Sometimes I feel like I was born a decade or two too late. I was born just as the morose and depressing 90s began, but I have never had a love for Nirvana, Radiohead, Red Hot Chilli Peppers or any of that crap. I am much more in love with the music, feel and atmosphere of the 80s. But alas, the period is gone, and, barring a flux capacitor being invented and plutonium being able to be “bought in a store,” it won’t be coming back.
Well, the flux capacitor has been invented, though not quite as we’d expected. Back in 2003 when Grand Theft Auto: Vice City came out, the game virtually made me blow a load at how precisely it captured the 80s vibe. Pastel shirts, neon lights, A Flock of Seagulls blasting on the radio—Vice City perfectly reflected the world of 1986.
And now, with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, the flux capacitor has been given an upgrade.
VCS follows the lead of its PSP predecessor, following a new story in the same city as a PS2 older brother. But it goes above what Liberty City Stories did and reinvents a few of the GTA systems that have been locked in and commonplace since GTA3.
First off, I have to address a few things. This game will twist, prod, poke and squeeze every last bit of processing power out of your PSP to provide you with graphics well above those of LCS. The people in cutscenes even have FINGERS!! It’s beautiful to look at, but the (very noticeable) trade-off is in performance. Sometimes, if your character is travelling in a car or bike at full tilt, the processor won’t be able to keep up in refreshing the textures, which happens occasionally in the other GTA games but happens a hell of a lot in VCS. Also, the radio stations will stop for a second or two as the game devotes more power to loading something else. This power struggle is majorly apparent in the day-to-day playing of the game, but it doesn’t really get terribly annoying unless the radio skips a couple of times in quick succession, or if the game freezes for a second to let something catch up (giving some heart fluttering moments if you haven’t saved for a while).
It’s glitchy as hell, but also as fun as hell. It’s your standard GTA fare, so regular players should know the drill by now: Person gets put on the ropes, must build an empire, yadda yadda yadda. We have heard it all before, but we haven’t heard a lot of this gameplay before.
Things have been given a bit of a steroid-esque boost thanks to a few new features and a few hauled over from San Andreas. Firstly, there’s several different locations: a new Fort Baxter Air Base, which is where you begin; a trailer park; some buildings under construction (which are seen fully completed in GTA: Vice City); and some places that you can construct.
Yes, as in Vice City, you can buy and develop property in Vice City Stories, but in a much more expansive and complex system. It’s called the Empire Builder system, and I hope it sticks around since it’s a cool way to give control of building the underworld empire, which features so prominently in the GTA world, straight into the hands of the player. Of course, there is some mandatory building you have to do as per story requirements, but basically how you invest your money is in your hands.
The system basically runs like this: You visit one of the 60 properties around the city owned by an opposing gang, and you blow up a car in front of it to trigger an attack on the property. Once this begins, you must take out the gang occupying the building, enter it, and trash the place. Then it’s available to be bought and turned into one of several businesses, from prostitution to drugs to robbery, and then you decide how big the business will be, from small to high-roller, giving you smaller or larger amounts of money earned each day accordingly. Every day the money earned by your businesses is deposited in your account.
Gangs can also counter-attack your businesses and will retaliate for your attacks on their properties. They will hunt you down, and, unlike in other GTA games, where they only fire at you when you are on their turf, in VCS they will track you down wherever you are. This can make things tense, especially when you are on low health. Also, you can do some odd jobs for the businesses, like taking some hookers to customers, defending shops who’ve payed you protection, making some drug deals—each odd job giving you respect in the business type. And you can enlist the help of some gang members to help you, as in San Andreas.
My one gripe about this system is that you get a lot of money for each property you own, even at the lesser property levels. This means you are going to end up with a shitload of cash really fucking quickly, especially if you are a wise investor. And this will cause a few problems in other areas. It takes some of the challenge away, as weapon management becomes nonexistent after a while. You always have the cash to buy up all the weapons you need, but that isn’t even the major factor that throws all weapon management out the door.
It’s a new feature added that allows you, once you are killed or arrested, to get your weapons back by paying an extra bribe. Early in the game this is a real choice, since you need to pay $2000 to get your weapons back. But once Empire Builder comes into play, it’s a no-brainer: Pay the bribe. No matter how much you have spent on your guns, or how valuable they are, the cash bribe always remains the same amount. So by halfway through, it’s actually cheaper to by your guns with bribes rather than buying them legit. By all means, the system can be kept, but the bribe has to cost more than re-purchasing the guns to force the player to decide whether it’s worth it.
