As a PSP game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories stands as one of the best handheld games on the platform, it's a great looking game with a lengthy story, a few memorable characters and a lot of fun 80s music. This PlayStation 2 port may have a lot of the same features as the original PSP game, but at the same time it feels somewhat unnecessary due to the fact that we've already had a Grand Theft Auto game based in Vice City on the format. Still, this "new" Grand Theft Auto game is a steal at $20 and does offer enough exciting missions to warrant a try … especially if you're the type of person who didn't catch Vice City Stories last year on the handheld console.
Welcome to Vice City ... again. This is Vice City Stories, a prequel to 2002's runaway PlayStation 2 hit, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Set in 1984, Vice City Stories is the beginning of the modern Grand Theft Auto tale. As you might expect from a prequel like this, Vice City Stories manages to introduce us to several popular characters and makes a lot of fun of things that eventually happen in future installments. Being a port of a PSP game it's not nearly as daring or imaginative as what we saw in 2004's San Andreas, but that shouldn't keep you from having a great time playing through this violent (and often funny) Grand Theft Auto game.
Vice City Stories tells the tale of Vic Vance, brother of Lance Vance (who you may remember from his turn in the original Vice City). After being drummed out of the Army, Vic finds himself running missions in order to make money to support his ailing brother. At first Vic seems completely against the idea of doing any kind of illegal activity, but it doesn't take long before he gives in and spends the rest of the game delivering drugs, running from the police and killing hundreds (if not thousands) of people.
Eventually Lance Vance shows up in Vice City to create some real problems. Together Vic and Lance piss off a bunch of drug lords and other gangster types and are forced to figure out a bunch of creative ways to keep the heat off of them. In your time in Vice City you will meet a number of memorable characters, including an abusive white trash husband, a pre-op transsexual, a whole lot of Cubans, and even Phil Collins. Yes, that Phil Collins.
The game's progression is no different from that of any Grand Theft Auto title; you make your way from mission to mission in a semi-non linear fashion. That's to say, you will occasionally have the choice of which mission you want to do first, ultimately leading you through several different story lines that eventually get wrapped up in a fairly satisfying way. If you've played any of Rockstar Games' recent games you will no doubt recognize what's going on here, this is all standard stuff by now and it's clear that Vice City Stories is not trying to reinvent the franchise.
Rockstar Games is often hailed as one of the few game developers that really understands how to weave an interesting story. While that's definitely true here, early on this game wants you to be a little more trusting than you normally would be. Although Vic starts the game as a new Army recruit, he'll be asked to do some pretty questionable acts. Literally the first thing you do is secure some drugs, kill a bunch of Cubans and pick up a hooker for your superior officer, Sgt. Martinez. All of this seems a little out of place at first, but eventually the story calms down and turns into a traditional Grand Theft Auto plot.
The area of Vice City is largely unchanged from what we saw in the 2002 Grand Theft Auto game. It's an island city that is an homage to the fictional movie versions of Miami, Florida. If you loved Miami Vice or Scarface (the movie, not the terrible game) then you'll feel right at home with this over-the-top location. Initially Vice City is split into two large sections connected by four bridges. At first you will only be able to access the western half of the city, but after completing a few missions you will be able to go wherever your heart desires.
Where Liberty City was a dark and depressing metropolis setting, Vice City brings a lot of vibrant colors to your PlayStation 2. There's just something uplifting about motoring around the beach locale, full of women in bikinis and beautiful sunsets. It doesn't matter that you're being asked to do some of the most dastardly acts known to man; it just feels a lot more upbeat when you're doing it in the gorgeous weather of Vice City.
One of the biggest problems I had with last year's Grand Theft Auto game, Liberty City Stories, was that the missions were too short and simple. When Rockstar decided to release their first PSP Grand Theft Auto title they chose to simplify everything hoping that it would allow for a more pick-up-and-play style of game play. This doomed their PlayStation 2 port of Liberty City Stories, which looked a little too primitive when compared to other games in the series. Thankfully Rockstar decided to scrap those short missions and make their second PSP game play more like a traditional Grand Theft Auto game, something that works in the favor of this PlayStation 2 port. Now a mission may have three or four different things to do before you complete it, which certainly goes a long way to make this feel like a traditional Grand Theft Auto experience. This also makes the game a lot more difficult than before, but it's no more difficult than what we saw in San Andreas.
While it's true that most of Vice City Stories is the same old formula that worked in all of the other Grand Theft Auto games, there is at least one interesting piece of game play added to the mix. Well, "interesting" may be overselling it a bit. This time around you will be able to build up businesses and go on connected missions. There are a few dozen businesses scattered around Vice City, each requiring you to evict the current owners (generally by starting a big gang war) and starting anew. When the businesses are in your control you will be able to choose between several different types of jobs, including money laundering, drug dealing, prostitution and so on. As you take over these various businesses you will gain extra money which you can use to buy new weapons and land. There are missions associated with these businesses, but they are wholly uninteresting and certainly not worth talking about. While I like that Rockstar is trying something new, there's something about this aspect of the game that doesn't feel right when you're going through the rest of the game.
