In this latest chapter, the franchise is once again bound firmly in the land of yuppies, new wave music, Reaganomics and androgyny. The magnificent decade that was the eighties continues to provide fertile grounds for parody, and as a resident of south Florida myself, a lot of the regional barbs and comments showcased in VCS landed dead-on. There's no shortage of material for mockery here, and Rockstar has never shied from that kind of an opportunity. But despite such an abundance of cannon fodder, the Vice City Story didn't connect with me in the same way as the first few PS2 chapters of the series. I found it lacking in personality, which is certainly nothing I'd accuse of previous GTAs... or maybe it was just a distinct personality it was missing. After all, you can only tell the same kind of joke so many times before your audience starts yearning for something different.
As the proverbial tip of the iceberg, Grand Theft Auto's cast has always leaned toward the cartoonish, and it's worked thus far because the games themselves function so well as a parody of whatever culture happens to cross in front of their sarcastic crosshairs. Yet the names and faces behind the tale of Vice City Stories take this whole concept notably further than their ancestors. I'm not sure when or where, but at some point, these characters cross over from sharply witty to uncomfortably campy. Their dialog largely exists not to advance the story or inspire you to pursue the next mission, but because it's raunchy and / or funny to reminisce about. And, in so doing, the individuals who drive the story lose much of their charm and intelligence.
To be frank, I didn't really care about these characters. Vic, the player-controlled lead, is probably the most straight-laced hero in the series thus far, but he's so easily manipulated it's astonishing. He pines about how drugs ruin families and how he doesn't want to be involved with that kind of a business, but then immediately turns around and accepts a job rescuing floating bags of coke from the bay. He gives his idiot brother more chances to destroy everything that he holds dear than could ever be understood. His love interest, Louise, comes and goes from the storyline at her own convenience. If they need bait for a kidnapping mission, she'll mysteriously appear during the short cutscene leading up to the gameplay, but when there's no call for a damsel in distress, she straight-up disappears. The supporting characters are as good as ever, (I especially liked Reni, the trans-gender commercial director with a heart of gold) but without a good lead cast they really don't get the chance to shine that they did in the earlier games.
That's not to say it's all bad. Much of the storyline serves to flesh out the environment we were dropped into as Tommy Versetti, upon the original release of GTA: Vice City. It's nice to get a little perspective on the drug lords who were already installed in the city before Tommy's arrival. That fleshing-out process makes the original stand tall as a much more epic, thought out series of events, and any time a prequel can enhance and improve upon the original, it's good news on all fronts. There's also a lengthy series of missions and interactions with a certain 80's pop culture icon with a receding hairline and a penchant for singing from behind a drum set, which at the very least should be enough to bring a smile to your face. It's still an enjoyable, entertaining rampage... but it doesn't measure up to its daunting legacy.
Unfortunately, the game's limitations aren't just restricted to a storytelling capacity. I found the missions to be repetitive, especially if you've played the other games in the series, with very few entirely original inclusions. This is veiled fairly well, with new car types, voice-overs and packages thrown in to add a little variety, but at the end of the day a "capture and retrieve" mission is still a "capture and retrieve" mission. Gameplay is also terribly glitchy, almost to the point that I'd call it unfinished. When you near a car's top speed, it goes into a bizarre shaky sort of convulsion, which affects both the look and the feel of the experience, and the slow rendering of solid objects (such as a telephone pole or a palm tree) remains a major problem, especially at high speeds.
Police are EVERYWHERE in this release, too. They must make up around 40-50% of the city's population, and spawn mercilessly from the most unlikely places when you're being chased. Trying to escape your star rating by driving into the back of an abandoned movie studio? Nah, there just so happened to be a cop car or three parked back there... or so VCS would lead you to believe. Enormous initial load times are still a fact of life here, which is disappointing. I'd hoped that they could apply the technology that brought us the obscenely large land mass of San Andreas, doing away with those aggravating load screens as you cross the bridge that separates the two halves of Vice City - not so. Really, this feels like it's running on a PSP emulator within the PS2's technical framework. It plods along in areas that this hardware should be able to handle with ease, and pales visually in comparison to the aforementioned GTA:SA.
This is in no means an easy game. It follows the GTA trend of presenting its most difficult missions about three quarters of the way through the story, then lightening up a bit in time for the final showdown. Where other titles in the series would achieve this spike in difficulty through genuinely challenging missions and high-risk scenarios, this return to Vice City chooses to instead amp up on the cheap hits, surprise attacks and, ultimately, the aggravation. After adding it all up, I've determined that at this late stage in its life cycle, the current iteration of the Grand Theft Auto legacy just isn't really all that much fun to actually sit down and play any more.
As far as the in-game controls go, some subtle modifications have been made to the gun-wielding configuration, but this system is still in need of a major overhaul. Vic really enjoys turning his back on his enemies, then firing over his left shoulder, for some ungodly reason, which naturally decreases your accuracy substantially. It's also become much more difficult to cycle through a series of targets than ever before, which is bizarre because that's one thing the previously existing setup seemed to accomplish fairly easily. Cars have also become much more difficult to handle, and tires are twice as likely to pop. If there's gunfire and it would suck for your tire to blow out, rest assured that that you'll be on the market for a new vehicle shortly.
Likewise, this graphics engine has seen much better days. Not to harp on that same, singular point, but these visuals really haven't aged all that well. Characters are beginning to look cheap and underdeveloped, and the little touches that always set this series apart are becoming fewer and further in between. For instance, I caught sight of a character whose lips kept moving long after he'd finished talking during an important cutscene. While that's a relatively minor thing, and likely something I'd have overlooked in another title, it's something that never would've seen the light of day in an earlier Grand Theft Auto. Sure, it's never going to compare to the kind of visuals a Saint's Row or Gears of War can deliver on the newest generation of hardware... that doesn't mean it can't hold its own all the same. I was adequately impressed by what was delivered with the original Vice City, or even San Andreas, and VCS doesn't even hold a torch to even those elder statesmen. Rockstar's attention was clearly elsewhere, which is a real shame.
Fortunately, where the rest of the game underachieves, the in-game music, radio and commentaries don't follow suit. After lagging notably in the audio department with Liberty City Stories, this return to Vice City also represents a return to outstanding radio content. Long a cornerstone of the GTA series, the gamut of genres, personalities and social commentaries present on each vehicle's in-dash stereo system provides much of the game's wry sense of humor and overall personality. The original GTA:VC delivered huge in this department, and remains my favorite soundtrack of the series, but VCS gives it a serious run for its money. The tone remains decidedly new wave, but there's also a strong catalog of hair metal, old school hip hop and jazz, not to mention a couple channels' worth of insane talk radio chatter. Occasionally the programming can get to be a bit repetitive, especially later in the game when you've presumably heard everything twice over, but it's nowhere near as big a problem as you'd imagine. There's a TON of material here, and almost all of it is top notch stuff.
Aural excellence notwithstanding, it's a good thing that this will probably be the series' last appearance on this generation of hardware, because it's badly, badly in need of a refurb. Most of the time, I found myself wondering if I was actually playing a legitimate Grand Theft Auto or one of the multitude of crappy knock-offs that have emerged to take a ride on its coattails over the last few years. Maybe as a portable-only release this would've cut it, but as a stand-alone home console title, it feels cheaply made and subpar, which isn't something I'm used to receiving from a box with that classic logo emblazened across its midsection.
Overall Score: 4.8
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