Rockstar’s slick and stylish 80’s throwback open-world action game makes some smart improvements to the base formula, becoming one of the PSP’s most essential titles.
World-building & Story
Acting as a prequel to the original Vice City, Stories follows the life of Vic Vance, brother of Lance Vance who gets roped into the drugs trade in the titular city. The game takes place over a number of years and starts in the early 80’s with Vic as a Corporal in the US Army, before he gets framed, stripped of his title and falls deeper into the criminal underworld.
The plot here is the usual tale of criminal activity and to be honest, passed me by while playing. That’s not to say it’s bad – you’re given plenty of characterisation and motive and will play some truly thrilling missions (picking up drug shipments at the dock while avoiding the DEA, escaping an abandoned power plant and assaulting a drug stronghold by helicopter being particular highlights), but I did feel the story was merely a means to an end (although I did appreciate the numerous ties to previous entries).
The Grand Theft Auto series has always included a wide range of absolutely bonkers characters in its plots and that’s fully on point here – you can expect everything from corrupt Army Sergeants, intimidating Cuban drug Lords and even Phil Collins himself, in a cameo that was hilarious and works surprisingly well. My two favourite cast members were Lance Vance (returning from Vice City and still as bonkers as ever) and Reni, a transsexual film maker who helps fix up Vic with a few important contacts. Interacting with them is probably the best part of the story as you an expect plenty of profanity-laden humour to spice things up.
Another major element of the franchise is satire and again, this is fully represented here. None of it is subtle – whether it’s the ridiculous shop names (“Hardcore Pawn”) or the stupid things sputtered by the radio presenters (“I’ve got fun sensibilities, sexual ambiguity and a synthesizer!”), all of it is over-the-top and made me laugh out loud regularly. The fact that the game can tackle some serious content in such a humorous manner is commendable and really a testament to the writers at Rockstar at the time.
Undoubtedly the star of the show is Vice City itself. Set years earlier than the PS2 entry, it’s more crime-riddled with some different elements (trailer parks, fairgrounds) but its fictional interpretation of Miami is just as glorious as ever. You’ll drive alongside sun-soaked beaches, through neon-lit city streets and around mansions and greenery in the suburbs, all the while blasting some brilliant licensed 80’s music – the simple act of exploring this gorgeous place is amazing in itself.
So while the intricacies of its plot may not be the most gripping, all the other elements of Vice City Stories are massively on-point – making a narrative experience that you’re really not going to want to miss.
Presentation & Sound
While it won’t win any awards for its graphics, Vice City Stories had plenty of moments of beauty and is an incredibly impressive technical feat considering everything that can happen on screen at once, all running in the palm of your hand.
So I want to spend most of the time in this section talking about Vice City itself. Put simply, it’s one of the most immersive locations I’ve ever come across in a videogame and the vast majority of that is down to the presentation which although simple, fully embraces its 80’s inspiration. This is most evident in its packed urban areas which are filled with neon signs, seedy motels, tight alleyways and just a general lived-in feel.
All of this is in stark contrast to the more rural areas – one of my greatest pleasures in this game was blasting along a palm-tree lined street next to the water while the sun set in a beautiful mix of oranges and purples on the horizon, which is the kind of moment you can find yourself lost in. There’s plenty of other times like this – exploring all the posh mansions in the green hills and the golf courses that surround them, taking a detour through the gritty dockland or meandering through the river, Vice City Stories is full of breathtaking moments.
This serves to demonstrate what a diverse location that has been created here that elevates well above its simple graphical elements (things like textures are poor and buildings can look blocky). Unfortunately it comes at a cost – there’s plenty of pop-in from distant objects when you’re driving and the framerate can get a bit iffy when a lot is going on, but these are just small concessions for such an impressive handheld title.
In terms of other elements, character models are decent enough and although they’re fairly chunky (particularly with things like hands), they animate well especially in cutscenes (shout out to Reni for being the most memorable cast member). What’s impressive is that there are quite so many models for NPC’s filling the streets, something that’s repeated with cars – you’ll come across tonnes of different types and it’s quite enjoyable hunting around to find one you like.
I need to make a special note of the sound here which is an integral part of the package. Voice acting is professional and highly impressive – plenty of celebrity cameos like Danny Trejo are mixed in, but Vic himself steals the show with a successful performance that makes him likeable above his horrible deeds. Meanwhile the soundtrack is one of my favourites in gaming ever and absolutely helps sell the atmosphere – everything from mainstream staples like Blondie and Phil Collins are here to more forgotten stuff like ABC and Laura Branigan. I absolutely loved scrolling through the stations (complete with DJ’s offering commentary) and finding something I wanted to drive to.
