maximum-security penitentiary. His old boss, Sonny Forelli, sends him to Vice City with the intention of reinforcing the role of the mafia in the hot Floridian city. But immediately something goes wrong. Tommy is robbed of all the money Sonny gave him, and you know, nobody deceives Sonny and stays alive. Tommy has to work on its own, trying to find Sonny's money and to finally take over Vice City.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City irreverently criticizes any possible institution of our society. Politics, law, morality, religion, art - Rockstar fires at everything, and that's frankly a breath of fresh air. Yet the overall strength of this criticism is limited by the disordered way in which it is conducted. There is an unwritten rule behind any form of art or communication that says that when you try to say too much, you say nothing; similarly, when you criticize everything, you may lose your target, and hit nothing. Vice City is an incredible pot-pourri where every sort of ingredient is thrown in, and that tries in part to borrow the style and the charm of movies like Scarface, the Godfather or the more recent Carlito's Way - but don't let the surface fool you. If there is "Scarface" in here, it's just in the possibility to use a chainsaw and in the presence of big villas in the game, not in the sense of desolation, loneliness, and humanity that was behind that ferocious movie; if there is "Carlito's Way" in here, it's in the figure of Ken Rosenberg that seems modelled over the one of Sean Penn in the movie, and not in the romanticism that made of Carlito one of the unforgettable characters in the history of cinema. The supposed maturity of the game remains on the exterior, all contained in the reasons listed on the back of the game box - "blood and gore, violence, strong language, strong sexual content" - for the rest, the story is good at offering some good laugh and occasionally in titillating the fantasy of teenage players with "incredible" sexual references. If there is one point where Rockstar was completely unable to offer any sort of criticism, it's in the latent machismo that stays behind our society, and that's an important component of Vice City's whole story and game world; in 99% of the cases, the women in the game are prostitutes or act like prostitutes - and this creates an abyss between this game and the movies from where it should take part of its inspiration, rich of wonderful, unforgettable female characters. Like in Grand Theft Auto 3, you can still pick up prostitutes along the road, and you can find various references to the male sex organ throughout the game - I don't know you, but this kind of humour is (maybe) good when you are twelve years old, then it becomes cheap. All this to say that players approaching the game for its supposedly rich storyline may encounter in Vice City a tale that is epic just in its proportions, and not in the work it does on the characters. There are lots of games on the system that offer more mature stories than the one of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City; paradoxically, even a game like Kingdom Hearts, where a giant duck and a dog interact with a troubled child, offers much more deepened characters than Vice City.
Thankfully, despite all the efforts and all the money put in the development of a "better" storyline, the core of the game remains its unique gameplay. The controls remained the same, with the addition of the possibility to crouch by simply pressing the L3 button. The Left analog stick moves your character, with Triangle you can enter (and steal) cars, Circle is the fire button, L2 and R2 are used to select a weapon and R1 lets you lock-on a target. Unfortunately, while Rockstar worked to create a better targeting system, the lock-on function is absolutely lacking when you have to face four or more enemies simultaneously: this is not a secondary issue when it comes to a game that should be a sort of "crime simulator". By pressing the R1 button Tommy should lock onto the nearest or most dangerous target, but too often he remains locked onto an already dead enemy or he simply seems unable to choose the enemy he really needs to kill first; for these reasons a fast movement to cycle through targets would be necessary, but Tommy is always too slow in this action. Besides, if you have the disgrace of being surrounded by enemies in a narrow space, the bad camera movements don't help you in surviving and add a dose of unwanted frustration. In vehicle, the Left stick is used to steer, X and Square are used to accelerate and brake, and R1 is the handbrake. The only really relevant novelty in the controls is the possibility to bail out of a vehicle at any moment, a necessary improvement over Grand Theft Auto 3, where you had to wait for your car to stop if you wanted to exit. This caused many problems; for example, it was too easy to die just because your vehicle was on fire and you were unable to stop it before it exploded. This problem is absent this time, and the possibility to bail out of a vehicle add a range of new in-game strategies. For example, you can drive towards a policeman and then bail out of a car at the last moment, before hitting him; in this way, you'll not get a new star in your wanted level, and you'll have a new gun, a nightstick, and one less cop.
The overall structure is the same of Grand Theft Auto 3. At the beginning you have access to one of the two islands, even if the second one is unlocked after you have played no more than a dozen of missions. The main part of the game is made of the missions you have to complete for the criminals who established their business in Vice City, and later, for yourself. The first big difference from Grand Theft Auto 3 stays in the reduced number of storyline missions featured in the game; they are just 23, and completing all of them shouldn't take you a very long time. Anyhow, each of the missions is longer and more complex than the greatest part of the missions in last year's game. The missions in Vice City often ask you to complete more tasks, even if these tasks usually consist in travelling from point A to point B, getting a weapon/person/object in point B, then going to point C and completing the mission. There are exceptions though, and the variety of Vice City surpasses the one of Grand Theft Auto 3. In the main storyline missions you'll have to chase members of other gangs, follow your target and discover his hideout, intimidate jurors, cause riots and much more amazingly fun stuff. While many missions are easy, there are two or three that are ridiculously difficult even for the trained player. There were difficult missions in Grand Theft Auto 3 too, but Vice City's ones are divided in two or three parts; it's not exactly fun to play through a whole long mission 10 times just because you are unable to complete the very final part of it. In other words, whereas on a side the improved complexity of the missions add more variety to the gameplay, on the other side it subtracts something from the easygoing spontaneity of the preceding instalment.
