It’s a sure sign that you’re getting older when blockbusters like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City hit the big 10 – as in ten years. A full decade after Rockstar Games’ first spin-off from the revolutionary Grand Theft Auto 3 it returns in mobile form on iOS and Android devices, like its predecessor, to help commemorate a classic and generate buzz for next year’s Grand Theft Auto V. As a fan I have no problem with that as it was great to revisit a game I hadn’t played in years with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City 10th Anniversary Edition. There was plenty rough around the edges, but consider me sufficiently pumped for Rockstar’s next romp in their dirty sandbox series.
In many ways the GTA series exemplified the episodic model, or at least how it could be done successfully and not come off as a cheap cash-in. And this is the series’ real genius – elevating its crass storylines and spectacle through iterative releases while tinkering and refining the tech under the hood. Where GTA3 laid down the road, Vice City drives it like a pro while telling its own twisted tale.
For those who missed out the first time around, mafia man Tommy Vercetti (voiced by Ray Liotta), fresh from a 15 year prison stint, is eager to get back into the game and prove he still has the goods. But his long awaited return to glory hits a speed bump when his initial deal goes bad – real bad. Now he’s left to set things right and save himself on the dirty streets of 1980s Vice City. What follows is a madcap saga through a world of tapered jackets and cocaine dreams, with more prostitutes than you can shake a stick at (and believe me, you’ll shake plenty of sticks). Few games, especially in today’s shooter-obsessed landscapes of photo-realism browns and grays, can still match Vice City’s fantastical neon-blazed streets and complete lack of ethics whatsoever.
It’s Michael Mann meets Michael Bay, with all the glorious chaos and spectacle such a coupling would no doubt produce. It’s a fantastic dream baked in 1980s nostalgia and respect, with plenty of detailed clothes, cars, and one of the best soundtracks you’ll ever experience. In short, this is where Grand Theft Auto officially grew up and found freedom in embracing the absurd and going for the gusto.
But it’s also great entertainment, and let’s not forget how these early GTA games helped evolve the art of game storytelling further than ever. The cut-scenes are great and fun to watch, thanks to the hilarious dialogue from famous voices like Liotta, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds, Luis Guzman, Gary Busey, Lee Majors, and so many others. It’s such a great cast that it’s amazing that Rockstar was able to corral them all here (money talks, I guess).
Those who’ve been away from Vice City may be surprised at how well the city has held up over the years. This mobile Vice City comes with a host of improvements in that it definitely looks, sounds, and performs much better than it did on the PlayStation 2. The textures and character models are a lot sharper, there’s no motion-blur, load times are near-instant, and there’s far less glitches here than ever before. Aside from the scads of PC mods this is the best Vice City has ever looked, though there’s no question you’re still be playing a ten-year old game. Still, it’s pretty wild just how ambitious Rockstar was here, and how well the whole thing holds up after all this time.
One thing GTA veterans will have to get over if they plan on spending any time in this edition of Vice City are the controls, as they’re completely touch-based on iOS devices (Android versions support controllers). Rockstar’s first port from the PlayStation 2, the original Grand Theft Auto 3, fared OK with touch-only destruction, but they’ve learned a few tricks since then, making this the best-controlling touchscreen GTA yet.
Unlike GTA3 this version lets you completely customize the HUD to your liking, meaning you’ll be able to switch around the virtual buttons to their most finger-friendly places. Aiming is a lot easier, too, thanks to the new lock-on features which intelligently pick out enemies – and not civilians – to blast during firefights. ‘Tap to Shoot’ lets you do just that – tap enemies for super-easy takedowns – though this can be disabled if you want more of a challenge. Driving still feels a bit stiff, but then driving in any GTA game always has (regardless of controls). A big addition is the ‘Mission Retry’ feature from Chinatown Wars, which means you won’t have to trudge your way back to mission starts when you fail, saving a lot of unnecessary grinding and headaches.
Playing the game on my iPad felt a lot more natural than on my smaller iPhone, especially with the customizable HUD options and bigger screen real-estate, and after a few missions to get past the learning curve it felt just like old times. Not perfect, but more than adequate.
If for no other reason, playing Vice City again let’s you experience it’s best and most memorable feature – it’s killer 80s soundtrack. Scratch that, it’s a killer soundtrack period. From the metallic vibe of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Ozzy Osbourne, to pop gods Michael Jackson, Blondie, INXS, to synth cheese, R&B, and practically every genre that made the 80s so great, it’s all here just waiting to be rediscovered. No offense, guys and gals, but one-hit wonders were made for compilation soundtracks like this and the world is all the better for them. Hearing “Broken Wings” brought me right back to the 80s, and Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” will forever remain the unofficial theme to the madness that is Vice City.
All of the hilarious radio stations are present, too, from wasted Toni to ladies man Fernando, and, of course, the omnipotent GTA Chatterbox host Lazlow in his requisite appearance. If heresy is your thing you can stream your own playlist (from the songs on your device), even letting you shake to swap tracks in the iOS versions.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City 10th Anniversary Edition is a major mobile improvement over the last attempt to squeeze a complex PlayStation 2 game onto a platform without buttons, and that’s a great thing. Everything from the original PS2 blockbuster is here and just as you remember, with every mission, character, and dirty alley of Vice City ready to explore, all cleaned up and looking better than ever. And yes, the soundtrack is back and better than ever (Broken Wings FTW). The touch controls, especially the improved aiming, make it significantly more fun to play than GTA3 was. Bring on San Andreas, Rockstar. We know it’s coming.
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