It’s hard to believe that GTA: Vice City first came out over a decade ago. I have great memories of the console and desktop versions, so I was keen to get a copy to carry with me to complement the excellent soundtrack box set.
I already knew the game was excellent, with its massive city, deep atmosphere, and free roaming gameplay, so my main concern was whether such a complex game would actually be playable on a handheld device. It’s definitely worth the purchase, but I do have some reservations…
Vice City is one of my favourite games ever. I played the heck out of it when it first came out ten years ago, and then again in 2011 after grabbing all the GTA games for a few dollars in a Steam sale. Even after that eight year gap, I could still remember my way around the city, as if it were a real place I hadn’t visited in a long time.
This is impressive; after GTA3 (which was truly revolutionary, and massively influential), lots of games went the “sandbox” route, including established games in other genres like extreme snowboarding. Vice City had a lot to live up to, and could have ended up being considered just one of the many sandbox games released that decade, but it ended up being one of the best games of that console generation. How did it achieve that?
Vice City is set in a fictional 1980s Miami, which is evident from the cars, the fashions, the greed, and especially the music. The official trailer captures the feeling well:
Speeding down the strip in the game’s version of a Ferrari Testarossa, with the blinding sunset giving way to blue and pink neon lights and the radio blaring Died In Your Arms while the DJ sings along, is often called out as a fond memory by those who played this game growing up.
And unlike many games, the voice acting actually adds to the immersion: Vice City’s loud-mouthed psychopathic protagonist is voiced by Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), starring alongside Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, Lee Majors and other Hollywood talent.
Together, they power the storyline of Tommy Vercetti’s rise to power among the drug dealers, gangsters, and other scum of the city.
In case you’ve never played a sandbox game before, the idea is that instead of the game being split into different levels, with each level containing a small environment, the game all takes place in a single huge environment, with missions scattered throughout for you to complete. To help you get from one side to the other, every vehicle in the game can be hijacked: run up to any passing car and you can hit a button to force the driver out and grab the wheel.
Some missions are simple affairs: drive from A to B to C and back to A; beat the rival gang’s members in a race; shoot all the enemies that appear without letting your boss get hurt. Others are more imaginative: ride a motorbike through a rooftop obstacle course; intimidate a jury by smashing up their cars; use an RC helicopter to drop dynamite at a building’s structural weak points. Several are quite frustrating, but you’ll usually have more than one available to choose from at any given time.
Optional side missions don’t advance the story, but offer rewards that may help you out: hijack an ambulance and you can act as a paramedic – get enough patients to the hospital on time and you’ll receive a permanent boost to your maximum health. You can also go hidden package hunting; there are 100 spread around the map, and every ten gets you a new weapon pickup or vehicle stored at your safehouse.
But the main draw of all the GTA games is in how you can always just cruise around the city, go on a rampage with a flame thrower, or fly around in a helicopter listening to talk radio if you don’t fancy the structure of a mission. The fact that this is so fun to do is thanks to the aforementioned excellent atmosphere of Vice City.
All of the above was true for the original PlayStation 2 version of the game, though, so let’s take a look at what’s changed for the Android port.
I mainly played through Vice City on my Nexus 7, but checked it out on my Galaxy Nexus as well. It’s pretty smooth on both of them, though (not surprisingly) runs better on the tablet than the phone. Fortunately the settings include several options for adjusting the graphics performance, so as long as you’ve got one of the phones mentioned in the official listing, you should be able to get it to run at a decent framerate.
Rockstar state that the port has “beautifully updated graphics, character models and lighting effects”. I’m glad they put the effort in, but I doubt I would have minded if they hadn’t changed anything – the original game still looks good today. The most obvious difference is that every character model now has fingers:
Also, the colours seem much more saturated throughout:
For the most part, although the changes seem obvious in these screenshots (such as the lack of letterboxing in the Android version’s cutscenes), I wasn’t aware of them while playing.
The important thing is that the game looks great and runs smoothly.
Vice City was originally designed to be played with a controller like this:
Ten face buttons, two analog sticks (which double as clickable buttons), and four shoulder bumpers – and the game made use of all of them. It’s seriously impressive that a touch screen – which is essentially limited to two-thumbed control – can get anywhere close to the original control scheme, but it does an admirable job. In fact, it even adds some improvements: there was no pinch-to-zoom for the camera on the PS2, for instance.
