by Jeff Luther
Grand Theft Auto 3 was a stunning display of ingenuity, story telling, and interactive freedom. Critically and commercially, GTA 3 was a blockbuster. The fact that it virtually came out of nowhere only adds to the legend and the mystique. A sequel was preordained-several in all likelihood-and the fact that Sony secured exclusive rights to the series was a spectacular score in the incredibly competitive console wars-which, contrary to what Sony will tell you, are anything but over.
Yet careful consideration of GTA 3 shows two equally notable truths. First, its capacity for violence is unparalleled. It's not even close. Policeman look at you funny? Take a flame thrower to him. Bored? Open fire on the crowed, wait for the Ambulance, shoot the driver, and go for a joyride. Alternatively you might pick up a hooker and pay for some fun. If it's too expensive, you can beat her to death and get your money back. This is just the surface and a detailed account of potential decadence is beyond what I can (or desire) to accomplish here. The second notable aspect is the incredible freedom of GTA3's Liberty City: the city was alive with interactive pedestrians, vehicles, crime, corruption, more. To some extent there was freedom in developing the storyline and to a larger extent-and this is perhaps more important-the illusion of freedom was present. While you couldn't change the nature of the city or the narrative paths open to you, you could close off paths by your choice and the tantalizing possibility of a story with so much freedom that you could literally choose your own way through story seemed just out of reach. With the announcement of GTA: Vice City, I was most intrigued wondering which of these two selling points would be expanded. And now I know.
It's fitting in some way that the decade of decadence comes so vividly to life in Vice City. The 80's motif is phenomenal-the music most of all. It's an amazing achievement that Vice City was able to secure a virtual who's who of 80's music--seven hours worth on Vice City's radio. Talk radio is back, of course, and public radio makes an appearance. Both are relatively successful with their satire and less than subtle jibes at American culture.
There are vastly more weapons this time around-more handguns, shotguns, machine guns and so forth, but he biggest addition is the expansion of melee weapons. In addition to the bat and police baton you can use a hammer, a sword, a screwdriver and a chainsaw, among others, to inflict gory carnage at will. The ability to use these weapons to trash cars-for intimidation, destruction, or fun-is an improvement in immersion, as is the ability to shoot out the tires of vehicles-and have them shot out on you.
There are no licensed vehicles, but identical substitutions for popular 80's cars abound, especially sports cars. New to Vice City is the ability to use motorcycles and scooters of various sorts. This adds a more maneuverable and more dangerous alternative into your escape plan.
And the increase in wheeled options is nice since you're going to need them. Vice City is twice the size of Liberty City. Many familiar shops return, but there are new ones as well. The ability to make a quick stop in the clothing boutique is nice-a change of threads is cop camouflage, lowering your wanted level if it isn't too high. There are hardware stores with a variety of tools for sale. There's nothing that needs to be fixed, but if you need a screwdriver to stick in someone, you're in luck. The ability to enter buildings is also greatly expanded. This has two positive effects on the gameplay, first by increasing the interactivity and living illusion that is vice city and second by further increasing the size of the city. On the downside, the feature is highly selective, and most buildings are in no way accessible. On the upside, you can buy certain property-nightclubs and so forth-to make and launder money because this time you're not just trying to be big; you're trying to take over.
Yet as successful as all this is, in the end it's a shiny coating over something that's deceivingly hollow-much like the 80's themselves.
The interactivity of the story was what I really wanted to see improved and at its best it stood still and at its worst it has began to backslide. There are no branching paths or real choices to be made and thus no consequences for either your decisions or your methods. While GTA III also lacked branching storylines, it had the ability to close off certain paths by making certain decisions-the beginnings of an interactive narrative. Yet Vice City, which should have expanded this idea, has back-peddled, abandoning even this rudimentary nod to freedom and consequence. There also should have been more freedom in negotiating individual missions. For example, one mission has you racing other boats to receive a drug shipment. I find I'm not much of a boat pilot. Logic would dictate that I use my strengths to compensate for my weaknesses. Maybe I want to stand on the dock with the sniper rifle I just bought and shoot the rival drug dealers as they race by, and leisurely proceed to my destination. Or maybe in the midst of the race I'd rather toss a grenade into a rival boat and sink it instead of race it. But I can't. I have to get in my boat and complete the mission in the only way allowed. Some missions allow more freedom than others, but ultimately Vice City doesn't do enough to accommodate creativity (or viciousness, as in the above example)
On the larger, narrative driving scale, Vice City is content to give you "freedom" to do whatever you want, while propelling you on what amounts to a guided tour. In Vice City there is an abundance of things to do in your free-time, at your own pace, but as for moving the game forward we're still just turning pages. GTA III offered a tantalizing glimpse that suggested something better but this promise largely goes unrealized in Vice City.
What is at stake here, it seems to me, is something very important. What hangs in the balance here is an adventure of vision. And this adventure of vision is in danger. What I wanted was an evolution and what I got was more clubs to beat hookers with. I am worried because this road goes nowhere. If this is the path of industry evolution, where do we go from here? What will GTA 4 do? What will the competitors dare to do, to carve out a chunk of the GTA fortune? Rape simulations aren't in a game yet...
I'm sure a lot of gamers will complain that I've been too hard on Vice City, and when they say that Vice City is a brilliant game, they are of course right in many respects, but my criticism still stands. If it makes any difference, I am critical of Vice City's shortcomings because I love this industry and I love the art it produces, and I fear it is choosing a path that is not in its own best interest-the short term financial windfall notwithstanding.
Will you enjoy Vice City? Yes, assuming you liked GTA III; Vice City is, after all, more of everything the same, bigger and more. The 80's theme livens things up even for those saturated with GTA III; on the other hand, there certainly isn't anything here we haven't seen before-for better and for worse.
Jeff Luther (12/20/2002)