Rockstar Games’ marketing spend on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City helped us launch VICE magazine in the UK and kept us in food and drink for about two months. They helped us pay for the cocaine mirror cover production costs and put a ton of cash into our launch party at Fortress Studios in November 2002. The line-up was the Rapture, Trevor Jackson, More Fire Crew and I think Chris Cunningham came down and let a bunch of stink bombs off. Nobody could really smell the difference.
Cleverly, the night before the event we’d taken most of the drugs that we’d bought for the party. It was a grisly time for the constitution and one’s mental health but there was rarely a moment where something fun wasn’t happening. Because the Rockstar people were so kind to us with money and merch, there’d be piles of Vice City-related objects all over the office. They sent us the CD box set of the soundtrack, and this was such a big deal at the time that they even got Tommy Mottola to give a quote about it on the press release.
Because of my advancing years, I don’t really have the patience or time for video games anymore, but for me GTA: Vice City was the pinnacle of all video game entertainment and nothing’s been quite as great since. I love San Andreas, of course, but it was a wee bit sprawling and demanded too much of your time.
Rockstar’s open-world series was already a blockbuster, but it was Vice City that turned it into a classic. Earlier instalments offered a kind of anything-goes decoction of gangster films and exploitation flicks, finding room for everything from Goodfellas to Gone in 60 Seconds in the muddle of executions, fender-benders and shoot-outs. Vice City, however, zeroed in on a specific sub-species of crime fiction, blending the pastel real estate and tequila sunrises of 1980s offerings like Scarface and Miami Vice, and letting players explore the high – as well as the hangover – that comes with the American Dream.
Above all else, the game’s a period piece, whether you’re looking at the cream suits and espadrilles of its co-stars, or tuning into the radio stations that see you flitting between Phil Collins and Foreigner. Structurally, Rockstar’s added little that really changes the formula in ex-con Tommy Vercetti’s tale of revenge and empire building down in the Keys, but the sense of time works together with the sense of place to create a world that feels far more thoughtfully curated than anything Liberty City could offer.
Liberty City is New York, in essence: a landscape of pastiche architecture and punning names. Vice City is Miami, but it’s also the entire era in which spending serious time in Miami sounded like a good idea: there’s a shimmering glitz and superficial 80s glossiness to the game which makes the (often accidental) ultraviolence that erupts whenever you get behind the wheel or pick up a gun all the more jarring, all the more vivid.
So if the template was already there, Vice City is Rockstar finding its voice. The criminal milieu has evolved beyond the blunt cinematic homage of the early GTA games, and the narrative has yet to embrace the oddly constrictive excesses of the later instalments. Steal a car and run some lights: Vice City is as good as it gets. Not only that, it made Flock of Seagulls famous again for about six months and there was an amazing documentary about them reforming for one last time on VH1.
Grand Theft Auto V will be released in spring 2013.
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