How big is this game? Even publicists for other games end up talking about Vice City when they call our office, babbling in the same helplessly intoxicated way that afflicts everyone who plays it. The achievement of Vice City (which, as everyone knows by now, is set in the 1980s and offers an all-new, Miami Vice-inspired story) is not only that it manages to live up to an absurd level of expectation, but that it takes the game places that fans of its predecessor Grand Theft Auto 3 never dreamed of, and that it achieves this astonishing level of innovation without losing anything that made GTA3 the bestselling PS2 game of all time.
After a brilliant homage to the era of the Commodore 64 in the opening credits, the first thing you'll notice is the improved graphics, which are smoother and more detailed, and--with effects like neon lights reflected on rain-slick streets, and intense Florida sunlight--have a lush, tropical look that immediately gives you a strong sense of place. The architecture is more fabulous by tenfold, with art deco buildings, high-rise hotels, and believably seedy back alleys. The control scheme is essentially the same as in GTA3, but the cars handle much better, and in pedestrian mode there is a new crouch move. You will have access to fast, great-handling cars right away, as opposed to GTA3 which made you unlock the second island before you could get your hands on any respectable wheels. This game has such riches to offer that there is no need to be chintzy with the vehicles.
Cops are more vigilant this time--minor offenses like whacking innocent bystanders will more often than not get you a two-star wanted level--and are harder to elude (though they still can't seem to climb stairs or negotiate sharp turns). So while free-roaming exploration is as fun as ever, there is more incentive to perform the missions instead of randomly raising hell. Not that that's a bad thing: even lazy criminals like myself (in GTA3, I would rather toss hand grenades into traffic than follow orders from some rude Mafia boss) will be quickly caught up in the vivid characters and hilarious, fascinating story, in which you play an acid-washed-jeans-wearing thug named Tommy Vercetti. Where in GTA3 missions were blocky, schematic affairs only nominally connected to the story, this time tasks move the story briskly along and deftly blend cinematics and game action. For example, there is a scene of a character throwing Tommy a gun, at which point you are suddenly thrown back into the action and must make an instant decision about whom to trust and what to do.
There are more, and more detailed, indoor environments, including a hotel, police station, and mall (a slight downside to this is that some of the more elaborate indoor environments require load times). The layout of the city, with tons of backyards, narrow alleys, and fire escapes, encourages creativity when eluding pursuit, as does greater access to rooftops. Get your motorcycle up the fire escape and a whole new world of action is possible, including... well, use your imagination.
This overview barely scratches the surface of the Vice City experience, its colorful explosion of music, clothes, combat, and brilliant voice acting, not to mention the plot twist midway through the game that changes the very nature of the game itself. Though it was the outrageous, amoral violence that got all the press, the essential genius of GTA3 was its intoxicating blend of script and open-ended action. In Vice City this is--to use a cliché that is for once apropos--taken to a whole new level. --David Stoesz