Vice City started life as an expansion for Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar Games' enormous 2001 mega-hit. Early during development, the company looked at the enormous and rapid progress they were making and decided to turn it into its own standalone game. Released in 2002 - astonishingly barely a year after the previous title - it won immediate praise for its much greater scope and expanse.
Vice City is superficially identical to its forebear: you control a character, this time the named and voiced Tommy Vercetti, and guide him around a city. The goal is to make money, which Tommy achieves by doing various jobs for shady characters and gangs, as well as furthering the main story. You can get around on foot or by driving cars or sailing boats. There's also a lot of side-activities replicated from the previous game, such as working as a vigilante, a paramedic, a fireman or a taxi driver.
This game takes all these elements and expands them further. You have more vehicles to drive, including the welcome addition of motorbikes, and you can also pilot aircraft. There are helicopters (even a military chopper) and seaplanes available to speedily travel across the city, and a much greater variety of boats. The side-activities are also bolstered by the addition of a pizza delivery errand mission and being able to sell drugs from an ice cream van. There's likewise many more activities for racing (including aerial races and stock car racing). The city is also bigger, with Vice City clocking in at around twice the size of Liberty City, but being much easier to navigate thanks to a better street layout. There's a much vaster roster of weapons to use as well, with weapons now divided into categories.
In one of the game's biggest additions, you can buy up additional property in the form of businesses (including an ice cream company, a car showroom, a taxi rank and a boatyard) and, after completing a few jobs to get them up and running, collect a regular income from them.
These are all nice improvements on the formula, but the most noticeable change is the greater detail everything is presented in. Not just graphically (although the much more colourful backdrop of Vice City is a huge improvement over the grey-ish Liberty City), but in terms of story and character. Rockstar had refined the engine to more convincingly present character movement and conversations, so there's now more elaborate cutscenes before each mission, expanding on the story. Your character having a name and being able to talk immediately makes things more engaging (even if main voice actor Ray Liotta sounds like he's phoning it in about half the time) and relatable, and the game is able to better present your changing relationships with secondary characters like Lance, Kent Paul and Ken Rosenberg. Certainly the story and characterisation is a huge improvement over the very bare-bones narrative in Grand Theft Auto III.
These elements all make for a better, bigger, longer and more engrossing game than its forebear (Vice City clocks in at around 25-26 hours compared to under 20 for its forebear, though that's not counting really time-consuming activities like finding all the secret packages). The game's biggest asset, though, is its soundtrack. The game's radio stations are solid gold, packed with well-chosen tracks from the 1980s and earlier, and for many people there's still few open-world gaming moments to compare to cruising along the beach roads listening to the theme from Miami Vice.
There are problems. The game's shooting is unfortunately mostly the same as GTA3's meaning it's twitch, over-responsive and it's difficult to be precise without using scoped weapons. Fortunately, combat is fairly forgiving and the AI's shooting is far worse than yours, meaning most fights should still be easily won. GTA3's harsh save system is also still in use: there is no auto-saving, at all, so you have to manually drive to a safehouse between missions to save, and if you die halfway through a really tough mission, tough luck, you have to start from scratch. Fortunately, as with its forebear there are rarely missions that are so long that this is a major problem.
The other problem - which will vary immensely by player - is that it's hard to feel much sympathy with the protagonist. Apart possibly from GTA5's Trevor, Tommy Vercetti is easily the most amoral psychopath of a protagonist the series has ever featured, someone who's quite happy to go and murder innocents to prove his value to a potential client. Tommy is supposed to be a monster (if nothing else does, the Scarface-aping drug kingpin missions make that abundantly clear) and it certainly explains the ultraviolence even the most careful player may find themselves inadvertently unleashing, but he does feel a bit of a cartoon character compared to the protagonists we've had in the series since then.
As with GTA3, the question arises if Vice City is worth playing in 2021. This game is nineteen years old and the open-world action genre has evolved a long way since then. But I'd say yes. It's a colourful action caper with a strong story and it's genuinely impressive to see how it improved on its predecessor in less than a year of development (I suspect more time will have been been spent on Grand Theft Auto VI's fire hydrants alone, when it finally comes out). It's arguably the game in the series - even now - with the best-developed sense of time and place as well.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (****) has aged much better than its predecessor and is an interesting and rich open-world action game, if you can overlook its obviously aged graphics and sometimes clunky game design decisions. The game is available now for PC, Android and Apple devices, and of course in compatibility mode for later generations of X-Box and PlayStation.
Technical Note: As with GTA3, for this replay I used Qualcom's Definitive Edition mod. This mod replaces and updates some textures and makes the game play nice in widescreen with modern resolutions. It also eliminates some old bugs from the game and fixes the multi-monitor problem that plagued its predecessor.