The storyline missions are just a small part of the overall experience. First of all, there are about other 20 side-missions not directly related to the main storyline but as deep as the main missions, plus roughly other 20 missions connected to the many businesses you can buy in Vice City, a new feature not available in Grand Theft Auto 3. Basically, when you have reached a sufficient amount of money you can buy one of the assets available in the city; then, you'll have to complete certain missions for your own business and you'll start making daily money from it. You can become the owner of an auto showroom, an ice cream factory (needless to say, it doesn't exactly produce ice creams), a boatyard, a nightclub, a strip club, a film studio, a taxi cabs society, a printing office. Other side-missions are the various types of races that take place in various parts of Vice City. There are classic street races, RC races (you have to guide tiny radio controlled vehicles), checkpoint races, and the great arena races, competitions held by night into the arena of Vice City. Hidden Packages and Insane Stunts are also here; you get a reward every ten hidden packages you find, and if you find all of the 100 scattered throughout the gigantic map you can unlock a mighty "ultimate vehicle".
The R3 jobs are back. You can be a taxi driver, a paramedic, a pizza delivery boy, a fire fighter or a vigilante. You just have to steal the right vehicle (a taxi, a patrol car, and so on) and then press the R3 button; since it's much more difficult to make money in Vice City than in Grand Theft Auto 3, you'll need to embark on these jobs if you want to earn something more. Or, if you prefer, you can help the policemen chasing criminals in the streets of Vice City and get a "good citizen" bonus. In fact, this time, the police will take care of other bad guys besides you; you are no longer their only prey. Anyhow, if you are around and you have a wanted level, you'll always be their primary target. Life it's hard for Tommy Vercetti.
Speaking of vehicles, Vice City is richer than Grand Theft Auto 3. Not only there are more vehicles, but there is also more variety. Back from the older episodes of the series are motorcycles, which come in the forms of dirt bikes, Harley-like beasts, or slower but easy to drive scooters. You can do "wheelies" and "stoppies" on a motorcycle; you just have to press down on the left analog stick to perform a wheelie, while for a stoppie you have to brake and press up on the left stick: you'll keep going just on your front wheel. You'll need a bit of practice to become a decent rider, but if you are skilled enough your motorcycle will be your best ally when you need to speed along the streets of Vice City.
You can also guide helicopters, airplanes, and boats. The improved draw distance gives the possibility to look at the whole city from a different perspective. Flying in the sky, while the sun is disappearing into the sea, is a memorable experience. At first, you might have some problem controlling your helicopter - X and Square are used to ascend and descend, while L2 and R2 let you rotate right and left - but you'll soon start feeling the pleasure of flying high above the dangers of Vice City. Flying vehicles make a lot of missions much easier, especially when you have to run from one side of the city to the opposite in a few minutes. Boats are back from Grand Theft Auto 3, but the controls have been entirely optimised for this new game: finally, controlling a boat is almost as easy as driving a car.
Vice City features also more weapons, now divided in categories: you can carry just one weapon per category. New hand-to-hand weapons includes machetes, nightsticks, bats, chainsaws, screwdrivers, hammers, golf clubs - many of these items can be bought from one of the many "Bunch Of Tools" shops, others can be found only in specific places. Other weapons includes pistols like the classic Colt 45, the deadly Colt Python, machine guns, shotguns, various sniper rifles, and the best of them all, the flamethrower.
One of the most awaited additions to Grand Theft Auto 3 is the possibility to enter buildings; anyhow, as we wrote in our preview, just a few buildings and locations can be actually explored - more than the ones in Grand Theft Auto 3, but still just a few. You can enter certain places like fast foods and shops without loading times; others ask you to wait five-six seconds. Don't expect a completely new dimension of gameplay once you've entered a certain place. The greatest thing you can do is robbing stores (just point a gun at the salesclerk), but you can't interact with the environments in any way, nor you can destroy all the shiny walls of a nightclub with your machine gun; objects like chairs, tables, and bottles are just there to show and create atmosphere. You can enter hotels, nightclubs, stores, malls, a lighthouse, a strip club; they add a great dose of realism to the game despite their limited influence on the gameplay.
While Rockstar tried to improve the experience in many ways, fastidious limitations present in Grand Theft Auto 3 are still here. First of all, you still can save only in your hideout. While I imagine Rockstar has some good reason to do so (maybe some problem in limiting the dimension of the save file), forcing the player to travel through the city and save in his hideout every time he completes a mission is definitely old-style design. Things goes a bit better once you have enough money to buy more than a hideout in the game; just like you can buy businesses, in Vice City you can get yourself various kind of houses, from a small apartment to an expensive villa with three garages and a private helicopter; buying stuff in Vice City is a pretty addictive activity, and you'll find yourself collecting money just to buy all the proprieties in the city.
Another thing that I just can't accept is the fact that once again the main character can't swim. Yes, you are in a hot city by the ocean, and all you can do is looking at the crystalline waters. If you try to have a great swim into the ocean, or if you unluckily fall into the sea with your car, you'll die in no more than two seconds.
Overall, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is gifted with all the qualities that made of Grand Theft Auto 3 a worldwide success. Adding new elements like businesses, more side-missions, the possibility to drive helicopters and airplanes, the richer interiors, Rockstar packaged a game that will become the definitive Grand Theft Auto experience for millions of players. For others, the game will stay probably a tad below Grand Theft Auto 3 - it's undeniable that Vice City lacks part of the spontaneity of Grand Theft Auto 3, and it partially fails where it should have absolutely delivered. A better targeting system, a new save system, and finally a truly mature storyline were things of primary importance and not optional extras; yet, they aren't here.