Retrospective: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

I think it’s time for another look into the past, the distant past. The past of 2002, when violence in video games was still something some people actually cared about rather than a scapegoat for politicians who wanted to avoid talking about real societal problems. Well, it was that then too, but the scapegoat tactic seems to have worked a lot better back when the Grand Theft Auto series made the transition from 2D to 3D.

Years ago, I wrote a post about my time with the older GTA games from the 90s. I’ll still stand by GTA and GTA2 as being pretty fun at the time, but the series benefited massively from this leap into 3D. The 2001 title Grand Theft Auto III was an impressive game, giving the player an entire city with depth to run around and cause chaos in, but it’s still the followup Vice City that I’ll always remember best.

Oh yeah, also spoilers, but I don’t know if anyone cares in this case.

Yeah, this really brought back some memories. Still absolutely no idea what was going on here though

I recently got a separate digital copy of Vice City on Steam because my old CD copy may as well be on the Moon for all I know, I lost track of it so long ago. And playing it again was a really nostalgic experience. This was at least partly because of the time and place I first played Vice City, taking some stress out on the poor residents of the city while studying for exams and writing those damn IB papers. If you were or are an IB student too, you’ll understand why playing this game was almost necessary for me at the time.

But enough of my complaining yet again. What’s Vice City about? If you haven’t played it, there’s not much to know about the plot and characters: it’s a basic gangster story. The protagonist Tommy Vercetti, a mob guy from Liberty City (aka New York, and also the setting of GTA III) took the fall for his boss, Sonny Forelli, and after serving several years in prison he’s back out. But Forelli doesn’t want him around Liberty City, so he sends him down to Vice City (aka Miami) to start some business for the family there. Vercetti goes to Vice City but loses the money he was given to pay for a drug deal after it’s ambushed by armed men, and Forelli is unfortunately not the forgiving type. So it’s on Vercetti to find out who fucked up the deal and get Forelli’s money back.

Forelli being pissed off about his missing money. I’ve never even seen one of these giant blocky 80s cell phones in real life

Of course, that’s not quite how things go: instead of getting the money back for Forelli, Vercetti ends up getting it back and keeping it for himself, because by the time he’s gotten to that point he’s built up his own criminal empire in Vice City, and honestly fuck that guy anyway. In the course of building that empire up, Vercetti makes friends with a bunch of colorful characters, including the neurotic, coked-up lawyer Ken Rosenberg, best friend forever Lance Vance, and the hotheaded local mob boss Ricardo Diaz.

Some of these and other characters you meet will give you missions to complete in exchange for money and plot progression. Said missions might involve intimidating people, following people, transporting people, transporting illicit items, chasing people down in a stolen car, or just plain killing people with any number of weapons you can buy or find lying around town. Your friends will also occasionally join up to help you cause trouble (though how useful they really are in a gunfight is questionable, because more often than not you’ll end up having to babysit their dumb asses and make sure they’re not shot full of holes.) Naturally, you always have to stay vigilant, both for rival gang members and for the police, who don’t like it very much when they see you committing theft and murder right in front of them.

There’s also this weird mission. I still don’t know what the French government has to do with this game

I could get more into the storyline, but that’s the gist of it: run missions, build up your reputation with your contacts and make more contacts who give you more missions, use your money to buy properties and eventually businesses that make you more money, run missions for those businesses to improve your status, and kill that asshole Sonny Forelli when he eventually comes hunting for you. Before that, however, you kill Ricardo Diaz when you discover that he’s turned on you and Lance. And in a great example of “possession is 9/10ths of the law” when you do that you somehow take ownership of his massive mansion and arsenal. You probably don’t need a lawyer to tell you that doesn’t work in real life. Maybe Ken Rosenberg pulled some trickery at the Vice City probate court offscreen. It doesn’t really matter, though: the important thing is that you’re on top of Vice City’s criminal underworld at the end.

Don’t forget to take time out of that busy schedule to find the best ramps in the city to do motorcycle jumps from

One obvious question about Vice City, since it’s now 18 years old, is how well it holds up. Vice City is obviously not as big or nice-looking as GTA V, but there’s enough to do both with the story and side missions that you can still spend hours on it. The game starts off with only half of the city accessible, the rest closed off due to an incoming hurricane until you pass an early mission (Phnom Penh ’86, the one where you ride the helicopter and shoot guys while hanging out of the side.) But even in the early stage of Vice City there’s plenty to mess around with: the usual taxi, police vigilante, and medical transport missions, an irritating pizza delivery mission you have to do while driving a shitty moped, and hits to carry out on people who probably don’t deserve what you end up giving them.

