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Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – Review

Gene Park's picture

Sigmund Freud argues that all living things are governed by two basic instincts: the life instinct called Eros or the death instinct called Thanatos. Eros is the energy that tries to build social ties, fueled by the body, which floods the mind. Thanatos destroys ties and is the wish for destruction and death. All social activity can be reduced to complex forms and interaction of these two instincts. However, when civilization and socialization disrupt the normal ebb and flow of instinctual living, the mind breaks up under the demands. The threefold self is the id, the collective genetic inheritance of the species; the ego, which acts to meet the demands of the id; and the super-ego, which represents the internalization of the demands of society. Humans struggle to find an outlet to meet the demands of their instincts, but in ways that are socially acceptable. War is a perfect justification when Eros fails to tame Thanatos. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is another.

Vice City, the sequel to last years seminal Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3), gives players rational, legal means to act out their bloodlust. All that stuff about being your own character in these games is bull. The game is specifically designed to enact violence. The logic that this is "only a videogame" gives the impression that the players actions of murder and raising mayhem is part of a broader social significance justifying their love for the game. Nowadays anything can be considered anything, whether its "just a game" or a mature piece of art detailing political and civil revolt. Say what you want about Freud, but this rationalization of ones actions through this game serves as an ideological reservoir for those whose Thanatos instinct long remained inert.

Whats wrong about Vice City cannot be justified however. For months before its release, weve heard about the many features added since GTA3, as well as those improved upon. An improved targeting system was much touted, including a promise that a threat would be targeted over a pedestrian. However, when I tried to aim my MP5 gun at a line of Cubans in front of me, the targeting system suddenly zipped over to a civilian riding a motorcycle, across the street and behind foliage. Even if they didnt promise an improved targeting system, it was highly problematic the first time and shouldnt be just as bad the second time around.

So I miss the Cubans and ended up dying in a hail of gunfire. When Im revived at the hospital (which is how you restart in GTA games), Im relieved to find a taxicab waiting to take me back to the mission I failed. And I give the mission another shot. The same line of Cubans are waiting for me, and I take aim making sure nobody else is within a few yards from me, besides the enemy. Bingo. I have a bead on a Cubans floral print shirt, soon to be crimson. But once I pulled the trigger, the gun locks. Theres no reason why it should lock, because I just received the gun. This was the first of many glitches I experienced during an extended playing of Vice City.

Vice City is an improvement over its predecessor in some ways, given the nature that the game is supposed to be an expansion of the series, not a true sequel. You now assume the role of Tommy Vercetti at a Miami-based city in 1986. Having just been released from prison, the Liberty City Mafia sends you to Vice City to do odd jobs there. When a big cocaine deal goes wrong, Tommy is forced to raise the money by himself, and also find out who messed with the deal. An established thug in Liberty City, Tommy now needs to work up his way to the higher echelons of the Vice City social circle, but exactly how high he gets is anyones guess.

The high a gamer gets from Vice City should be familiar though. Anyone familiar with the previous game will be able to dive right in. For those who arent, you are a criminal set loose in an entire city (twice as big as Liberty City from GTA3), and you are to follow a set of missions for the various connections you make throughout the game. The gameplay remains largely the same. There is a six-star wanted level meter that gauges the urgency of the law enforcement chasing you. There are more than three times as many weapons of your choosing, including a chainsaw, an M60 and a katana sword. You still jack cars, but now you can also jack motorcycles, mopeds, seaplanes, helicopters and golf carts, among others. You also have the newly gained ability to duck. Tactically useless, it allows for better aim in first-person shooting mode.

Vastly improved over the previous game, the missions are much more complex, varied and a whole lot more fun. While it still involves you driving from point A to B, each mission manages to come up with different objectives. The first few already has you smashing up jurors cars to intimidate them, starting a riot at a workers union protest, launch an all-out air assault on an estate, steal a tank from the army and takes you through a thrilling dirtbike chase through winding alleyways. Other examples of the diversity near the end have you jumping from rooftop to rooftop with a sports bike and taking paparazzi photos of a crooked politician. Also, ripped right out of Speed, you must drive a limousine at top speed with any moment of slowing or stopping resulting in an explosion, killing you and the very drunk rock stars youre driving around and whose life you depend on.

The game remains linear, despite the freedom you have between missions. About a third of the way in however, the games goals are suddenly switched. You no longer do missions for the benefit of others, but largely for you. This includes buying property like strip clubs, taxi companies, auto dealerships and a porno film studio. Money is hard to come by in this game, so your main source of income (besides conveniently robbing convenient stores) would be the revenue generated from these places. That means ensuring success in their respective businesses. Wipe out rival taxi companies. Find cars for your automobile showroom. Success will guarantee you a generous helping of money as the days go by.

The glitches I mentioned earlier rear their ugly head the more you play. Sometimes Tommy would mysteriously lose three points of life when hes only walking. A vehicle you might have before a cutscene would disappear afterwards. Often times I found myself sinking into the floor. Sometimes I would be able to jump out, other times I found myself falling into a vortex of game textures that unintentionally gave it a look similar to Alfred Hitchcocks Vertigo. Another horrible glitch found me getting busted while I was driving at top speed, still the cop was able to teleport next to my door and drag me out. A good number of these glitches werent even in the first game, which gives me the impression that this was a rushed release. Still, theres no excuse for poor programming, especially because the game remains essentially the same, and the glitches significantly affect your performance.

