For such an old game, GTA: Vice City still entertains, perhaps because of the revolutionary amount of freedom it offers in choosing the plot of your adventure.

Why Grand Theft Auto: Vice City deserves to be better remembered

The sixth title in the GTA series has been somewhat overshadowed, but 14 years after its release this luridly coloured story of revenge and ambition, with its stellar cast of voice actors, stands up remarkably well

Heralded upon its release in 2002, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a game that has a dubious honour I will call “the middle child syndrome”.

Despite voice acting from Hollywood stars like Ray Liotta (protagonist Tommy Vercetti), Burt Reynolds (real estate mogul Avery Carrington), NFL tough guy Lawrence Taylor (car salesman and former football pro B.J. Smith), Dennis Hopper (porn movie auteur Steve Scott), Debbie Harry (taxi controller) and more, Vice City has been overshadowed in the years since its release by its predecessor, GTA3, which rocketed the franchise into 3-D, and its follower, San Andreas, heralded at the time for its massive, realistic world.

The high-definition era of Rockstar’s signature franchise has revisited Liberty City and San Andreas, but never returned to the sandy, satirical shores of the GTA universe’s Miami episode. Some would argue that’s because the pastels and excess that made sense in a game set in the 1980s wouldn’t work with the new approach the game developer has taken with the franchise. But many of those themes were present in Grand Theft Auto 5, set in southern California, and Michael De Santa was the closest thematically to Liotta’s Vercetti that we’ve seen inhabiting the shoes of a GTA protagonist since 2002 (a white man with ties to organised crime).

After achieving 100 per cent completion in GTA3 recently, I fired up Vice City, a game I spent a lot of time with in the early 2000s, both on my PlayStation 2 and PC. The game’s look and feel were immediate hooks, but many of the game’s missions weren’t as memorable as GTA3’s were when I was replaying that game. At first, I thought this might be another reason Vice City gets lost in the shuffle of Rockstar’s GTA history. But the truth is, it’s because Vice City offers greater freedom, while at the same time funnelling the player toward a satisfying conclusion to the main storyline, something that subsequent GTA games haven’t been able to recapture.

A shot of the gameplay from GTA: Vice City, with locations based on Miami.

An early mission in Vice City has you attending a yacht party thrown by Colonel Juan Cortez (voiced by Goonies alumnus Robert Davi). At this party, you meet every character of consequence you’ll see/work for later in the game: Carrington, Ricardo Diaz (voiced by Luis Guzman), Scott, Smith, members of the fictional rock group Love Fist. Rockstar sets the table for the story of revenge and conquest you’re about to embark on.

Then, the first portion of the game has you learning Vice City’s new mechanics, like changing outfits, driving motorbikes and piloting helicopters. While these tutorials aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, the early missions serve as a stepping stone to the freedom that opens up once you waste Diaz.

From there on, the player decides how to proceed. Which assets do you want to acquire? Do you go after the flashy Malibu club and pull off the series’ first true “heist” sequence (a mission structure revisited in just about every GTA game since)? Do you work for Scott, and find out some secrets about conservative congressman Alex Shrub? Do you spend the most money, but also attain the greatest reward, completing the missions for the Print Works, essential to unlocking the final showdown with mobster Sonny Forelli (Tom Sizemore)? If street racing is your deal, Smith’s Sunshine Autos is for you.

In the game you play an organised crime figure ascending through the ranks, no matter who stands in your way.

In a game series that emphasises player choice, the way your reach the endgame in Vice City is perhaps the most revolutionary seen in the franchise until the introduction of heists into GTA V. You choose what story elements you want to unlock first, rather than being guided through a series of missions that will ultimately result in the final confrontation. Not even San Andreas, voted the best GTA game in a fan poll just before the release of GTA V, had that kind of freedom. It’s also a callback to the early 2D roots of the GTA series, which required only that you attain a “high score” (cash in the GTA universe) to progress through the game.

Vice City is an imperfect game, to be sure. It’s targeting system is still awful, compared to later GTA titles, and the motorbikes just don’t handle as well as they could. Many of the game’s missions fall prey to the constricted structure of early 3D GTA titles: go here, kill some guys, pick this up, return.

The dreary grey of GTA 3’s Liberty City was replaced with sunshine and motorbikes in its sequel. But in terms of player choice, GTA: Vice City is perhaps one of the earliest and most successful experiments in the franchise. And it’s still a blast to have that freedom at your fingertips, 14 years later.

Tribune News Service