I was 21 years old in 2002. I was gaming, but Grand Theft Auto games felt so mainstream. I was kind of a snob in my late teens and early 20's. And all I know is that GTA III was huge, and yet looked dumb to me. And then one day in the Fall of 2002 there was a commercial for Vice City which heavily used the song "I Ran" by Flock Of Seagulls. I don't know what it was about that commercial, but it grabbed me. Something about using such a cool synth-pop track, and the neon pink hues of the visuals. It just felt unique to me. Nostalgic.
The ironic thing looking back is that Vice City takes place in 1986. In 2002, that felt like FOREVER AGO to me. But in retrospect, it was 16 years earlier. Which is to say that if Rockstar were to make a GTA today (in 2022), it would take place in 2006. Which doesn't feel so long ago to me now. But that's the trick of time. When you're 21, then 16 years is a huge chunk of your life. When you're 40... not so much.
Anyway, the funny thing is that I didn't actually get around to playing Vice City until around 2010 or 2011 or so. I don't know why it took me so long. I know I took a break from gaming for a few years there when I was in college. But for whatever reason, it wasn't until I picked up an Xbox 360 that I finally played Vice City via the backwards compatibility. What I do know is that it was all this big serendipitous thing.
It was in the middle of the summer and we were having a heat wave. My wife and I were living in a one bedroom apartment at the time. And during this heat wave we only had one of those window AC units in our bedroom. So we'd go between watching TV or doing whatever in the living room until it felt too hot to deal with, then go cool off in the bedroom and come back out. My point is that the heat wave really fit the feel of playing Vice City.
On top of all that, we were doing this thing where we'd convince each other to finally watch classic movies that the other hadn't seen. And she talked me into watching Scarface which had always looked kind of overrated to me. Talk about timing! All I can tell you is that playing Vice City for the first time, and watching Scarface for the first time - during the same week! - was insanely good timing. And FYI, I thought both were great.
But here we are in 2022. And I'm now replaying Vice City for the first time since then. My wife got me the GTA Trilogy on Xbox One for Christmas. And though I could dip into GTA III or San Andreas - nah, Vice City is the big nostalgia one for me now.
There's been a lot of negative talk about this collection in the gaming press world. A quick glance tells me that it's sitting at a 56 on Metacritic right now, which is downright dismal for a Rockstar game. I'll be honest, I didn't even read up on what the specific issues were. I didn't delve into any reviews myself. I just knew that - hey, I wanted a way to replay these games on Xbox One. And that's what this is. If I had to guess via context, I'd say that the disappointment here comes from the fact that these are not true remasters. And in fact, I'm pretty sure that they're based on the Android ports of the games rather than the original Xbox releases. Don't quote me on this, though. I haven't done entirely enough research.
I know that at least some tweaks were done compared to the original console versions. For instance, a brief glance at the options menu shows me that there's a whole sub-menu of visual options. And I'm pretty sure that the mini-map and the quick weapon-swap wheel were both added to these games since original release. On the flip, I also know that some of the original licensed music has been removed due to, well, expired licenses. But what can you do? I guess my point is that if you were expected new versions of the the GTA III trilogy built within the GTA V engine or something, then yeah you'll be disappointed for sure. But if you're okay with a barebones yet playable port, then that's what this is. Buyer beware or whatever.
And let's talk about that soundtrack for a second here. It is a really good selection of 80's hits and deep cuts. Emotion 98.3 has Roxy Music's "More Than This" for crying out loud! Though I personally tend to put it on The Wave 103. There you can get the aforementioned Flock Of Seagulls, or Blondie or Tears For Fears or The Psychedelic Furs. Given that there's no 80's punk station present, then the New Wave station is certainly going to be my choice. Though sometimes I do like just hopping in a car and being surprised by whichever station might be on. Who knows, sometimes it's Kate Bush and sometimes it's Cutting Crew and sometimes it's something I've never heard of... or even talk radio. My point is that it's varied enough to have a real-world vibe to it.
But back to Vice City...
I've definitely had fun revisiting this game. And for a game of its age - specifically an open world game that's 20 years old at this point - it's still solid. One thing I look for in a game like this is the sort of balance that games like GTA5 or Skyrim really nailed. Which is to say, open world games where you can easily stay on the story path and have a great time; or you can ignore the story and spend 20 or 30 or more hours just exploring and doing whatever interests you. Now obviously Vice City is much more primitive than GTA5, but I appreciate how much flexibility was here already.
A couple of examples:
First there was a mission where I had to assassinate a dude at a golf range. Seemed simple enough. Except he was alerted by his bodyguards and made a break for it in a golf cart. I think I was supposed to chase him in my own golf cart and gun him down. Instead, I totally and accidentally knocked him into a river and he died. Mission Passed.
Second, there was a mission involving a drug deal gone bad. One bad guy grabs the suitcase and takes off on a motorcycle. You're given one to follow him. However, the motorcycle is horrible to actually try to control. Like, I failed this mission at least a half-dozen times because I just couldn't control the thing. Anyway, the little tutorial thing is telling me how to do a drive-by and I'm flailing all over the screen. But suddenly it dawns on me: if the win-condition is just to kill the guy and get the suitcase back, do I actually NEED to use the motorcycle? The answer turned out to be NO. I hopped off the back, grabbed a car and circled around and ran the biker over sending him and his bike flying. I hopped out of the car, grabbed suitcase, and passed the mission. I LOVE this kind of flexibility. Just tell me what the goal is and let me do it however I see fit.
Having said all that, the actual campaign itself does a good job of creating a real 80's feel. At least the sort of Scarface feel that I referenced above. Everything from the setting to the NPC's to the fashions and visuals and gaudy over-the-topness just reeks of 80's overindulgence. And it's enjoyable. Heck, there's even a mission involving chainsawing a dude in his own apartment. VERY Scarface.
Of course I do have a couple of complaints. And while I know it's unfair to compare this game to anything coming after it, I can't help but struggle with a couple of things in 2022.
For one thing, some of the checkpoints really suck. Remember that motorcycle mission I said I had to keep replaying? Well, that's all fine and good. Except I had to restart the whole mission. Which meant watching a cut-scene, then driving to a parking garage, then watching another cut-scene, then driving to the ACTUAL mission. It's a drag to do that over and over again, instead of there being a checkpoint once you get to the actual action.
But my biggest gripe was with the controls. Not so much with the standard controls. I mean, to be fair, GTA games have always been a little clunky feeling. They just are. But you get used to them. But my goodness, for a game with "auto" in its title, the driving should be way better. Cars feel so floaty. And as mentioned earlier, a motorcycle was pretty much suicide for me.
But like I said - I also recognize that this is MOSTLY a game from 2002, with mostly warts and all. So what can you do other than try to enjoy it for what it is? And honestly, I do enjoy it for what it is. I think if I'd played it 2002 it would have blown my mind. When I finally played it a decade ago or whatever, I thought it was great. And twenty years on from release, I still think it's an impressive and enjoyable game that deserves mention and continuous replays through the future years. So I think that's a good thing.