Besides the weird auto-related glitches, one thing the game does get right is the driving portions. The two-wheeled vehicles drive like a dream, and car handling has been significantly improved. Even controlling the aircrafts in the game feel ok, but I wouldve liked a hover maneuver for the helicopters. Still, the car physics work well, and the law enforcement give quite a chase, especially since they can now pop your tires. If there is one thing that is undeniably fun in the GTA series, its the chases that thrill and kill.

And you can do that all to a wonderfully compiled 80s soundtrack, with over 9 hours of music and talk radio. The song choices are excellent, ranging from Michael Jackson, Wang Chung, Run DMC and Electric Light Orchestra. Its no small feat that they were able to secure the licenses for so many big names, resulting in the player actually switching stations so they can hear a song they like. The game takes the limited memory and repetition of game music and exploits it as commentary on the predictability and pretense of mainstream and public radio. If it isnt that, its at least one area of the game that is impeccably done, as well as improved upon.

Another highly notable aspect is the voice acting. If Kingdom Hearts secured the kid-friendly bouncy voices of Lance Bass and Mandy Moore, Vice City has Goodfella Ray Liotta as Tommy, Miami Vice star Philip Michael Thomas, Burt Reynolds, Tom Sizemore, a hilarious Deborah Harry of Blondie, NY Giant Lawrence Taylor and illustrious porn star Jenna Jameson. Not only is it a treat to hear so many wonderful talents, but they also significantly add to the atmosphere and mood of the story, which has been much improved over the previous game. Now that your character is fully fleshed, his interactions with others add a new layer of depth of the "crime" story the developers are trying to portray. They still mince words and racial epithets ("I hate those Haitians," a polite Cuban crimelord says). But at least cocaine is actually identified as such, the cussing sounds natural, and the dialogue is actually snappy, thanks to Liottas characteristically vicious snarl. What I dont understand is how the game finds certain words comfortable to say and while others are taboo. Im not sure why they decide to not use the F-word when the rest of the language is clear R-rated material.

While the first games main draw was the ability to raise hell on a whim, it seems much more fun in this game to actually do the missions. Theres even an in-game map if you pause, with clearly marked locations for your convenience, something the first game sorely needed. Yet the maturation process of the series remain standstill because of the developers refusal to move outside racial and social stereotypes (a petty comment towards gays is prominently displayed at the beginning of the game), and staying away from certain taboos of popular art, merely suggesting sex and drug use. Compared to what this game couldve been, this is still kids gloves. Also its frustrating to have to restart the entire process of getting weapons, getting a reliable ride and getting to the mission point on top of finishing these longer, more complex missions. A simple retry option during missions wouldve helped lifted that burden.

Throughout the game are the cultural signposts of today: smarmy quick-witted commercials, fast cars, loose women and free market capitalism. But most prevalent in the game is the ultra-violence that this game celebrates. Like Chi wrote in his GTA3 second opinion, the game gives you the choice of violence or more violence and little else. Vice City is a boiling pot of unchecked anger and confusion. There is little doubt that this is pop art, not great art, that succeeds in creating a world and following of its own. Despite the illusion of flawlessness this game gives off, theres little denying the sheer joy that comes from its crude gameplay styles, and if youve never experienced GTA3, go ahead and add another point or two to the score. The game is undeniably fun, and has a huge amount of replay value, worth every cent.

GTA3 and Vice City are peculiarities in that they are so heavily influenced by outside texts, like film; racial and social stereotypes; and music. American pop media absorbs things like experience and sense of self, simplifies it and regurgitates it as commodity. Vice City is the monstrous child of American pop culture and consumerism, accepting our media-saturated culture which is its fuel, and in turn, fuels it. The most devastating thing about Vice City is the targeting system not in the game, but within a real life context. It has so many targets, yet doesnt have a bead on a single one of them. Instead it randomly blasts at everywhere it pleases, shooting holes through the very fabric of entertainment and morality. The flaws that remain in this update to last years runaway hit, along with the new glitches that shouldnt even be there, are impossible to ignore, and even cheapen the experience.

The near-unanimous praise for Vice City shows that Thanatos energy according to Freud isnt the only winner. Its Rockstar for pulling off a heist that most companies or games wouldnt be able to get away with. Vice City is a repackaged game that isnt meant to be a sequel, and shows no significant improvement over the previous game besides superficial changes like motorcycles and more guns. Yet the game receives perfect scores and is hailed as a revolutionary title, despite its significant but overlooked flaws. Rockstar was able to successfully absorb the Thanatos instinct of gamers, repackage it, simplify it and sell it as a hot commodity, rationalized as "just a game," hiding behind the guise of irony, shielding themselves against the charge of tasteless exploitation.

So who or what is being exploited? Its not the Haitians, the gays, the Italians nor the 80s. Its the gamers, with their wrong-headed cheering of the games surface value without any clear relation to the intrinsically flawed gameplay. To the games credit, its also a testament to the emphatic interactive nature of videogames, impacting an audience by allowing them to act out their darkest fantasies, performing pleasurable violence vicariously through Tommy Vercetti, who is the most significant and unlikeliest of videogame mascots to emerge in recent times. He is wittier than Sonic, more Italian than Mario, but most of all, he is most prevalent in my mind when I think about when the face of Thanatos revealed itself to me. Rating: 7 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.

Category Tags
Platform(s): PC   Xbox   PS2  
Developer(s): Rockstar North  
Publisher: Rockstar  
Series: Grand Theft Auto  
Genre(s): Driving   Shooting  
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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