Vice City Stories manages to upgrade the Liberty City Stories engine in a number of substantial ways, many of which you will immediately notice. For one thing the graphics are significantly better than what we saw in last year's Liberty City Stories port. Vice City Stories still looks better as a PSP game (there's something about the small screen that hides the game's imperfections), but it 's also not as homely as what we dealt with in the PS2 Liberty City Stories. Everything runs a lot smoother and there's not nearly as much pop-in as we saw in the last model. Better yet, this time around you will actually be able to swim ... which makes a whole lot of sense with all that pesky water everywhere. Since Tommy Vercetti never took swimming lessons as a kid, this is the first time you will be able to adventure into the Vice City water without a boat of some kind.
One of the biggest improvements over Liberty City Stories comes in the way of helicopters. Just like in the original Vice City, players will have a chance to take to the skies and explore the tops of buildings. The helicopter controls feel just like they did in the original PlayStation 2 game. That's the biggest problem; while I had a lot of fun flying around on my portable system it just didn't feel as cool on the PlayStation 2. Flying in a Grand Theft Auto game just isn't as novel anymore, we've been doing that on the PlayStation 2 for the past five years. It's definitely nice to have, but there's just something about it that isn't as cool as it was when I was playing the PSP game. Sadly that goes for the whole experience, nothing about this PlayStation 2 game feels as exciting or fresh as it was when it hit Sony's handheld.
Along with the helicopters you will also notice that the speed boats and jet skis have been completely overhauled. No longer are the water crafts something to avoid, now it's actually a lot of fun to speed through the clear Vice City waterways. As I piloted by jet ski from one island to the other I couldn't help but be reminded of Nintendo's classic Wave Race series, which is certainly an improvement over what we've seen in past Grand Theft Auto outings. There are still a few water vehicles that will drive you crazy (I'm looking at you, hovercraft), but you will be able to avoid most of those in the course of the game.
Although it doesn't play a major role in the game, it's worth mentioning that Rockstar decided to add the bicycle made famous in San Andreas. I didn't notice it until late into the game, but after I located my first bike I ended up ripping through the town in a way that seemed more personal than before.
It wouldn't be a Grand Theft Auto game without a great set of radio stations to choose from, and Vice City Stories definitely doesn't disappoint. If you're one of the millions of gamers who played Liberty City Stories last year then chances are you noticed that the soundtrack was not up to snuff. It's not that the music was bad, but given its 1990s setting most people were hoping for some big name bands, perhaps a Nirvana, Metallica, Pearl Jam or something. Instead we got a bunch of no-name artists cluttering up the airwaves.
This time around Rockstar decided to go all out and give us some real 1980s tunes to listen to. Vice City Stories manages to pack in more than a hundred songs from the decade that brought us big hair, tight fitting pants and sexually confused men. The music is split up into nine different radio stations, from your rock to your new wave to your rap. You'll be driving around the city listening to selections from Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, INSX, Hall & Oates, 10CC, Eddie Money, Run DMC, Rick James, Barry White, Blondie, New Order, Human League and dozens more. And if that's not enough, Vice City Stories even continues the tradition of including a hilarious talk radio station full of jokes about the era. Sadly you can't add your own favorite music into the game like you could with the PSP version, but there's enough solid music here to where you probably won't need to.
The great audio doesn't end with the music; you will also find that the voice acting is top notch. While Liberty City Stories didn't feature a lot of recognizable names, this time around we actually have a few voices you might know. The most obvious character would be Phillip Michael Thomas (Miami Vice) who reprises his Lance Vance role. Also included are Gary Busey (The Buddy Holly Story), Luis Guzman (Boogie Nights) and Phil Collins as himself.
Phil Collins may seem like a strange choice at first, but given the context of the story it makes complete sense. While he won't be giving out orders, you will have to drive and protect Phil Collins as he attempts to play a sold out concert in Vice City. These moments with Phil Collins are among the most inspired in the entire game. There's a moment towards the end of the game where you actually get to help Phil put on a show that is easily one of the greatest moments in Grand Theft Auto history. The moments with the ex-Genesis leader are almost worth the price of admission alone. You can tell he had a lot of fun playing a fictional version of himself from nearly 25 years ago, and Rockstar even managed to get three different Phil Collins songs on the soundtrack.
Like the PlayStation 2 port of Liberty City Stories, Vice City Stories doesn't offer any of the multiplayer games. For the most part this isn't a bad thing (most of the multiplayer stuff in the PSP game was bordering on useless), but it would have been nice if they could have added something to this game, even if it's just one on one action. That's really the biggest problem with the game, as a PSP game it felt fresh and new, but as a PlayStation 2 game it feels more like a big step backwards. San Andreas had so many good ideas that it's hard to go back to this game on a home console. That's not to say that this isn't a solid action game, but it's painfully clear that it was intended for a handheld system and ported (albeit successfully) to a home console at a budget price. Had they spent more time with it they could have improved on the game and added something new, but that wasn't the idea, they just wanted to get it out there to make a few extra bucks off of this newest Grand Theft Auto game.
The good news is that people who don't own the PSP will now have a chance to experience a brand new Grand Theft Auto game, even if it is set in a location they are likely already familiar with. While the story isn't nearly as good as the rest of the games in the series and it will likely feel like a step backwards for those who loved San Andreas, Vice City Stories may be able to stamp down your excitement for the upcoming Grand Theft Auto IV for at least a few hours. At $20 it's hard to pass up, but if you're one of the many that already own the game for the PSP then there's no reason for you to buy this game again. For me I think I'm going to stick with the portable version.