[Due to the multi-game nature of the Definitive Edition collection, we will be classing the trilogy as a Review In-Progress. Check back in with us to see our thoughts on GTA 3 and San Andreas Definitive Edition respectively.]
Rockstar Games had the 1980s in their crosshair during the release phase of GTA 3. The fan-favorite location had appeared before in the original 2D Grand Theft Auto, but this was different. Vice City here was set to be full of bravado, neon, and Don Johnson’s wardrobe. Releasing just a year after its genre-defining predecessor, this prolific era of Rockstar Games hasn’t been seen since. Now, almost 20 years later, Rockstar has given Grove Street Games (formerly War Drum Studios) the keys to the coveted original era.
Their past with the franchise was met with mixed results. Yet, the idea of revisiting these iconic games with the delectable power next-gen hardware should be a sure-fire win, right? Well, kind of. GTA: Vice City Definitive Edition isn’t the dumpster fire you’ve seen all over social media, but it is far from perfect.
Welcome to Vice City
If this is your first time playing Vice City, there isn’t too much complexity when it comes to the story. Vice City is almost a beat for beat retelling Brian De Palma’s Scarface. An ex-con is released back into society and seeks to stake his claim of the emerging 1980s narcotics empire. Throw in a health dash of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, and some William Friedkin’s To Live and Die In L.A – now you’re off to the races. Vice City wears its influences loud and proud, which makes the world of our protagonist all the more immersive.
Rockstar doesn’t just stop with the aesthetic and narrative qualities too. Miami Vice’s own Philip Michael Thomas, Goodfella’s Ray Liotta, and even Danny Dyer are all present behind the microphone. All the ingredients are there for an enjoyable 80s action-adventure. And for the most part, Grove Street Games manage to give Vice City the love it deserves.
The most striking element of the Definitive Edition remasters is their visual upgrades. All three games have been brought into Unreal Engine 4. While some fans may have expected a full-on RAGE engine remake, Grove Street Games allegedly opted for UE4 in an attempt to retain the feel of the original games. In Vice City, the balance between the pulp comic-book style art and modern fidelity feels like it meshes the best here. At the time of writing, I dipped my toes into GTA 3 on PS5 and Nintendo Switch – which is another matter entirely visually. More on that in Kyle’s review.
Basking in the neon
Roaming around the city is mostly gorgeous, as real-time reflections bounce off your vehicle. The iconic neon of the Vice City strip cascades over the environment, looking as vibrant as ever. The remasters sport a cleaner vibe and in the case of Vice City, it works the best here. However, the same can’t be said of the character models. Personally, I’m fine with the appearance of Tommy Vercetti here – but it is his cohorts that seem to suffer.
The Sean Penn-inspired Ken Rosenberg seems fairly faithful on the surface, but there is just something off about his facial features. Avery Carrington (voiced by the late Burt Reynolds) looks squashed to the point of hilarity. Lance Vance (Philip Michael Thomas) seems to have caught a right hook, as his forehead is swollen. The attention to detail on character models ranges from intricate stitching on a shirt to baffling changes.
Thankfully, to counter-act these decisions, the actual animations themselves remain pretty much the same. This might be a divisive choice for fans looking to see more of a GTA V level of polish – but this helps to ensure Vice City feels the same, at least in some aspects. Tommy can still sprint at immense speed and jump-kick unfortunate pedestrians off their PCJ-600 motorcycle.
You can’t escape GTA V
Speaking of GTA V, their usage of “GTA V style” controls is a loose definition at best. This time around, weapons can be selected via the GTA V iteration of the weapon wheel. This is a massive win for speed, as flicking through each weapon could be a crushing penalty in the original games. The weapons themselves are the same, with their stiff aim and shaky recoil. There isn’t any Max Payne 3 or Red Dead Redemption 2 levels of gunplay to be found here – but that’s okay. With the addition of a refined lock-on system and free aim, it becomes quickly apparent just easy Vice City is.
Sure there are still downright infuriating missions. The back-to-back pain of “The Job” and “Gun Runner” is a notable kick to the head. Even in their crushing moments, the implementation of a true third-person camera is a godsend. No more awkward first-person camera with the right analog stick. This is where the “GTA V style” comparisons end on the combat front. The other main feature in this regard is the radio station selection wheel. Oddly enough, it doesn’t display the song that is playing – so finding the time when Go West’s “Call Me” is playing is still a gamble.
Sadly, the legendary radio stations aren’t stacked with their full tracklisting. This is perfectly normal, as licensing agreements expire, and in the case of estates like Michael Jackson’s – they just don’t want to lend developers the rights anymore. It is a shame that “Billie Jean” doesn’t stomp its snare drum through your speakers in the opening moments of the game. In my time with Vice City Definitive Edition, I did find it strange that songs that were supposedly removed (Lionel Richie’s “Running With The Night” for example) still played within the game. Perhaps the initial reports were incorrect, or they simply just haven’t patched it out yet.
Ready to perform?
On PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series S | X respectively, the Definitive Edition’s offer the option to choose between performance and quality (fidelity). Look, Vice City turns 20 years old next year. Larger scale games are running in UE4, with superb results. So why is it that Vice City struggles to meet its 60FPS framerate? The quality mode just isn’t worth using at all – unless you prefer to play at 30FPS with barely any fidelity differences. The smallness of Vice City’s map is more apparent than before, with little going in the environment compared to later games in the series.
It’s disheartening to see Vice City crumble when there are multiple cars and or lighting/weather effects happening in the same situation – especially when at times it can look stunning.
The biggest culprit though, as it seems with the rest of this collection, is just how bugged Vice City can be. Adding a checkpoint system is great in theory, but when it either fails to kick in entirely or causes game-ruining glitches to occur – it’s a no from me. Autosaves sometimes wouldn’t activate either, meaning I had to sit for 5 exact minutes in the Pole Position club, while the mandated mission of getting a lap dance played out. Twice.
Off into the sunset
Content-wise, Vice City still remains one of the greatest adventures in the Grand Theft Auto series. Exploring a rollicking 1980s sandbox with loving detail paid to the world and its inspiration is still joyous, nostalgic, and fun. It’s unfortunate that the growing list of performance issues keeps it from truly shining bright in the neon lights. The lack of a full soundtrack hurts and the very safe choices when it comes to the “GTA V style” additions make the experience beg for just a few more modern implementations. Removing the original experiences from digital storefronts is a cruel move too, especially for those who prefer the sixth-generation feel.
It is unlikely Rockstar will list each game separately, so for now, paying the absurd £54.99 price tag is the only way to access Vice City if this is your personal favorite. This isn’t a complete disaster, but boy, Grove Street Games could have done so much more.