Ten years is a long time. In ten years, we’ve seen technology go from basic flip-phones to what is essentially a handheld computer. We’ve seen the rise and fall of many celebrities and studios. We’ve also aged ten years, but that’s besides the point. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is ten years old, and to celebrate this, Rockstar has ported the beloved title to the iOS. When it came out in 2002, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was one of the most critically praised games of all time; its expansive world, great characters, fantastic soundtrack, and all sorts of ways to cause carnage made it a game you’d never forget. Thing is, it’s been ten years since then. A plethora of titles in the sandbox genre have paved new standards for the industry, meaning this is a tough game to critique. Of course, it’s also important to note that Rockstar built their games to stand the test of time. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is no exception.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City opens up in 1986, with news that Tommy Vercetti (that’s you) of the Forelli Family is out of prison after serving a 15-year sentence. The don, Sonny Forelli, knows that Tommy is infamous in Liberty City. Thus, he sends Tommy to Vice City to expand the control of the Liberty City mafia. First off, a drug trade. Seeing as this is Grand Theft Auto, the trade quickly falls apart, and Tommy is forced to escape with a huge loss on his hands. After being berated by Sonny over the phone, Tommy promises he’s going to get the money and drugs from the failed deal back. It’s a simple premise, but it builds into an absolutely massive story full of great characters (that are horrible people, mind you), awesome set-pieces, and really chaotic battles.
In the tens years since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was first released, I never anticipated being able to pick it up and play it on my iPhone, of all things. Luckily, this is one of, if not the best version of Vice City; the performance is top notch, with a steady framerate that held its own throughout my entire run of the lengthy story mode. High-resolution textures have coated the polygonal buildings of the city, creating an odd “pretty but flat” look. Colors make the city stand out during the day, and neon lights glow at night. Huge amounts of detail have gone into making you think you stepped into 1986 Florida. A short draw distance, model and texture pop in, and some loading stutter halt the experience, but these are predictable occurrences that never detract from the game itself. Models for characters and vehicles look great, with new HD models to bring the game to a new age. Characters animate fluidly while the cars still have the unrealistic handling that entertained millions. Cut scenes looked fantastic, though the empty Muppet mouths of the cast were rather jarring to see. Despite this, the voice acting was top-notch, and made every character seem like a human being, albeit with very exaggerated traits. New visual effects like dynamic shadows and lens flares make the game look absolutely incredible in the palm of your hand. Considering the console versions ran in standard definition, enjoying Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on the iPhone 5’s crisp retina display was quite the treat.
One thing you’ll notice immediately upon beginning this Grand Theft Auto game is that the screen is covered with virtual buttons – lots and lots of virtual buttons. You’ve got a virtual joystick to move Tommy, a button to attack with, a button to change weapons, a button to sprint and jump, a button to carjack, buttons to steer, buttons to shoot out windows, and plenty of other buttons. Normally, this would be a red alert for an iPhone game, but instead of turning your screen into a touch-sensitive monster, they work incredibly well, with context-sensitive inputs. The carjack button will always appear when you’re nearby a car, but never when you’re just walking along (and it seems to know just when to pop up, too). Car controls feel natural, allowing you to use an accelerometer, virtual joystick, or two arrows while sliding your thumb across to steer the car. Accelerating, braking, and drifting are all along the right side. Swiping below the movement stick changes radio stations (but more on that later).
Controls on foot fare just as well; navigating the city is just as easy on the iPhone as it is on consoles. Dragging on the left side of the screen reveals a virtual analog stick to move Tommy around with, dragging away from buttons moves the camera about, and tapping and holding the sprint/jump button gets you around a bit faster. Swapping weapons is as easy as swiping in the upper right corner, while shooting them is but a tap of the fire icon.
Rockstar improved the aiming system from last year’s iOS rerelease, GTA III: 10th Anniversary. While the auto-targeting in last year’s entry was sloppy and frustrating, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City handles combat quite nicely. Pressing the shoot button targets the nearest hostile enemy, and tapping an enemy auto-targets them instead. As soon as one baddie drops dead, Tommy automatically moves on to the next unfortunate foe in his path. Seeing as the game is just as challenging as it was on its television-bound brethren, this is a welcome addition.
The mini-map in the upper left is very easy to use, and tapping it brings up the entire city. While it lacks the GPS system of its older brother, Grand Theft Auto IV, the map still works quite well. The classic save system is here, and the game saves where you left off in case you jump off before being able to use a proper save point. Standard on-device storage is present, as is iCloud saving. If you want to jump from your iPhone to your iPad, and back to your iPhone, that’s entirely possible here.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City wouldn’t be the same without its memorable soundtrack. Wildstyle, V-Rock, Fever 105, and all the other stations make a return. Getting into a car and driving at breakneck speed down a highway while jamming to Anthrax’s Madhouse is an experience most games don’t give you. It’s disappointing to see Michael Jackson is absent from this version, but the fact that Rockstar re-licensed all these tracks for the 10th Anniversary is a testament to their devotion. iPhone and iPad users also get improved features for this release: you can use music from your iPhone to play on the “TapeDeck” station, letting you throw whatever modern tunes you want into 1986. If you don’t like what song came up on the custom playlist, you can shake your device to shuffle to another.
Rockstar clearly wanted to write a love letter to their fans, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City 10th Anniversary was what they came up with. Higher-resolution models and textures, new graphical effects, HD resolution of the iPhone, excellent controls, fantastic (and lengthy) story, amazing soundtrack, and a superb price point make Grand Theft Auto: Vice City a must-have for any iPhone or iPad owner.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City 10th Anniversary released December 6th, 2012 on the iTunes App Store. An iPhone 5 was used for the review.