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When GTA 3 was released almost a year ago, it finally gave the masses a reason to own a Playstation 2. One year on and little has changed, except for the release of ICO, and even The Getaway is doing it’s best to avoid Take 2’s behemoth. Believe it or not, I’ve had my suspicions over the true quality of Vice City and only now; with it flying off the shelves can I investigate. Any access prior to the release has been strictly controlled, and those selective partners have issued nothing but praise. Information has been controlled tightly, in stark contrast to other games, creating an air of uncertainty. Vice City will never recreate the impact of the third game, but it will sell millions nevertheless.

Despite the hype, Timesplitters 2 is nothing more than a glorified multi-player expansion pack, and I stick by that judgement. GTA: Vice City one year on, despite the claims of the developers, has its work cut out to avoid a similar fate. Come with me, as I go beyond the visual flair and gratuitous violence and language, side step the pillaging of films to give an honest verdict on GTA: Vice City.

Most of us by now have seen John Carpenters remake of The Thing, but how many can claim to have seen the original B-movie which inspired the radical reworking? What I’m trying to say is that an original game can inspire, not a true sequel, but a reworking of the original, taking those foundations and building something similar, but not necessarily the same. Fundamentally GTA: Vice City is the same game, but with several aesthetic changes, and a new location, which will keep, the masses entertained for another year.

For those completely unaware Vice City is based upon Miami, along the magnificent Florida coastline, but you find yourself here in the 1980’s – the era of Miami Vice, loud suits, disco, air guitar and frankly bad taste. You take the role of Tommy Vercetti (voiced by Ray Liotta) a mafia tough guy sent down to oversee a drug deal, which goes badly wrong. For your own safety you have to track down the culprits and reclaim your money, before the godfather pays you a friendly visit. This brief story serves as an outline for you to investigate every slime ball in Vice City, and believe me, there are plenty of possible suspects. Here as seen before in GTA 3, you soon end up doing jobs for local bosses to gain information and influence.

The structure of Vice City is almost identical to GTA 3, albeit with a few minor improvements which maintain the essential freedom that made the original so refreshing. The missions themselves are far more enjoyable, maintaining a consistent learning curve, as opposed to the haphazard approach of GTA 3. These alone would make for a thoroughly entertaining and rewarding game, with my own particular favourite being the assassination mission on the Leaf Links golf course. The open-ended nature of the game also applies to the missions, as there is no one set way in which to approach each. Some may take out the target with a golf club; others may make an approach via a boat, or in my case jump over the fence and use the machine gun. With so many linear one-dimensional games available, this approach is as fresh as it was twelve months ago.

The main incentive to complete missions is to open up previously locked areas of the city to explore and meet new characters. A new feature is the purchase of property, which allows you a safe house nearby – vital on later missions. Beyond this it has little impact on proceedings, even though you can eventually purchase a strip club, boat yard or even a paper mill. To list a few of the highlights or activities which await you would take a feature, however the inclusion of helicopters, planes and motorcycles makes the game far more complete. Thankfully the police in Vice City are far more lenient and whilst greater in presence in more affluent areas of the city, you won’t find yourself in jail for one or two star crimes. Stars are scattered around neighbourhoods, and because of the layout of Vice City, alleyways and back passages are far more available. Police cars have been toned down; making Vice City a far more laid back, humorous experience. Certainly if you want trouble, it will find you, however Rockstar North have learnt from GTA 3 and created a fairer and more balanced game. The changes are not immediate, but this release will hold your attention far longer.

Visually GTA Vice City must be pushing the Playstation 2 at its maximum performance, as at times it struggles to cope with the amount of information and detail being thrown at it. I could mention the frame rate, blur effect (which can be turned off) or even the wonky camera inside buildings or confined spaces, but I won’t, as this game is a technical marvel. The design of Vice City is inspired, not only for its huge size and variety, but the lack of skyscrapers, tall buildings and loading. This allows you to see further and enjoy the enhanced textures, varied characters and details over the original. There is a fair degree of graphical pop-up but this has been limited as buildings are given precedence over trees, cars and pedestrians – it may not sound ideal, but it does work. The exclusive GTA deal that Rockstar signed with Sony may be to the financial benefit of both parties but for the series it may prove a hindrance. Without a high level of hard drive penetration in Europe, I’m afraid this is probably as good as it gets and Xbox owners will have to wait a few years.

The sound of GTA Vice City is glorious, expanding on an already high reputation to bring us several radio stations playing hits of the era and covering every aspect of music except punk. The temptation is to simply pull over and listen to some of the content contained within every station. Everyone will have a favourite station, and everyone in Vice City has a voice. Quality real life actors and actresses have leant their talents to the game: little has been left to chance. Rockstar North have gone further than anyone else on the format by including a DTS soundtrack, which fails to take advantage of the true power of the digital medium, but enhances the experience nevertheless.

I could go on, but I won’t, as GTA Vice City is certainly one of the best games of 2002, which should not be considered a true sequel, but something to enjoy. Where the series goes next will be interesting, however few will complain about the stop over in Vice City.