The incredible success of GTA3 had certainly given the team at Rockstar North a difficult pace to match, but it had also, in the process, opened up several doors. Case in point; the game's radio stations, its "soundtrack to life". While its predecessor had relied on lesser known modern acts and a hefty chunk of home-grown comedy to breathe life into the city, Vice City covered every aspect of the 80s musical scene with uncanny precision. Because of the notoriety of the first PS2 installment, not only were labels and musical acts more interested in being a part of the sequel, but the project had a much heavier budget to swing around when courting such talents.
In addition, much of the game's structure had already been laid out with accuracy, leaving only a few fine tunings to be done. Vice City is, in many ways, an "expansion pack" for GTA3. It's basically the same game, they've merely wrapped different skins around everyone and given players a whole new stack of missions to complete. Not to downplay the team's effort, this remains a very... VERY good game. Just don't jump in expecting an entirely new, completely fresh experience. This is everything it's promised to be, episode three with new faces, set entirely in the mid 80s. It's not Grand Theft Auto IV, more of a GTA3.5.
Thankfully, the game controls exactly the same as its daddy. You've got basic controls; walking, running, aiming, shooting, jumping, punching and stealing. Tommy moves a little differently than our anti-hero from the third installment, he's a touch slower and a little heavier. He throws punches at a slower pace than the previous character, but when he connects they've got a little more muscle behind them. A minor annoyance is the inadvertent damage he takes when running off a ledge or set of steps, rather than leaping. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little frustrated to watch my hero fall to his doom off a ledge no higher than four feet, just because I was strolling around low on health. It even happened on more than one occasion, but if nothing else that teaches you to be a little more careful. You must have your wits around you at all times, especially if your life is so low that you wouldn't be able to survive anything removing more than three or four points of life.
Each vehicle you drive handles differently, whether you're behind the wheel of a race car, a compact, an SUV, a boat, a helicopter or a Vespa. Certainly there's more of an arcade feel to controlling the makes and models of Vice City than there is a simulation aspect, but I wouldn't have it any other way. If I want complete and utter realism, I'll play Gran Turismo III. If I'm looking to run some folks over, fly into a bridge or scoot my way through traffic... complete and utter realism is not an extremely important factor in my book. In all honesty, were this game any more realistic it would take away from the fun factor by tenfold.
Graphically, this game is beautiful. Once you hop into the options menu and turn off the incredibly distracting and worthless "tracers" feature (and can suddenly SEE), you begin to recognize and enjoy the attention to detail that went into this game. Absolutely EVERYTHING is accounted for, from the names on every single building on the main strip right down to the wrinkles in the crotch of Tommy Vercetti's jeans. Not that I was looking at his crotch or anything...
A few of the citizens look slightly clunky at close inspection, and some of the car models still look a little too cartoony for my tastes, but that's nitpicking at its ultimate nit pickiest. There remain some areas that could use a little more help in terms of texturing, however when it all comes down to it this is exactly the kind of thing the PS2 was developed to handle. To even attempt a game like this on a previous generation system would have been unthinkable, the scale is just that enormous. You'd have to sell it in a twelve disc box set. In terms of visuals, there's still progress to be made but it by no means distracts the eye from the whole picture.
The voice acting and musical choices have somehow improved from last year's nearly-flawless model, to the point where you find yourself completely immersed in the game's culture. I completed my run through all the missions at roughly twenty five hours, and was only just then beginning to see a few overlaps in the conversational dialogue of non-central characters. My absolute favorite character in the game was an underling named Mario, who keeps hanging around outside establishments under your crime syndicate's control. Alongside his fellow also-rans, Mario loudly and proudly barks orders with some false sense of authority. "WHAT HARDWARE WE GOT!?" he'll shout, without provocation. "WHAT SHOULD I DO ABOUT HER!?" I laughed until I cried, and then I immediately absorbed a few of Mario's characteristic phrases into my everyday language. When I start quoting lines from a movie, you know I enjoyed the movie. To even imagine quoting something from a game, let alone a minor character in that game, is a totally foreign concept.
The missions range from easy to extremely difficult to "how the holy hell do they expect me to do this??", but are all manageable, with practice. Right up to the game's final battle, everybody's got the same weakness. No matter how important they are in the hierarchy of crime, they'll still bleed when shot. And they'll die when you steal their car and park it on top of their heads. Or when you catch them in the rotor blades of a helicopter, as the situation may call for. Unfortunately, the final sub-boss and the boss himself each took half a dozen direct shots from the rocket launcher before succumbing to their wounds, which sort of blows that whole idea to hell, but the vast majority of the game obeys the same damage system.
After the missions of GTA III, I didn't think there was any way things could get more inventive, more creative, more unexpected... but somehow they managed. Rockstar controls your emotions from the first moments of the game, right up to the end. The missions flow almost seamlessly into the storyline. You can take an extended break, running around the city, slaughtering families and retrieving hidden packages, and then jump right back into the storyline without disrupting the flow of the story. It's truly something you can take at your own pace.
Overall, everything I expected from a sequel of this magnitude. If it's as they say, a great movie leaves you thirsty for more; then the same rule must apply to a great video game. Despite some flaws, Vice City continues the trend begun by GTA3. It's a worthy heir to the legacy, nothing nearly as groundbreaking as the jump from GTA2 to 3, but then again this isn't part 4. I, for one, can't wait to see where they can take it from here.
Overall Score: 9.5