Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
18th Dec 2006 | 16:30
Rockstar North's gloriously decadent caricature of 80s America is held by many to be their finest moment. They defined an entire genre with Grand Theft Auto 3 and pushed technical boundaries in San Andreas, but there was something about Vice City that makes it our favourite of the series. But four years later, is the magic still there?
Set in 1984, two years before the events of the PS2 game, you play as Vic Vance, an ex-soldier reluctantly forced into a life of crime. He's the older brother of Lance Vance, the preposterously-named drug dealer who helps and ultimately betrays Tommy Vercetti in Vice City, and if you paid particular attention to that game's intro you'll know that he was shot dead in a botched drug deal.
Death becomes you
But other than the slightly depressing realisation that you're controlling a character doomed to die, Vic is one of the GTA saga's best anti-heroes. He's a criminal, sure, but he's also likeable, charismatic and genuinely upset about what he's getting himself into. So when he's not reversing over peoples heads and stealing their money, he's feeling bad about it, and we like that kind of dichotomy in a lead character.
It's a shame then that his introduction is so forgettable. The first few missions are nothing but glorified fetch-and-carry tasks and Vic's transition from honourable soldier to drug-trafficking hoodlum feels rushed and heavy-handed. The game's biggest flaw is that it takes a while to hit its stride and you'll curse the banal opening hours.
But it's when Vic's brother Lance is introduced that things start to pick up.Moments after meeting him at the airport you find yourself being chased by trucks full of trigger happy Cholo gang members, and this kind of predicament quickly becomes a theme - Lance regularly bumbles into trouble leaving Vic to pluck him from danger. The two are hilarious together and the game feels like a corny '80s buddy movie at times.
Mostly though, the missions are typical GTA fare. Ferrying items between different parts of the city, checkpoint races, car chases - it all feels far too familiar at times, like we've already done these tasks a hundred times over. Luckily, the cut-scenes and in-game chatter make them entertaining and you won't mind too much. It's also unremittingly difficult and having to sit through a series of frustrating loading pauses every single time you fail and are forced to restart is an age-old GTA problem that has yet to be remedied.
But enough ball-busting because Rockstar Leeds have tried their damnedest to make this as different from Liberty City Stories as possible. For one, you can now fl y around the city in a number of aircraft including your own private gyrocopter. Surprisingly, the processor-sapping draw distance doesn't affect the frame rate at all and it looks just as good as it did on PS2 with only some minor pop-up spoiling the view.
You're also able to build an empire by taking over and running businesses. To do so, Vic has to complete missions and spend money to keep them profitable. You can attack enemy-controlled brothels and warehouses by destroying any cars outside to incite a riot in order to bring them under your control. It doesn't work quite as well as it does in Scarface but it's a welcome aside and gives you something to do if one of the main story missions is hassling you.
You also have to deal with a customary cast of oddballs and lunatics, and these are some of the GTA series' strangest yet. Among its cast is a transgendered new romantic porn director and [snip! Name of '80s pop-rock legend deleted due to huge Rockstar secrecy mandate] not to mention returning characters including drug-peddling maniac Ricardo Diaz, once again voiced by indie movie legend Luis Guzman (of Boogie Nights, among others).
But Vice City was a character in itself, so how has it changed since we were last there? Well, not much to be honest. The main structures are still in place. A good example is Sunshine Autos - in VC it's glass-walled and ultra-modern, but in VCS it's a shady little lot with an 'under renovation' sign perched beside it. There's also a new restaurant boat docked near the bridge to Starfish Island, a trailer park which plays host to several missions and a fun fair on the Eastern Island with the pleasantly-named 'Chunder Wheel' dominating the skyline.
You can swim now too, but the problem is there don't seem to be many places to get back ashore. This means that if you topple off a bridge you can't just swim to safety - you have to go on a lengthy trip around the island looking for a shallow enough beach, by which time you've usually died because Vic can't stay in the water for too long before his lungs burst. Our advice is to avoid water at all costs unless a beach is nearby, OK? The new jet-skis are an absurd amount of fun, though, and thrashing along the water at breakneck speeds feels great. Vice City simply wouldn't be Vice City without being able to take to its sparkling waters.
Fortunately, the radio stations haven't changed - they're just as fantastic as ever. There's Wave 103 and Flash FM for new wave pop fans - songs now include Japan's 'Quiet Life' and 'Love Action' by the Human League - then there's Emotion 98.3 for folk who like to cruise the rainy streets at night looking pensive. Emotion plays host to the, erm, heartbreaking. 'I Want To Know What Love Is' by Foreigner. Rock fans are catered for by Vrock, talk fans by current affairs station VCPR. It's worth listening out for the spoof 50s serial drama about a time-travelling super hero who creates 'time bubbles' by, er, masturbating. It's one of the best GTA soundtracks yet and, as always, the songs boost the game's superlative atmosphere.
But the fact that remains that while ViceCity Stories is just as important a chapter in the Grand Theft Auto saga as any, it's another re-tread of the ageing GTA3 game engine. The missions feel familiar and so do the driving and the save system - they're remnants of a six-year-old game, after all. Upstart Scarface feels fresher, but the miracle of playing such a big game on PSP makes VCS something special. If you're wanting more of what you already love then this is PSP's best yet.