Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is best left as a hazy, enjoyable memory

Grand Theft Auto 3 is to the open world game what 1993’s Doom is to the first-person shooter. The difference is that Doom is still worth playing today and Grand Theft Auto 3 is not – and neither is its better loved sequel, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

This isn’t what I expected to discover when I returned to Rockstar’s most beloved setting last month. I’ve played every Grand Theft Auto game, several for hundreds of hours, but Vice City is the only one with a story I was compelled to complete. It has lived on as a vivid memory within me ever since, a place I could return to whenever I recalled the hours I spent speeding along the beach, cutting the corner outside the nightclub, and blasting its famous 80s soundtrack.

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It’s not exactly breaking news that a video game from 2002 doesn’t hold up. Except I think Mafia, another open world game released the same year, fares much better through modern eyes. As does Morrowind, also from 2002, and many older games from other genres. That Vice City feels rudimentary, embryonic and nothing more, was a genuine surprise.

I should offer appropriate context, which means talking about Vice City’s predecessor. Grand Theft Auto 3 was released in 2001 and seemed, at first, impossible. I heard about it via murmurings at school: there’s a game that’s 3D and has an entire city in it as one big level, and you can run and drive around that city. I had played the original Grand Theft Auto at length and knew in my heart that computers couldn’t do that in 3D.

Cops don't care much for jaywalking pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Cutting the corner using the nightclub driveway still feels great in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Cutting the corner using the driveway outside the nightclub is the one thing that remains extremely satisfying. | Image credit: RPS/Rockstar North

They could. GTA 3 mimics the template of its 2D predecessors almost exactly, from the scale of its world to its throbbing quest markers and violent mayhem. I played its story until it got too hard and then spent dozens more hours sniping car doors from a distance to watch the AI crash into each other, like a good little teenage psychopath.

Fast forward… basically no time at all. Vice City came out just a year later and was mostly developed in nine months, having originally been conceived as a mission pack. It punched above its weight by having the series’ first voiced protagonist (played by Ray Liotta, no less) and being set in an 80s Miami Vice pastiche. Mechanically it differed little from GTA 3 – shooting is a tiny bit better, there are bikes, you can buy property – but the blue skies and A Flock Of Seagulls on the soundtrack made it feel entirely fresh. I played its story all the way to the end… And then spent dozens more hours sniping cars from a distance to watch the AI crash, a slightly older teenage psychopath.

Played today, Vice City mostly feels small. Many of its missions follow the format of: drive two streets over, shoot three guys standing in an alley. As soon as the third guy falls, a big “Mission Complete” message appears on screen and you get some money. Missions that are longer and have a couple of stages to them (shoot men from a helicopter, then shoot men on foot) aren’t noticeably better.

The cops are pretty dumb during car chases in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Cops love to saunter around Grand Theft Auto: Vice City's streets.

The cops are too dumb to make chases as exhilirating as they seemed in 2002. | Image credit: RPS/Rockstar North

Partly that’s because the combat is terrible, even in the recent disastrous (and since fixed) Definitive Edition re-releases. The combat was always terrible. Go back and read contemporary reviews of Vice City and they almost all mention the terrible aiming or the inadequate targeting system (then give it a 9 or 10). The difference now is that the combat is easier, meaning missions that might have previously taken 15 minutes of attempts and frustration are now completed first time in under three minutes.

That loss of friction ought to be a good thing, but it’s part of why Vice City feels so insubstantial. Sped through like this, Vice City ceases to be a place and becomes, well, a video game. It feels empty except for its arcade iconography, like the floating power-ups, and the reality that there are better action games from any era that you could be playing becomes unignorable.

These are all issues that Mafia avoids, by the way, whether in its original 2002 form or its own recent re-release. That’s partly because Mafia’s narrative was and is more complex and its missions typically string together multiple activities, with plot twists, character development, and cutscene epilogues presented with a regularity that Vice City doesn’t attempt. It’s also because Mafia was, and is, a pain in the ass, suspended in a world of 1920s Oldsmobiles and speeding tickets. The friction means that Lost Heaven feels real whatever the polygon count.

Sometimes you have to don a costume before going to kill a guy in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
Occasionally a mission will require you to collect a costume before you go shoot some guys. | Image credit: RPS/Rockstar North

Tommy Vercetti speaking – as compared to GTA 3’s silent protagonist, Claude – does help. You feel less like an errand boy for its cast of despicable mission-givers, and expository cutscenes are more compelling for having a natural back and forth rather than a rapid-fire Joey Pants monologue. Vice City also manages to give you a friend in Lance Vance, and though contrived in origin and paper thin in characterisation when compared to Mafia’s made men, he’s something to cling to in the Definitive Edition.

Losing belief in Vice City as a world has side effects. It means I found no motivation to play in the world outside of those missions, for example. I didn’t even want to snipe the cars! This isn’t an age or maturity thing, either; I was punching my arms (metallic with swords inside) to make traffic panic in Cyberpunk 2077 just a few months ago, like a good little 30-something – you get the idea.

Yesterday, Rockstar revealed GTA 6 and its modern day Vice City setting. I had hoped that by returning to their past, I might find some element of Vice City I could point at and say: see, this, this was the magic that I loved at the time and which must be maintained between eras. Instead I came away realising that what’s past is prologue, and what’s to come is in Rockstar’s own hands.

Although they should definitely put A Flock Of Seagulls in again.

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