"You know what I hate about the Grand Theft Auto series? The damn cops. "
You know what I hate about the Grand Theft Auto series? The damn cops.
The GTA games, as I’m sure you know, have you completing dozens upon dozens of missions for various clients among large sandbox worlds. These missions usually have you doing a lot of illegal stuff – shooting people, stealing money, hijacking cars, and so on and so forth – which naturally attracts the attention of the local law enforcement. This I understand. Furthermore, in a game that essentially lets you do whatever you want, it’s important to keep the police on steady watch so as to prevent the player from getting out of line. The idea of cops in the GTA universe makes sense.
Your wanted level is ranked out of six stars. When a cop spots you pulling a minor offense, you’ll go up to the one-star rating, and the guy will simply chase after you and attempt to punch you to death. (Reasonable.) If you’re evil enough to jack your rating up to two stars – which can be done by simply targeting a cop, and that sometimes happens by accident – you’ll see an abrupt change of attitude. The police constantly know exactly where you are, and as you drive down any given street you’ll see cop cars flying out of nowhere, crashing into your own vehicle, forming metallic barricades before the police step out and riddle you with incessant gunfire. It’s like all the cops who were ever involved in one of those crazy-ass TV car chases were brought together to form the law enforcement unit for an entire city. And you’ve still got four stars to go!
Getting as few as two stars essentially means that you’ve failed any mission you’re currently playing through, as the police make progress near-impossible. Okay, so just don’t attract any attention, right? Yeah, well, the game has other ideas at times. I remember one mission where I was instructed to travel to three designated vans throughout the city and blow them up with grenades, all the while gunning down any rival gang members that might be protecting them. I got to the first one and took out the guards with little fuss. I equipped my grenades, stepped up to the van, pointed myself in the right direction, and hit the button. And then, without warning, without reason, without any instruction from his gamer master, the character did a ninety-degree turn and threw the grenade at a fucking cop car.
When the subject of GTA comes up in message board chat or with friends, I use that example, pulled right out of Vice City Stories, to point out exactly how little progress this series has made in some areas since it hit the big one in 2001. I used to love the series, and in fact there are things I love about Vice City Stories, yet I am getting far too weary of the series’ annoying conventions, like the bastard cops or the awful targeting system. Thank god you can swim in this game, or else I would have lost all hope.
Vice City Stories is, as far as I can tell, an exact recreation of the game world many of us spent so many good times in when we were playing Vice City a few years ago. That it stars a character who is not Tommy Vercetti and features a set of entirely new missions saves it from being a flat-out port, though the thrill of exploring a brand new GTA game world is unfortunately not here. Yet it’s still amazing that the guys at Rockstar were able to so accurately rebuild Vice City on the tiny PSP screen. The beauty of Vice City Stories isn’t technical – though it does look quite good as far as handheld games go – but in its scope and scale, the sheer size of the world you’re in. This has always been the appeal of the series and they’ve done a magnificent job pulling it off.
I note that one of the improvements Vice City made over its predecessor was its variety in mission design, where every single challenge I was presented with felt like something entirely different from the last. The new game has plenty of firefights and “storming” missions, the kind where you bust into enemy territory give them a face they won’t forget. But it also tries to be all creative every once in a while by presenting a quieter side that no one really wants to see. At one point in the game, a female character challenged me to a race in what appeared to be dune buggies. You’re probably familiar with the GTA series’ checkpoint-based “race” sequences, so I’m sure you’re aware of how tedious they are. Add in the frustration of handling your vehicle with the PSP’s damned analog nub and I’m fairly certain I never had the patience to actually complete this mission.
Which leads me to another point. Control has never been a high point in the series to begin with. Vice City Stories features what is essentially the same control layout we’ve been using since GTA3, but of course made even more complicated by the limited PSP setup. The combat has always felt flawed, and feels even more so when contending with the handheld’s button layout; ditto the camera, which, simplified even further for PSP use, never quite gives you all the freedom you want. With only six action buttons and a lack of a second analog stick, I find it easy to sympathize with Rockstar given their limitations. But that the controls are understandably cramped doesn’t change the fact that they’re cramped.
Vice City Stories gets enough right – particularly when it’s doing the things that have worked for the series in the past, beating up innocent bystanders and all – that at a glance this appears to be a fantastic little miniaturized version of the Vice City we all know and love. Watching someone else play this game for the first time, that’s what I thought. But once control turned over to me, I understood that harsh profanity and shades of pink are not enough to properly represent Rockstar’s ‘80s faux reality. Vice City Stories always looks right, but it never quite FEELS right, and that made me uneasy.
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