While the mega-hit “Grand Theft Auto 3” was flying off of shelves last year, Rockstar North was already hard at work on its successor. The product of its labors, “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” is by no means a sequel to the mega-popular third installment, but instead, is more of an upgrade – a video gaming equivalent to a super-sized combo.

Paul Wong
Paul Wong

“Vice City,” by design, looks and feels like Miami at the peak of the explicable and despicable excessive ’80s. The story focuses on the recently released-from-prison happenings of central character Tommy Vercetti. Contrasting the silent unnamed character from “GTA3,” Vercetti is voiced by Ray Liotta, immediately linking the game with Scorcese’s “Goodfellas.” The addition of a central character, with a personality, a voice and a lot of dialogue (Vercetti yells at pedestrians as he jacks their cars) is a polarizing one to fans of “GTA3.”

Liotta isn’t the only celebrity offering his voice to the “Grand Theft” series. Burt Reynolds and Luis Guzman both lend their pipes as a couple of big-time criminals in the game’s early going. Dennis Hopper, Fairuza Balk and retired porn star Jenna Jameson are other members of the “Vice City” cast. None of the game’s voice acting is as memorable as David Hayter’s work with Konami’s “Metal Gear Solid” series, but it most definitely augments the storyline, rather than detracting from it.

One of the central lures to “GTA3” was the anonymity of its main character, who took orders and carried them out, silently – this facet allowed gamers to insert themselves and their own personality into the narrative; now, that personality is dictated.

When a cocaine deal goes sour in the game’s opening moments, Vercetti is forced to try and recover the snow he lost in sunny Vice City. From here, he encounters a usual suspects lineup of characters, from a coked out lawyer all the way to the members of the Hatian district, one of the many ethnic groups residing in the culturally diverse Vice City.

With the upgrade of “Vice City” much of the team’s work went toward the bigger, faster, hyper-excessive culture that marked the ’80s. “Vice City” now offers over 150 drivable vehicles, extending far beyond the simple realm of automobiles that “GTA3” offered. In addition to a larger standard fare smorgasbord of fast cars, Vice City’s streets are crowded now with motorcycles, amongst a ton of new pedestrian models.

Despite the game’s engine being almost identical to its predecessor, “Vice City” has undergone a number of substantial upgrades. Most noticeable of these is the game’s graphics. Where “GTA3″‘s Liberty City was industrial and run down, at times pixilated with buildings flickering in and out of the horizon, “Vice City” and its engine irons out the visual bugs. The difference is clear as the warmth of Vice City’s climate is captured – hazy heat-lines drift throughout the city’s streets, blinding sunspots appear while driving through the town. During the nighttime sequences, the lighting is incredible – each bulb casts a humming luminescence and the warm light trails of cars through the night is breathtaking. Instead of buildings leaping up on the horizon, the background is deeper than in “GTA3,” players will be able to see buildings deeper into the distance with the improved depth of field.

Visually, the game is tweaked with all of the bells and whistles, refining the aeshetic short-comings of the third installment in the once-cult-enshrined, now hailed and reviled “Grand Theft Auto” series.

In addition to vastly improved graphics, Rockstar Games fleshed out the sound and music exponentially in the posh, hedonistic Vice City. Liberty City’s own Lazlow is working in Vice City, holding down DJ duties for Vice City’s own VRock radio – a smattering of ’80s schmaltz. The game’s radio stations are even deeper than before, this time incorporating a slew of period songs from the ’80s.

Unfortunately, the often shoddy controls and moody targeting system of “GTA3” weren’t given the same redux as the graphics and sound. Running, a crucial aspect of the cop-fleeing, is jerky and choppy – Tommy runs inconsistently and the controls are pretty touchy. Similarly, the melee weapons firing system isn’t particularly responsive to player control. The circle with a dot in the center is insufficent to the requirements that the game neccessitates. The targeting system of pistols and shotguns has been improved, with a red lock on indicating the target. This makes the shooting a bit easier in the game, but the tricky targeting system is still one of the title’s largest flaws.

No fault of Rockstar Games, but a flaw nonetheless is the terribly slow load times experienced in “Vice City.” The load times are at their worst when the game begins – it feels like forever from the PS2’s power on until game time.

While a definite improvement over its predecessor, “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” is more of an expansion pack than it is a sequel. Much has been revamped and improved, however, the game is far from perfect. Slow lag times, oft-irksome controls and problematic camera angles detract from a game highlighted by upgraded graphics and sound.

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