As Hall & Oates warmly warble on Flash FM, Tommy Vercetti really is Out Of Touch. Compare him to the cutting-edge trio of Michael, Trevor and Franklin from Rockstar North’s latest Los Santos sandbox, and the Scarface-aspiring wiseguy is outdated like the mammoths in the La Brea Tar Pits. He can’t slow down time while shooting (hell, he can’t even move when firing), he can’t stick to cover, and he sure as sucrose can’t Google Earth himself into the sky so you can play as one of his hillbilly pals. But boy, does he have style.
GTA: Vice City thrives on a sense of flair unlike any other game. Rockstar’s eye (and, more importantly, ear) for period-defining cultural flourishes elevates its ’80s Miami-influenced open world to the status of modern masterpiece. Ruffling the hair of the decade it so affectionately mocks before pulling down its parachute pants, Vice City knows the era was equal parts awful and amazing. For every pedestrian strolling out of Electric Boulevard sporting a lurid pastel suit with the sleeves rolled up, a quick blast of Frankie Goes To Hollywood on Wave 103 is only a D-pad tap away. Never before has a game so perfectly captured a sense of time and place with such a wry eye for detail.
Weirdly, the actual city is perhaps the least interesting Rockstar has ever built. Geographically, it borders on being a bore at times. Lacking the ever escalating hills of San Fierro, the bumpy, intimate boroughs of Liberty City or the long stretches of yawning tarmac seen in Las Venturas’ strip, the tropical town often offers a flat, samey drive. And yet, that sense of style once again sweeps in to make the save like a legwarmers-wearing Superman.
Bomb across Starfish Island (with its recreation of Tony Montana’s mansion) on a motorbike, the wind ruffling Tommy’s shirt, and Vice City surges to life. Take to bleached-denim-blue skies in the series’ first flyable whirlybirds and the sweltering playground beneath starts to sing. Or perhaps you’d rather jog down Ocean Beach, indiscriminately swinging a chainsaw at rollerbladers as the sun rises over a nearby lighthouse. It’s this unrelentingly cheery colour palette that makes Vice City a summer holiday you never want to end.
Unlike GTA 3’s Claude, your felon here hasn’t been hit with a dose of laryngitis. Conjuring memories of Henry Hill’s pitch-perfect narration in Goodfellas, Rockstar pulled off a masterful signing when it cast Ray Liotta as Vercetti. The triple-A games of today may be flooded with more celebs than kicking-out time at The Viper Room, but back in 2002 hearing a respected Hollywood actor voice a character was a huge deal. And it’s Liotta’s sarky, sardonic turn that injects Vice City’s lead man with real charisma and menacing humour.
It’s a perfect storm of a game. Whip up gaming’s most apt soundtrack (drown your lugs with some Blondie, Toto and Run DMC), add an era utterly ripe for Rockstar’s scathing satire, then mix it with a glistening, sunburnt city, and you have an F5 to conquer all comers. Arguably, it’s still the most evocative open world ever made. Yes, it lacks the scope of San Andreas and more imaginative missions of GTA 4, but Vice City is a total triumph of both style and substance. The ’80s have never been more acceptable.