That said, it’s still difficult to do anything fluidly or with precision. I feel like someone of my parents’ generation trying to play a game with a modern controller for the first time, continually looking at the buttons, perplexed.
The touch controls are fine if you’re not under much pressure, but if you’re being chased by the police, it’s difficult even to pull off a handbrake turn. Flying a helicopter is another good example: I am again impressed by how they’ve simplified the controls to three basic actions – move up/down, tilt left/right/back/forward, rotate clockwise/anticlockwise – but with only two thumbs available it’s practically impossible to combine all three types of movements at once.
Fortunately, for a couple of dollars you can buy an OTG cable, which lets you plug a USB gamepad into the device. I used an Xbox 360 controller for the majority of my playing time, and the default control scheme fits nicely (better than for the PC, actually) – which is just as well, because it can’t be reconfigured. There are plenty of game controllers that you can clip a handset directly into, too, and I recommend using one unless you have a lot of patience.
A few songs have been taken out of the game (including Billie Jean!), and unlike the iOS and PC versions you can’t put together a radio station of your own music playlists to make up for it. This feels like a minor tragedy, but there are plenty of other excellent tracks on the in-game stations.
The most significant change, gameplay-wise, is that you can immediately retry a mission upon failing it. In the console and desktop versions of Vice City, failing a mission meant having to go all the way back to its starting point, usually after restocking your health, armour, and ammo, so this is a very welcome improvement.
Also, if you quit the game while in the middle of a mission, then the next time you load it you’ll be able to resume from the start of that mission, rather than being dropped back at your save point. Both of these changes really streamline the gameplay when you’re playing through the story.
I love Vice City, and Rockstar have done a great job of porting it to a handheld form factor, so the game already gets a 10/10 rating from me. But there’s a problem: it’s obvious, right from the start, that the gameplay is not designed for mobile. Of course it’s not – it’s from a year when the top-selling phones still had polyphonic ring tones and numeric keypads, and colour screens had only just started to appear.
My favourite quote about the GTA games comes from this article:
Try this: mention Grand Theft Auto in a room full of people who know what videogames are, and someone will lean in close to you, give a little index-finger motion, and lower their voice like they’re about to tell you a big secret: “You want to know what’s awesome about those Grand Theft Auto games? Just ignore the missions, man. Ignore the missions and just have fun.”
This port gets in the way of letting you just have fun. Vice City should, in theory, make a great, fun mobile game; I should be able to get my phone out when I’ve got five minutes to kill, go and grab a flame thrower or a military helicopter, and let loose. The chaos and freedom that GTA offers should transfer really well to a pocket device.
But it does not, because in order to gain access to a flame thrower or a helicopter, you must complete several hours’ worth of missions or collect enough hidden packages. This is a fun challenge on a console when you’re playing with a proper controller and are likely to devote an hour or two to the game at a time; it is considerably less fun on a four-inch screen with touch controls.
The big screen versions offer an easy way to get straight into some action: pause the game, tap in a cheat code, and a tank will spawn nearby, or the public will become a bloodthirsty mob, or you’ll be given a selection of weapons to play with. The Android version obscures access to these codes: you must plug in a USB keyboard or buy a special cheater’s keyboard app in order to enter them at all.
The iOS version offers cloud saves, so you can play through the missions on your iPad and pick up where you left off on your iPhone. With the Android version this is technically possible, but you’ll have to hook something clever up with Tasker and Dropbox to automatically transfer the files [Ed note: Or use DataSync or Carbon if you’re rooted]. Still, at least this means you can find a 100% complete game save online and put that in one of your save slots.
I wish Rockstar had taken the initiative that led them to add the “Restart Mission” dialogs, and followed it further to make the rest of the game more mobile-friendly, and I hope they do so for the inevitable GTA: San Andreas port.
Despite my grumblings that this ten-year-old console game doesn’t perfectly suit my desired mobile play style, I still think that Vice City is a great port of an excellent game at a fair price. Just bear in mind that it’s better enjoyed with a controller – and even better if you can plug your device into a TV as well.
If you’re not keen on the idea of getting a gamepad for your phone, then grab the desktop version of Vice City the next time it’s on sale, and get something like Super Hexagon for your Android instead.