GTA Vice City

A Blast from the Past review

With the 80s cool again, FBT says hello to his little friend.

The Past

About all I can remember about GTA Vice City is Frankie Says tees, leg warmers and neon, and a bloody shootout in Tommy's mansion that referenced Scarface, but how Tommy got from bagman to big-man I have no idea. I think Danny Dyer had something to do with it, but I might have imagined that. Cocaine is a helluva drug.

I only completed VC once; I came to it late and by the time I'd gotten it done, GTA San An was out and I never looked back, but what I remember is hours of mayhem in an Hawaiian shirt. Time to see if it still fits.

Still a Blast?

This does look very 2002 but thanks to the back-in-style 80s era, and spat of 90s-retro games, Vice City looks oddly cool rather than dated, like something deliberately throwback and even more well observed than it did back then. I’m excited to get into this again.

So Tommy Vercetti finishes a stretch, and is sent to Miami by an ambitious mafia boss who wants in on the burgeoning drugs trade. But Tommy loses both the money and the drugs. Told to stay there until he can make good on what he lost, Tommy joins forces with a guy called Lance, and navigates the drug-fuelled party town to get a foothold before his feet are fitted with concrete overshoes.

There’s just so much 80s here. Lance is voiced by Tubbs alongside the decade's greats like Robert Davi, Lee Majors and Burt Reynolds; there’s refs to Scarface, Carlito and Miami Vice, and Wang Chung on the radio. The world is full of neon and pastels, folks on roller-skates, blokes wearing midriff tops and ‘Relax’ tees; it’s captured the 80s perfectly – the cars, the Hair Metal band we get involved with, the airport being named Escobar - it’s somehow got the atmosphere right and feels even more spot on than it did back on release. There’s a hedonistic feel to it; this is the time when coke ruled. Occasionally I feel like I’m on coke.

The cars are basic to drive but aside from being unable to freelook it’s actually not as bad as I imagined. The best thing about the cars is they're solid. You throw them about without worrying about scratching the paintwork, they don’t bounce or drift and they go where you want them to, although backing up usually means running someone over. The helicopters are a lot of fun but boats are like trying to skate for the first time, they just slide about. Vehicles aren't the only thing showing their age though.

The draw distance is pretty trippy - the cars are only drawn where Tommy looks, which making crossing the road pretty hairy, and if you spot a Infernus don't look away; when you look back it'll have changed into a moped. Often you'll see bikes ridden by ghosts until you're near enough for the game to add a rider, and objects appear as blobs until you're practically on them which can be messy if the blob turned out to be a cop, but none of it is exactly game-breaking, it just makes you jittery... It's just a coke comedown.

Shootouts have aged too – Tommy can’t aim for shit while everyone else is a marksman, but after so many over-stuffed free-roamers, VC is a really refreshingly clean, concise world to mafia about in. It’s largely free of distractions so you’re all about being a gangster, and the missions for the most part play out in the same way – quick little bits of violent business which all make sense as Tommy positions himself to take over the town. He needs to do dog work to get where he needs to be, but it feels right - nowadays the skunk-work you do for XP or reputation feels like padding but here it seems right. Even Danny Dyer works, given this was before he became Danny Dyer. This is his Human Traffic era.

There’s also a nice collection of side-missions where you help other ‘entrepreneurs’ take a slice of the city in return for their support, or buying old buildings you turn into fronts and businesses via mini missions like selling drugs out of an ice-cream van which no one outside of the 80s Ice Cream Wars is going to get, or setting up a porn shoot. All classic gangster stuff. Still, even now I can't get on with Burt Reynolds' RC levels though.

I realise – as I blaze around town in an Infernus listening to Tears for Fears – that I kept expecting the excitement to drop, the age to set in, but it didn’t. It got more exciting as I went on - I wish more free-roamers had this energetic edge to them. I'm enjoying the minimalist, narcissistic tone, the focus. If I wanna go f* something up I can, but there's no 'well while I'm here' distractions beyond a bit of collectable hunting. Some of the missions do border on the unfair, especially when vehicles or weapons are involved … but that’s me trying to force modern gaming onto VC; I rarely even make it to 5-Star Wanted before I’m gunned down.

Even when I get aggravated reloading after a mission fail or death (no way I’m going to hospital and losing money and weapons) it’s usually because I tried to play it like I would a more modern game – where’s the auto-saves and re-try options, the skip mission? Even Tommy’s bulletproof vest is just ornamental.

The story’s great too, because it’s ripped from every crime movie you watched as a kid. You recognise the double-crosses and betrayals, really get into the way VC lets you be a gangster without stumbling over the ethics of Tommy’s actions; but it doesn’t glamorise it. After so many worthy games that make you question the morals of dark side characters, I’m given just enough leeway, freedom and context to behave like a violent gangster and not made to feel bad about it. There’s no innocents here. Well, except that guy I just ran over.

GTA Vice City hasn’t aged well - it’s aged into something better; I am so glad I fired it up, I gave up on VC too soon. The 80s never left, I left them. Blast from the Past is all about seeing if games live up to their memories, but this time I have a new perspective. It's made me realise how bloated and self-important free-roamers have become, instead of getting right down in the dirt like VC does. The environment is small but you get to know the streets just like a real gangster would. You don't care about middling problems, you care about your empire. I’m Tommy fuckin’ Vercetti. I own this town; I’ll take Tommy’s inability to swim over Michael’s yoga sessions any day. Sometimes less is more – which isn’t something you’d expect to say about the 80s.