Gameplay & Content
As a pioneer among open-world games, Grand Theft Auto has always tried to innovate to stay ahead of the curve. While Vice City Stories offers gameplay largely similar to PS2’s Vice City, the fact it has been condensed down to a handheld is miraculous – and a few nice additions ensure this is a classic you won’t want to miss.
So you’re almost immediately plonked into the massive open world of Vice City as soon as you’ve booted up (after doing a couple of tutorial missions to set the tone) and are given free reign to do what you want, which is a liberating feeling so early on. You can undertake missions by going to markers on the map (there will always be 2-3 of these at any one time), hunt down side content or simply explore around to see the sights and sounds – the possibilities are fairly endless!
Of course, you’re quickly going to want to find a vehicle to get around in – true to its name, Grand Theft Auto allows you to steal almost any car, truck or bike that’s around (including those that are being driven, simply by throwing the driver out) and go on your way. The driving mechanics here aren’t the greatest – cars have a habit of spinning out, trucks are slow and cumbersome while bikes have barely any weight, but it’s a fun enough means of getting around.
A large amount of the missions are based around driving – these can range from transporting a drug shipment from the docks while evading police to acting as the getaway driver after a heist in a bank. One of my favourites involved acting as a stuntman on a film set and having to take the most dangerous (but exciting) route while ramming other cars off the road to keep going – Vice City Stories is full of inventive moments like this which always keeps it feeling fresh.
When you’re not in a vehicle you’ll be making your way around on foot – Vic can run, jump and swim but he’s mostly going to be engaging in firefights with police and other gang members via some simplistic third-person shooting mechanics. One shoulder button locks on to the nearest enemy while square shoots and you can toggle between weapons with the dpad. There were times I found it a little finicky (especially when you’re overwhelmed by foes) but it does the job and there’s a huge range of weapons here, which are all fun to mess around with.
Speaking of messing around, one of Grand Theft Auto’s greatest pleasures has always been causing havoc in its open world and that’s present and correct here, providing some of its most memorable moments. This can range from harassing pedestrians in the street (you’ll get some very funny reactions) to robbing shops and dealing with the inevitable police response (which escalates to SWAT teams if you let it get out of hand). Honestly I had the most fun just trying to get to places – I’d pass a hotel in the environment and try and find ways to get onto the roof, or see an island in the middle of the river and try to figure out if I can reach it before running out of stamina.
Of course, there’s plenty of actual side content to do too that actually tends to be the most interesting of all – for example if you steal an ambulance you’ll get missions requiring you to pick up patients, while stealing a taxi will lead to a Crazy Taxi-esque mini-game of whizzing round the city collecting fares. There’s a driving range, a shooting gallery and plenty of other options here meaning there’s always plenty to see and do (including finding and releasing 99 red balloons!).
The biggest addition in Vice City Stories over previous entries in the franchise is the addition of its empire-building mechanic that has you becoming a true criminal lynchpin. There are a number of buildings around the city that belong to various different gangs – by attacking these, destroying the goods inside and killing everyone there you’ll be able to purchase territory and be able to build up the site as your own business – which can range from brothels to drugs dens, all of which will periodically make you money (which you’re informed of on a beeper, a little touch I loved).
Of course, doing this does bring with it some issues – the gang you deposed will want to take their territory back meaning you’ll often have to return to your building to defend it and there’s always the risk of police raids too, which can get a little tiring when you’re constantly running around to defend. Yet the benefits vastly outweigh it and create a superb meta-game of resource management – especially when you start undertaking business-centric missions to raise your reputation and in turn financial gain from them.
If I had to criticise one thing about the game, it’s that the difficulty could be tuned up a little too high at times – some missions throw incredible odds at you, particularly when you’re evading police who seem to be everywhere all the time and are capable of using spike strips and shooting out your tyres to easily take you down (which is a great bit of realism but quite frustrating to come up against). There were times I had to put Vice City Stories down and come back to it thanks to being a little bit annoyed at just how much I was expected to do.
Yet for every moment of frustration there were a dozen other times where I was blown away by how fun, silly and creative the game could be (particularly some of the later missions that provide new vehicles like boats and helicopters which open up Vice City even more) and that’s what I came away remembering here – not the little niggles, but the overall experience which is not only one of the finest I’ve had on the PSP but one of the most enjoyable I’ve had in gaming in general.
There’s plenty to enjoy here – at least 20 hours of content and that’s not even counting all the side missions and activities you can do, meaning you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck with this one.
A remarkable handheld experience that is every bit as good as its console counterparts, Vice City Stories is an engrossing open-world adventure that’s worth playing. The setting is inspired, the cast of characters incredibly memorable and the game is bursting at the seams with content – it really is the full package that’s just as good now as it was 12 years ago.