Thank God I have a Bluetooth keyboard
Lets start out with the worst thing I have to say about GTA: Vice City. I can’t play the game without the keyboard appearing on screen. I’ve tried just about all of the tricks in the book, and the only thing that worked was syncing with my Bluetooth keyboard. While it was an annoyance for me, I can’t imagine buying the game without having a fix on hand, and having a broken experience. I have confirmed that others have the same problem; for some people this game will be unplayable.
I always enter Rockstar games with a grand image of what I am about to experience. I’ve heard this conundrum described elsewhere: the mysterious allure of the Grand Theft Auto game, even for those who know damn well that they didn’t have a fulfilling experience with the previous game in the franchise. Rockstar’s open world games have a way of doing this with their expansive environments, promises of endless activities, and the implication that maybe this time you won’t have to play as a miserable criminal.
Being a port of the original Playstation 2 release, the game held no such promise for me. Going in to the iOS version, I had only briefly played GTA: Vice City. My memories of the initial release are clouded, mostly because the game was something I technically wasn’t supposed to play at the time. So while I may have gotten an hour or two of hands-on time across several play sessions, GTA: Vice City was mostly new territory for me. I wasn’t surprised with my experience, but considering the game’s age I was more invested than I thought I would be.
Unlike GTA IV, Vice City doesn’t open with the idea that you are a man with a troubled past who, despite being forced into criminal action, is really a good guy. You play a thug, a low-rank grunt without any pretense of having a moral high ground at the start of the game. The player is thrown straight into the world, one with a story reminiscent of countless mob stories. I was surprised to see how expressive the animations were, and paired with above-average voice acting I was immediately invested in the game’s tale. This isn’t a role playing adventure, and players have little say in how the story will play out.
This highlights one of my chief complaints with the GTA Vice City, and with GTA games in general. Players are bounced about between quest givers, only to in turn have to drive to another portion of the city and complete a small action sequence and have more of the story revealed. Perhaps this is why many players find themselves diverging from the story arc and opting instead to cause wanton destruction in the open world. The low population and limited interaction of this older generation game diminish the appeal of futzing about in the open world for me, that element of the game is highly dependent on the quality of the environment. There is quite a bit of detail, but most of it is static and there isn’t a good reason to visit the many corners of the world. I am sure it was great in its time, but today it just feels like an empty clockwork city.
The fact that traffic renders within your view doesn’t help to foster the illusion of an entire living city. While this may have been a constraint in the original release, I would have hoped that this version would have seen a more significant graphical update. At a distance it is a pseudo-cartoony rendering of the fictional city, but the world is smattered with photorealistic textures that distract from its style. The game world looks best when you don’t take the time to focus on any one thing.
Music in game is a major factor in setting the tone of Vice City. Those moments where you aren’t crashing into someone and one of your favorite period songs is playing over the radio give the game a real sense of place.
With respect to controls, the game translates about as well as can be expected to iOS devices. I have never felt that vehicle handling or shooting controls were considerable strengths of the GTA franchise, so I suppose the fact that the game is playable on a touch screen device can be considered a minor miracle. Because of the constant need to drive between objectives, the player feels motivated to drive like a mad person. The lack of analogue control of the pedal also means that one is generally either not moving, or moving as fast as the vehicle possibly can. Considering the need to drive at breakneck speeds, the driving sequences would control poorly on any device. The game shoots you back to the beginning of each mission if your character dies, and I have failed multiple times after accidentally losing control of a vehicle and careening into the water.
I am certain that the touch element was my main source of frustration with the on-foot controls. Running around during a fight while also trying to shoot is a disjointed experience, and the gunfights are a mess.
GTA games are also infamously scandalous, filled with drugs, violence and sex. The thought is that the game is satirical, but it doesn’t seem like the player is supposed to enjoy those elements of the world ironically. Radio stations also play chatter that is supposed to portray the stupidity of the average person during the game’s time period, but most of the radio stations just aren’t funny.
GTA Vice City for iOS won’t wow you with anything new or exciting. The driving between mission segments is tedious, and controlling action sequences while in the missions is poorly implemented. The open world’s geometry is intricate, but manages to feel largely empty. The actual story of the game isn’t much more exciting than a typical crime movie; the game is much better at telling its story than the actual story it tells.
The ideal portion of Vice City is the “feel” delivered within the game’s opening sequences, the opening is a promise to the player that is delivered less frequently as the game becomes weighed down with its open world. GTA Vice City lives and dies by the moments where the its narrative, its visuals and music mesh together just right to create the illusion that its world is alive.
I hate to put a score on this game. Its scale and story must have been significantly more meaningful at the time of its release. I can’t help but compare it to everything I have played since that time. Those of you who have fond memories of the game may want to bring out the better controlling PS2 version, or wait for the crippling bug to be fixed in the iOS version.
GTA Vice City is available on the App Store as a Universal download for $4.99