Monday, June 23, 2003

Lightwater Vice

Sun. Sand. Submachine guns. Soft pastel shade suits. Spandau Ballet. Vice City has all this and more.

For those of us who grew up when Miami Vice was the zenith of cool, Vice City is an homage, pastiche and parody all rolled up into one. Vice City sets its stall out from the opening credits, with a sublimely clever mock Commodore 64 loading screen, which will have gamers of a certain age smiling wistfully in nostalgic reverie, recalling an era long past.

Vice City drips an atmosphere of ‘80s excess – the clothes, the cars, the music, the in-jokes – all of these things have a suitably dated feel which allows you to slip into the role of the protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, easily. It’s this air of immediacy and accessibility that makes Vice City such a joy to play – gone is the vague directionless meandering that plagued GTA III – you have a real character to play now, a real purpose behind your actions, and none of your freedoms from GTA III have been taken away from you.

The game feels bigger, better and more complete than its immediate predecessor, and it is. The attention to detail is magnificent – predecessors to the cars you find on the streets of Liberty City can be found in Vice City, with suitably retro styling. The city itself is huge, about three times the size of Liberty City, and is a much more realistic cityscape – with building sites, shopping malls, airports, dock facilities, a stadium and even a golf course. What’s more, all of these locations can be explored, clothes can be acquired in the shopping mall, along with health restoring food at the fast food joints. Golf carts can be stolen and driven through town. There is even a remote control car racing track on the beach, a dirtbike scramble track and a remote control aeroplane race.

You can get extra cash by delivering pizzas, providing a taxi service, and performing paramedic and vigilante missions, as well as successfully completing rampages – the one by the airport with the minigun being particularly notable. Yet somehow, all these minigames do not take anything away from the main story missions themselves, complementing them, rather than taking away the main focus from the game. You can also buy property and businesses, investing your ill-gotten gains, to provide you with garages to stash cars, and extra safehouses where you can save your game.

All this is mere window dressing, however, as the meat of the game in GTA has always been the driving and the killing. Here, Vice City delivers, in a big way. Bikes make a return to the franchise for the first time since the GTA: London expansion pack, and it’s one that’s more than welcome. You’re given a choice between a manoeuvrable scooter, a nippy dirtbike, the ultra-cool chopper, and the blindingly-fast superbike, the latter of which is absolutely lethal. The bikes are probably the most satisfying vehicles in the game to drive, due to the combination of their speed, nimbleness and total vulnerability. The cars too, have also had a revamp, from the wallowing 4x4s to the point and squirt supercars, the handling physics is superb, giving you a real sensation of power and inertia.

Weapons are suitably varied, from the humble hammer and knuckleduster, to M60’s, flamethrowers and assault rifles. You can now crouch to increase the accuracy of your aim, and present a smaller target. Tires can also be blown out on vehicles, wildly altering handling characteristics, which becomes a new tactic employed by the police, who now deploy ‘stinger’ nail traps at roadblocks.

It’s touches such as these that all add to the game’s ambience, along with a top notch voice cast, featuring Ray Liotta, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds and William Fichtner, plus stylistic presentation touches including lens flare that would put Michael Mann to shame and gobbets of blood sticking to the screen after you’ve just carved someone up with a chainsaw.

Vice City’s satirical sense of humour mercilessly targets all the hot buttons of the decade, fraudulent media evangelists, political paranoia, the degeneration of youth and virtually every mafia or gangster film from 1970 onwards, meaning that you’ll find lots to laugh at during the carnage.

The conversion too, is far superior to that of GTA III, with no saggy frame rates or showstopping bugs, though there do seem to be a few minor issues with population consistency, with cars not returning properly if they duck briefly out beyond the draw distance. However, such niggles are trivial compared to the staggering achievement of Rockstar North’s vision of this game. The design and execution are superlative, hyperbole defying, even. The console kids may have had this to play on their PS2's ages ago, but the quality of the conversion and the optimisation of the graphics engine for the PC means that it has certainly been worth the wait.

I played Vice City for about 10 hours over the weekend, and despite being only about 20% through the game, I can categorically state this is the best game I've played all year. Half-Life 2 will have to go some to surpass this.

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