Scarface for the video game generation

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

– Henry Hill

The November 2002 release of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City by Rockstar games was one of, if not the most, anticipated events in Sony PlayStation 2 history. The first game in this series to take advantage of the capabilities of a DVD-rom system was Grand Theft Auto III, and its success – both in terms of sales and rave reviews – made expectations for Vice City quite high. Luckily for anyone who enjoyed GTA3, the work of Rockstar has resulted in a sequel that is strikingly similar yet undeniably superior to its predecessor.

Anyone who cares to observe the progression of video game advancements knows that a game concept rarely reaches its full potential until the second or third time it’s used. Game developers have the task of identifying and preserving what worked well in the previous game while eliminating stale or unnecessary aspects. Rockstar has succeeded in each regard. The gameplay in Vice City is almost identical to that of GTA3, where the player manipulates a freelance criminal who can run or drive around the city, fight with other game characters using an assortment of weapons and techniques, and make money through various illegal activities.

The controls are even the same, save for the ever-useful ability to dive out the door of a moving vehicle. Also as in the previous game, the player is given the freedom to advance the game’s storyline at his or her own pace, since there’s plenty of fun to be had without following a pre-set sequence of events. These characteristics were what made GTA3 such a hit, so the developers wisely chose to keep them and simply change the settings, characters, props and music. This is where the game really shines. Opening with a strikingly cinematic sequence involving characters that players will remember from GTA3, the game lets the player know that this story will take place sometime in mid-1980’s Miami, making it a prequel of sorts to GTA3. This wise choice by the developers allowed them to take everything seen or heard in GTA3 and reproduce an 80’s version of it for Vice City. The result is a comical appearance of old car designs and clothing styles, giant cell phones and Ronald Reagan’s voice on the radio.

Ah, the radio. GTA3 featured the ability to flip through a few different radio stations while driving around in any car, and the player could hear some decent songs and clever commercials or talk shows. Developers realized that this was an area of huge potential, as the radio is completely separate from and inconsequential to gameplay but provides the additional level of entertainment frequently sought by a high-stimulation generation of video game users who turn off the sound to games so they can play music in the background.

Vice City thus features an immense soundtrack of songs from the 80’s (selected from real albums) and newly-created radio talk shows and commercials that are downright hilarious. The songs are even divided along genre lines, allowing the player to listen to any desired music type by switching to the corresponding station. This was a feature that will likely be copied by other games, and the soundtrack itself is on sale, providing additional revenue.

Other significant changes include the large cast of new and old characters being voiced by popular Hollywood stars, highlighted by Ray Liotta as the player’s character, Tommy Vercetti. Vercetti advances the story by purchasing properties around a larger, more detailed cityscape than the gritty New York-style Liberty City that players ventured around in GTA3. The graphic designers did an outstanding job creating a living, breathing world, the exploration of which provides yet another entertaining dimension to the game. This is a rare but ingenious addition to any video game, and was first done well by Nintendo with Pilotwings 64. Vice City’s designers fully utilized the capabilities of the PS2 and made a huge world full of challenges and distractions (many player-created) that add hours of original gameplay after the plot of the game is finished.

If anything about Vice City was a mistake, it could be that the world is so big that traveling around it takes much longer than it did in GTA3. Designers also chose to keep with the tradition of racist undertones in the city, as gangs are labeled by ethnicity (Haitians, Cubans and Italians, among others) and are dotted with stereotypes. They seem to think that the same liberties which allow them to include graphic violence, language and sexuality apply to political correctness. It’s a video game with a mature rating and a game concept that should make these facets of it no surprise; certainly though, not all will agree. But honestly, what’s so wrong with speeding through a roadblock on a dirt bike with a hooker on the back and an Uzi in hand, heart racing and nose running?

The use of real actors and Hollywood- style progression of the storyline should remind us that this game is no different than any R-rated movie. As video game technology allows for frighteningly realistic games, perhaps the more timid, kiddie-style games of the art form’s past will win out, but it is always fun to live a life of crime when you can blast Run DMC and Twisted Sister in the background.