The hand-to-hand combat system has been reworked again, expanded above even San Andreas’ system. You can’t change styles of combat, but there’s a much larger variety of moves you can do now. You can string combos of harder and softer hits together, quick jabs and heavy beltings. But, unfortunately, hand-to-hand is never prominent in any GTA, so a lot of it goes to waste. There isn’t even a mission devoted to teaching you the system, which you’d usually expect, but I guess that proves how important it really is. It’s even worse in this one because the missions get going a lot faster than in any other GTA, and you need some decent guns by around the third mission even.
You get the usual addition of new vehicles in this instalment, some from San Andreas. But the most prominent and probably the coolest is the jet ski. It is really cool to cruise the seaways of Vice City with your jet ski, making you feel like you are in Baywatch or something, although you aren’t lucky enough to meet David Hasselhoff or to snuggle up to Pamela Anderson on the way. You guys know what I am talking about, eh? Eh? Or snuggle up to David Hasselhoff. If you swing that way.
And then you have the music. Where V-Rock ruled the previous visit to Vice, Wave 103 wins this time. But the whole soundtrack is an absolute cracker. I’m getting near the end of the game as I write this, and I haven’t even listened to the talk stations yet because I’m so in love with all the music stations—both the old favourites and the new ones. Flash gives you some great stuff for pop, Emotion provides accompaniment for the life of a lonely heart, Paradise pleases disco fanatics, and Fresh makes you hip-hop lovers happy. There’s more, but I can’t be assed creating more practical press releases for the fucking stations. Though I will say one more thing: Ain’t nothin’ like cruising down a road hearing Wouldn’t It Be Good, Holy Diver, I Wanna Know What Love Is, A Forest, Rock You Like a Hurricane, In the Air Tonight, etc. There’s the option for custom tracks like in LCS, but who the fuck in their right mind would want to do that? There’s too much good stuff here to even think of doing that.
Finally, the core of the game: its missions. And there are a bloody lot of them. While on holiday I’ve been playing this like a madman, racking up 13-and-a-half hours of pretty much non-stop mission playing, and I am a bit away from the end. I haven’t even failed too many missions either, and after most of those fails I have re-loaded from an earlier save. I have felt the end coming a few times, but I have been wrong and the game’s kept on going. I will amend this review if I finish the game in time and tell you how long it took me to beat it,* but from what I can tell its one of the longer GTA games.
Plus, the missions are fairly different for the franchise and not as samey as they got in LCS. There aren’t as many chasing missions, and not as many “drive here, get ambushed, drive away” missions. Rockstar has provided a few memorable missions and cameos in this outing. There’s a mission where you secure the stadium for a famous real life musician providing his own voice, who I won’t name for the sake of spoilers; one where you take over a Domestabot to find and crack a safe; and a mission where you are attacked by a bunch of women in bikinis packing AK-47s. Hot.
Some familiar faces return, like Umberto, Diaz, Phil and Lance, but some new ones come in—a lot of them fucking hilarious. Reni, the advertising mogul with ambiguous gender and ambiguous sexuality, is probably the most memorable. But there’s everything from drug overlords to corrupt army sergeants and other colourful characters.
And there’s mini-missions and minigames galore. You have your mandatory GTA mini-missions: driving an ambulance, chasing criminals, driving a taxi, and so on. But there’s also a chance to have a round or two of golf, do some bike tricks, etc.
This is one of the better GTA games in the franchise. I know I practically won’t play LCS now after I have experienced this monster of a game. It will keep you occupied for a very, very long time. Not to San Andreas levels, but definitely more than most games for portable systems, save for possibly a Final Fantasy or something. If you are going on a plane flight across the world or something, bring this game and you will not be bored. Its nestling a little spot in my heart alongside Vice City, which it well deserves. It’s exorbitantly glitchy even by GTA standards, but screw it. It’s a fucking fun game to play, and definitely a must-own for PSP owners and GTA fans. Vice City in your pocket? What else could you want? Nothing, that’s what.**
* It ended up taking me 15 and a half hours to finish it. And I am pretty efficient in knocking over GTA games.
** On second thought: a chick to give you a blowjob WHILE you play the game would be preferable. But the game still is only just below that.