PS2 Review: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)

Love The Aesthetics, Hate the Game.

High-waisted jeans and Lionel Richie can only get you so far.

IGN’s Top 100 Ranking: #3/100
My Rating: ★★

A gangster run-and-gun game set in a fictional 1980s Miami super-charged with cocaine, punk rock, and huge lapels?

Yes, please!

Spending your time reliving your morning commute, tedious runs to the gun store (sounds more exciting than it is), and a physical world where an ant hill can send your car careening into the Atlantic?

Not so much.

Before Vice City, I played Shadow of the Colossus. I’m not ready to write about it yet — it was eerily beautiful with an intertwined story, setting, and gameplay. The hazy and saturated landscape bled into the hunt for the colossi which further bled into actual gameplay which finally bled into the story. It felt like a river rolling down a mountain, streams perfectly placed to live out a preordained purpose.

Vice City is the opposite. Its 80s packaging is just wrapping paper trying to keep discombobulated parts together.


Radio, Radio.

While everything is drenched in 80s coloring, what really seals the deal is the radio. Every vehicle offers the chance to flip through the radio dial. Keeping with the verisimilitude of the era, each station offers a specific genre, host, and even ads.

It is hard to feel extremely immersed in such an old game — while the city seems alive at first glance, it doesn’t take too long to realize everyone is an automaton. There is no magic feeling where reality and imagination mix to make you feel “there.”

However, riding along with the radio blaring 80s funk with disc jockeys playing their part faithfully gets it as close as it can.

How Absurd.

Outside of the 80s anthem, the other theme is the ethos of the GTA brand: absurd irreverence.

A mission early on consists of you taking out a cadre of chiefs outside their place of work by getting into a meat cleaver battle. Another is the cliched “snuff out the turncoat gang member” but with a twist: it has to be done by chainsaw. You end up chasing him down in the open streets of Vice City as the robot denizens of the city sometimes move out of your way.

And who can forget when the French military show up?

The radio has a right-wing channel mocking the talking points of free speech, taxation, and gun rights (aside: while we find ourselves supposedly embroiled in a new culture war of free speech vs. wokness, it was eye-opening to hear how nothing has changed – same talking points and same examples).

At one point, there was even an ad on the radio to begin worshiping the deity Thor. I’m not quite sure if it was supposed to be pure mockery or a satire, but it did require me to dust off references in Norse mythology. I always appreciate a game that assumes the player is well read.

Hey: at least you didn’t get run over.

And let’s not forget the actual attraction of GTA: Vice City — property damage and public harm. As dumb teenagers, we didn’t have a feel for the aesthetics for the game. We just appreciated the freedom to do “what we want” even if that meant mowing down pedestrians after stealing someone’s car.

I was shocked at how little pushback the game gave about this behavior. More than once during a mission I completely plowed into a group of people on accident (more on this later — seriously not my fault!), and I only got one police star meaning as long as I was on good behavior for the next 30 seconds I would be fine.

How is that for remediation.

Another successful trip in GTA: Vice City.


Who’s Gonna Drive You Home Tonight?

The car is the central protagonist of Vice City. You need it for everything: missions, shopping, saving, traveling. Going anywhere on foot is non-negotiable as it easily adds to your travel time by a factor of 10. You spend 80% of the game driving places to do 20% of the things.

Unfortunately, driving is awful, but it is not the car’s fault. The controls feel responsive and make sense. Sports cars handle better and go faster than plodding work vans.

The problem is the environment.

Obstacles everywhere.

The streets are chocked full of “life.” Cars aimlessly drive the roads clogging up highways as people mill around on sidewalks. Driving requires you to weave in and out traffic to avoid all of them the best you can. Of course there is no way to do this — you will mangle two to three people per trip in your car.

If you somehow avoid people, you will then certainly run into other drivers, and this is where the real fun begins: the physics in this game make no sense.

A small bump on a fender will send you careening into the sidewalk as you lose absolute control of your car. After hitting the wall, it will act like sticky glue as you try and separate yourself from it. In your angst to get free, you will then inevitable hit a park bench that catapults you across the street into a light post…and on and on and on.

There is initial appeal. You get to live your life as a wreckless, sociopath and seeing your car bounce from sidewalk to sidewalk adds some “gasp” factor. Once the shine wears off, however, you want to get down to business but will have to fight the car the rest of the way.

WASTED! (your time that is)

Time to Waste.

I appreciate a game that does not waste my time.

I expect oscillations between highs and lows with strategic lulls to give players well deserved breaks from moteney. There is none of that here. The very fabric of Vice City’s gameplay means lots of wasted time.

The game is about completing missions. Most often, it will be too chaotic for you to successfully achieve your first time. The camera is horrible so you’ll miss a jump and the target gets away. Or because you have low damage threshold, you will walk into one room accidently and die. Maybe you missed your turn — oops, now you are in a river for an instant death.

No big deal…except replaying missions takes way more time than it should.

Man, I died…well I just have to take a R on route 11, L on grove, go through three lights, take a R at the strip club, go down boulevard, pass over monument avenue, and then I’ll be at my first stop out of three!

If you fail by dying, you end up at the closest hospital. Since you lose all items from death, you will have to drive to a gun store. There are two of these on the entire map each with different weapons. If you want the uzi, well that’s the south part of town on the Eastern Island. Since driving is so hectic, it could be a couple minutes or five depending on how many pedestrians you hit.

Then, you have to go the location that GIVES you the mission. Another 2 to 5 minutes of driving. Once there, you can skip the cutscenes, but then have to drive to WHERE the mission actually happens. Another 2 to 5 minutes.

The real travesty – many of these missions are 5 minutes or less. So you spend around 10 minutes to replay 5. It only takes a few failed missions for this ratio to get severely out of whack.


In one particularly tricky sequence, you have to gun down enemies from a helicopter (trigger warning: aiming is awful, so just hold down the trigger and hope for the best). After that, you enter a building on foot where due to lack of being able to control the camera, you are shot up by people you can’t see.

Another failure, another ammo run. On my third attempt, I was leaving after getting the necessary equipment. I nicked someone’s bumper and barrel rolled into the river — instant death as the robots continued to walk by.

Welcome to GTA: Vice City!

Other People’s Takes:

  • Everything is Bad For You: “The story missions themselves are mostly fun as well, though of course the developers had to include a few bullshit gimmicky ones that might make you tear your hair out while trying to complete them.”
  • Dazcooke: “One minute you’ll be chasing down a French guy who has stolen some hardware, the next you are blowing up an apartment building with a toy helicopter, then staging a grand shootout in a mansion: the game is always throwing new challenges at you.
  • Greg Horror Show: “This setting also meant a chance to do everything bigger and better – fast cars? check. Lots of neon? check. Cheesy music? check!!!”

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