Who says you can’t review a game that came out over 10 years ago? Vice City Stories hold a special place in my heart, and as far as I know, I might be the only person on the planet that has actually played it. This hidden gem of a game gets a bad rap, but I promise there is more than meets the eye here. So, let’s dive in to why I think Vice City Stories is the second best 3D universe GTA game of the series (behind San Andreas), and why Rockstar seems to hide this game from the world.
While I did play this back in the day on my PS2 in 480i glory, you can enjoy this emulated version in crisp 1080p thanks to modern day upscaling (which I highly recommend for you to enjoy the most).
Vice City Stories starts as every other GTA game: solo loser guy comes to town, makes a bunch of enemies right away, things get way worse, and then the universe flips upside down and suddenly you’re running 7 different totally legitimate businesses and flying helicopters in your spare time. Okay, so maybe not quite that, but the overall arc of Vic Vance, the main protagonist, and the dark undertones of the game right off the bat had me hooked into a story that has a bit more grit than other entries in the series. Vic is initially in the military, but due to several bad decisions with his commanding officer, is promptly kicked out on his butt. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Vic decides to trust just about everyone he meets – and almost dies several times due to this weirdly trusting trait. His own brother has nearly cost him his life or most of his money about 5 times in the first half of the game. And his own mother steals a boatload of drugs!
But remember, Vic is actually the good guy. All he wants to do is take care of his sick brother and addict mom but gets sucked into doing terrible things to/for terrible people in the name of honor. His other brother, who you might recognize from his role in Vice City, Lance, only serves to push the envelope in getting Vic into a game he doesn’t want to play. Through in some family issues, an odd love story with the first infant in a GTA game, and more cliche characters than you can shake a stick at, and you’ve got a game that goes from interesting to weird and spicy in about an hour.
While not as moving or even clever as other entries in the series, Vice City Stories stands on its own for telling a story rooted in some deep hellish reality that only grows in Florida. The ability to buy a number of different properties around the map and spin up different businesses (and grow them from small to large operations) is something I wish was in other titles and is fleshed out nicely. Rival gangs attack your businesses in retaliation of you growing your empire, buildings all over the map can be taken over or destroyed, and since mission payouts are pennies, businesses are the only way to make real money.
The world is the same as you remember from Vice City, although takes place a few years before when the city still had neon lights and a sense of style. You’ll see some recognizable faces from Vice City, like Diaz and Phil, as well as some new members that don’t quite make it to the sequel. I have to point out that most of the NPCs have real personality visually now, and cars have a nice reflection effect not seen in any of the non-stories based titles. The PS2’s “trails” effect also adds some bloom lighting that changes the tone of the game a lot.
Damn this game can be really unforgiving. The number of times I wanted to throw my controller across the room from having to endure the same missions over and over again because of the weird spikes in difficulty. These finicky missions seem to be either from a lack of testing or intentionally as some of them unlock bigger chunks of story and content.
There are slowdowns and visual hiccups, especially when there is a lot of action going on, but it isn’t game breaking and perhaps due to the mobile porting.
From being a PSP title first, I think they were aiming for a style that favors quicker missions and more chaos. This is also apparent in the PS2 version as the controls were not really updated for the added joystick and honestly that is the biggest downfall of the game. The control scheme was never adapted fully to having 2 joysticks, resulting at aiming at the screaming pedestrian down the street while a cop is standing next to you shooting you in every part of your body. Their aim is freaky good now and time to death is quite low with 2 badies 6ft away.
The game will even start a mission with a handful of enemies all aiming at you, giving you about 3 seconds to start running for cover or having to sit through the same cutscenes over again. There is “trip-skip” for some of the longer drive missions, but you have about 4 seconds from the fade to black to trigger it or you get to drive all by yourself again and again and again.
Rival gangs can also get really fucking annoying. Attacking you in waves endlessly until certain death without really giving you a breath between the previous attempts on your life. 2 dudes on a motorcycle can really do some damage when you’re just trying to start a mission.
Lastly, I am going to nit-pick a bit here, the writing isn’t that good at times. I don’t mean the voice acting, that is pretty solid and the characters themselves are what they are. It’s more apparent in the smaller side missions or “filler missions” that maybe they were added late in development or something, but sometimes Vic really just has no reaction to something happening on screen. His weird tough guy thing equates to him staring blankly for a moment before moving on to the murdering or thievery that he is supposed to be against.
Look I get it, this game was released in 2006, at a time when we were all holding our breath for GTA IV and the next generation of consoles was already showing us what gaming was about to become. The beauty in this game is the nostalgia and charm of the really neat environment the team have created. On the PSP, Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories were the top games of the console. But still, VCS did not do well enough to receive the same amount of love as the other titles.
Vice City Stories is on my must play classics list, even if it means getting my PS2 emulator working in 2023. My hope is one day this game gets the attention it deserves, and more people can experience a decently written backstory to a classic GTA game.
And please, please, can we get this game released on mobile or anything?!