This guy wasn’t a contract, he just tried to steal my car. Well, my car that I stole from someone else. But still.

The story missions themselves are mostly fun as well, though of course the developers had to include a few bullshit gimmicky ones that might make you tear your hair out while trying to complete them. Like the one where you have to dodge the Haitian car dropping coffins with bombs in them. Or the street race with a bastard that I swear is using cheats, or maybe I’m just bad at the races.

But that’s where my favorite aspect of Grand Theft Auto comes in. Like other games in the series, Vice City is fine with you setting the story missions aside for a while to take side missions to make more money, or to try sticking up a few stores to see how much money you can get away with without being arrested. If you’re feeling especially pissy when you load Vice City, you can naturally also just go on a rampage in the streets, beating people up for the money they drop and getting an increasing wanted rating represented by the six stars in the top right of the screen. One of the most fun parts of any GTA is testing your skill at evading a progressively more intense police chase, one that becomes especially hard when the SWAT trucks start showing up at four stars. The cheat codes are also great fun to create even more chaos: if you’re playing the PC version, I recommend combining FIGHTFIGHTFIGHT and OURGODGIVENRIGHTTOBEARARMS. And maybe NOBODYLIKESME as well if you feel like trying to fight off all those armed pedestrians yourself.

Cheat codes won’t help this guy much; he dies in every playthrough of the game

There is clearly a lot of work and attention to detail in Vice City. A lot of that attention goes into making the city feel like a real lived-in place instead of a bunch of streets and building-looking objects that you can run into with your car. You have to deal with other drivers and pedestrians, who will always get in your way when you’re trying to run your missions. You’ll probably find yourself driving on the sidewalk and running over a few people more than you’d like. Well, it’s their fault for being obstacles to avoid when I’m driving my taxi missions or fleeing from police, isn’t it? One funny effect of having so many people wandering and driving around is that you’ll hear a lot of the same voice clips coming from nameless pedestrian #3845, but for me that adds to the charm of it. Like in Skyrim and all those guards who got shot in the knee or however that went.

The voice acting for the game’s central characters is also excellent, provided by serious and big-name actors including Ray Liotta, Luis Guzman, Burt Reynolds, and Dennis Hopper. The voices really fit, especially well considering that a lot of these guys acted in mob/crime dramas before this, most notably Liotta in Goodfellas. Speaking of mob dramas, there are also plenty of references to Scarface, along with a big reference to the lesser-known Al Pacino gangster movie Carlito’s Way: the entire character of Ken Rosenberg is pulled directly out of that movie based on Sean Penn’s performance as Pacino’s mob attorney. And Guzman was in Carlito’s Way too. Hell, if you like mob movies at all, you need to play Vice City if you haven’t already.

Sean Penn doesn’t do the voice, it’s William Fichtner, but it is that character

Even the radio is entertaining to listen to — every station features fake ads and satirical talk shows of the kind that were introduced in GTA III. I remember the big new 80s soundtrack featured in the radio stations getting a lot of praise as well. I’m not such a big fan of it, even though there are some really good songs there (for example, “Billie Jean” is the first song you hear on the radio when you get into the first available car in the game.) The 80s isn’t my favorite decade ever for music, though maybe it was a great nostalgic trip for people who grew up then. Maybe it’s a Stranger Things sort of thing where I don’t give a shit about the 80s references and themes so much. I wasn’t even in nursery school when that decade ended, so what do I care? Then again, I don’t care about 90s throwbacks that much either, and I did grow up in that decade, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

I don’t think you could steal a police car and get paid for running petty criminals over in the 80s either. This game is lying to me

So I’d say based on my time with Vice City recently that it totally holds up. San Andreas, IV, and V built the series up quite a lot, but Vice City still stands as an excellent game on its own. It’s pretty cheap, too, so if you don’t mind how old it looks I think it’s worth checking out. I don’t think I would have gotten passing scores on my IB exams without being able to vent here in alternate universe Miami so much, so I’ll be grateful to the game forever for that at least.