(Keep Feeling) fascination.
In this, the month of the GTA V juggernaut (which I sadly still haven’t played), I’ve been reading and watching not just a lot of Rockstar’s latest gift to the gaming world, but the entire franchise. The humble top-down beginnings of GTA packed a punch back in 1997 and, even with its pellet gun bullets and block vehicles, there was enough blood on the screen to be as controversial as any of the later games in the series.
I was at the age when I didn’t know what a grand theft auto was, but after playing GTA on a friend’s PC I quickly found out – stealing expensive cars. After committing that crime, of course, all anyone ever wanted to do was drive around running people over, shooting cops and seeing how long you could survive before the Feds eventually killed you. I don’t think I ever finished a single mission in GTA.
The sequel refined the top down model, but missions were still a semi-attractive distraction. It wasn’t until GTA III came out that all of a sudden the city was alive around you. People in the street had conversations, arguments and fights. You could start a riot. There was night, day and different weather systems. The radio commentary made humorous references to pop culture and modern commerce tropes.
But there was something missing. The nameless protagonist (who later was revealed as Claude Speed) never said anything. The city around him – and the people in it – more than made up for it despite being a gloomy metropolis, but it was all begging for more. GTA III had changed the concept of open world and it was time to let it stretch its legs. It came the following year with GTA Vice City.
Vercetti. Remember The Name
Speaking of gangster movies, Vice City was as close as video games had come to role playing a Miami crook.
I can still hear Ray Liotta’s voice of conviction as I smashed in the shop windows in an urban mall. I was letting the shop’s owner know that there was someone new in charge of protection. I’d experienced this kind of badassery before, but Tommy Vercetti had such a certain “human” touch about him. A bit like Liotta’s Henry Hill character in the Goodfellas.
Speaking of gangster movies, Vice City was as close as video games had come to role playing a Miami crook. Scenes were lifted straight out of Pacino classics like Scarface and Carlito’s Way. You could wield melee weapons machetes, katanas and chainsaws to play that role of the psycho gangster. The mission when you end up in a low speed chase on golf carts to beat a guy to a pulp with a golf club was a perfect introduction to the further possibilities that Vice City opened up to players.
But what really made GTA: Vice City standout was the art. The ’80s were the butt of jokes for almost the entire decade of the ’90s for being so uncool, but in 2002’s Vice City the period was practically mythologised. The neon UI of Tommy’s stats matched the exterior of the clubs he would frequent. The cars, the moustaches and of course, the women. I’m not saying I endorse it, but Vice City was probably the pinnacle of the franchise’s sexism (San Andreas’ Hot Coffee not withstanding). They even got real life pornstar Jenna Jameson to voice act Candy Suxxx, whom Tommy frees from her pimp and uses her services to blackmail right wing congressman Alex Shrub.
And then there was the soundtrack. Rockstar managed to broker a deal with Sony Music to license a gammut of ’80s hits to drive along to in your freshly jacked Cheetah. Megadeth, INXS, Quiet Riot, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were among some of the best radio listens. There were also plenty of one hit wonders from dozens of other bands and artists, including Bryan Adams’ songs. The fictional 80s rocker band Love Fist had an hilarious chase mission that was an obvious nod to the Spinal Tap series.
Contrary to its review scores, Vice City wasn’t perfect. You could steal all the boats you wanted but you still couldn’t swim in the water (this was later included in the gargantuan San Andreas). The character models still had club hands with webbed fingers. The game caused an uproar amongst the Cuban and Haitian communities in Florida for the racist commentary included in the game’s dialogue, but it wouldn’t be a GTA without at least a couple of lawsuits.
While GTA III may have taken the biggest risks of the franchise, it was Vice City’s encore that received the standing ovation. It was the sparkling, shimmering colour that the GTA universe needed. And it made a lot of ’80s babies realise how cool the ’80s really were.