GTA: Vice City -- Inspiration from a different time
The decade in which GTA: Vice City is set, is often remembered by those who lived through it (and even those who didn’t) as the best decade. In a short ten-year period, some of the best movies, music, TV & video games were created. There is a kind of haze that surrounds this time, created by the media that spawned from it, but the ’80s were a turbulent decade for many. Economic, political & social upheaval was rampant; the war on drugs was at its zenith & many felt abandoned in this new world based on greed, power & status.
This upheaval was a world-wide phenomenon. The USSR was crumbling; Margaret Thatcher’s neo-Liberal economics enriched some, while hurting others & South America suffered from several horrendous dictatorial regimes. Still, when I think of that decade, I think primarily of the United States; New York, LA, & Miami—the city which would become the template for one of the best video games of the 21st century.
How GTA: Vice City Bottled A Decade
By the time 2002 rolled around, the world had change significantly in twelve years. The neon lit era had giving way to a more sanitised world. The ’80s were now simply a memory, called to mind by the lyrics of a Flock of Seagulls track; an echo of a time long since passed. In 2001, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto 3, blowing up the standard rules of making video games in the process. Apart from being a groundbreaking game, it also laid the foundations for the parodical satire that the series is known for today.
Moving on from GTA 3, the developer wanted to transport us back to the era in which Dan & Sam Houser (The CEOs of Rockstar) grew up in. From an R&D point of view, this was a fantastic idea as everything that happened in the ’80s was set in stone. The challenge lay in the setting itself, how do you bottle the essence of a decade? After only a year in development, Rockstar released GTA: Vice City, a game that surpassed its predecessor in every respect.
Regardless of the tight development schedule, Rockstar managed to bottle that essence. Gone was the permanent gloom of Liberty City, replaced by the sun-drenched streets of Vice City. Tone changed dramatically also; the seriousness of its predecessor took a back seat, allowing the burgeoning franchise to stretch its comedic chops. The glue that kept the game together is the ’80s soundtrack that works in tandem with the story & gameplay, making the act of driving around VC a joy in itself. I would go as far to state that GTA: Vice City has the best video game soundtrack, period.
GTA: Vice City is a time capsule of ’80s talking points. During your time in Vice City, you’ll deal with the drugs trade, foreign espionage & government corruption. Driving around the city listening to VCPR (Vice City public radio) exposes you to topics like morality & the effectiveness of trickledown economics, all done with Rockstar’s trademark wit. I was a young lad when I first played the game & this was the first time I had come across some of these subjects. Perhaps I give the game too much credit, but there’s no doubt that GTA: Vice City & the issues it deals with, had an effect on my early, cynical political beliefs.
The story of GTA: Vice City begins back in Liberty, opening on a backroom meeting between several gangsters. One of their fellow mafioso, Tommy Vercetti, has been released from prison after fifteen years & this poses a problem for the family, as Tommy’s presence would be bad for business. They send Tommy down to Vice City, to take advantage of the lucrative drugs trade, but when a deal goes wrong, Tommy has to survive the city & its inhabitants, while trying to find the guy who double-crossed him.
Unlike Claude, the mute protagonist of GTA 3 who followed orders from whomever gave him a task, Tommy was far more vocal. Voiced by Ray Liotta, Tommy is an angry, wise-cracking smart-ass. A voiced protagonist added a new dimension to the franchise, creating an increased level of agency. Tommy wasn’t simply an impartial actor that completed tasks for others, like Claude. In Vice City, real relationships between characters are formed; whether it be the unlikely friendship between crooked lawyer Ken Rosenberg or the respectful camaraderie between Tommy & colonel Cortez.
Throughout the game, Tommy builds up a business empire, adding a sense of progression that its predecessor lacked. These businesses have several mission attached to them and are some of the best (and worst) missions in the game. Anyone who has played GTA: Vice City will remember “the shootist” & “the driver”; two truly awful missions. The plot isn’t the best that Grand Theft Auto has to offer, but it remains evergreen in my memory; I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I remember every mission.
DEALING WITH JANK
GTA: Vice City is no spring chicken when it comes to gameplay. Frame-rate drops are common, as are numerous “old-fashioned” glitches like falling through the ground or clipping onto walls. These glitches are annoying & can produce the wrong type of nostalgic memories. Weapons saw a marked improvement over GTA 3, adding the fan favourite chainsaw, a weapon we haven’t seen in modern instalments (perhaps with good reason). Aiming had been a common issue in GTA 3 & GTA: Vice City improved, albeit slightly, on gunplay. Still, if you get in a fight with more than three people, you will die.
Vice City was the first in the franchise to feature property which could be purchased. Most of these properties were safe house, but several were businesses that would have their own sub-stories connected to them. It is mandatory to buy & complete these business missions, but it lay the foundation for what we now see in later instalments like GTA 5.
One archaic mechanic I was happy to return to was the driving. There’s an arcade-like feeling to it, that is all too uncommon these days. Driving through the sunny streets of Vice City is a genuinely enjoyable experience; Boats & helicopters are also fun to use. I would remiss not to mention the horrendous RC missions, of which there are thankfully few. I recently wrote an article about the five most memorable missions of the GTA series, which included the GTA: Vice City mission “demolition man”, a mission that caused many a controller to be thrown against a wall.
GTA: Vice City’s gameplay may feel old-fashioned compared to the ubiquitous “over the shoulder” mechanic found in most 3rd person action games today. Indeed, Rockstar was instrumental in the normalisation of this now universally accepted gameplay mechanic. Regardless of modernity, GTA: Vice City remains a fun, if janky, game to play.
I love the Grand Theft Auto franchise. They all represent milestones in my life as a gamer & I remember each one fondly, but GTA: Vice City is different. When I discuss the franchise with people, they are surprised to hear that Vice City is my favourite. They point out the archaic controls, dated graphics & the lack of online multiplayer. Perhaps age has something to do with it, after all, there are gamers alive today that never experienced the 6th generation; maybe I’m an old nostalgic, looking through his rose-tinted specs?
GTA: Vice City released at a time of great experimentation in the gaming industry. The “over the shoulder” control system we see in many games today (including all Rockstar games after GTA 4) didn’t exist yet. Graphical fidelity was appreciated, but not mandatory & multiplayer would not become common on consoles for four years. Through a combination of music, writing & gameplay, Rockstar created a true gem of a game. GTA: Vice City’s flaws are left in the shade of the influence it holds in the minds of gamers like myself.
When faced with the criticisms mentioned above, I explain the connection created when playing the game for the first time. Part of my childhood is forever in Vice City. I suppose the best way to describe my feelings for the game would be like this. I love Grand Theft Auto, but I adore GTA: Vice City.