Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a 2002 action-adventure game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games. It is the fourth main entry in the Grand Theft Auto series, following 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, and the sixth instalment overall. Set in 1986 within the fictional Vice City (based on Miami), the single-player story follows drug pedler Tommy Vercetti’s rise to power after being released from prison and becoming caught up in an ambushed drug deal. While seeking out those responsible, he slowly builds an empire by seizing power from other criminal organisations in the city.
The game is played from a third-person perspective and its world is navigated on foot or by vehicle. The open world design lets the player freely roam Vice City, consisting of two main islands. The game’s plot is based on multiple real-world people and events in Miami such as Cubans, Haitians, and biker gangs, the 1980s crack epidemic, the Mafioso drug lords of Miami, and the dominance of glam metal. The game was also influenced by the film and television of the era, most notably Scarface and Miami Vice. Much of the development work constituted creating the game world to fit the inspiration and time period; the development team conducted extensive field research in Miami while creating the world. The game was released in October 2002 for the PlayStation 2, in May 2003 for Microsoft Windows, and in October 2003 for the Xbox.
Upon release, Vice City received critical acclaim, with praise particularly directed at its music, gameplay, story, and open world design. However, the game also generated controversy over its depiction of violence and racial groups, sparking lawsuits and protests. Vice City became the best-selling video game of 2002 and has sold over 17.5 million copies. Considered one of the most significant titles of the sixth generation of video games and one of the greatest video games ever made, it won numerous year-end accolades including Game of the Year awards from several gaming publications. Since its release, the game has received numerous ports to many gaming platforms. An enhanced version was released for mobile platforms in 2012 for the game’s tenth anniversary, and a further enhanced version was released in 2021. Its successor, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, was released in October 2004, and a prequel, Vice City Stories, was released in October 2006.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is an action-adventure game played from a third-person perspective. The player controls criminal Tommy Vercetti and completes missions—linear scenarios with set objectives—to progress through the story. It is possible to have several missions available at a time, as some missions require the player to wait for further instructions or events. Outside of missions, the player can freely roam the game’s open world and has the ability to complete optional side missions. Composed of two main islands and several smaller areas, the world is much larger in area than earlier entries in the series. The islands are unlocked for the player as the story progresses.
The player may run, jump, or drive vehicles to navigate the game’s world. The player uses melee attacks, firearms and explosives to fight enemies. The firearms include weapons such as the Colt Python, an M60 machine gun and a Minigun. The game’s three-dimension environment allows a first-person view while aiming with the sniper rifle and rocket launcher. In addition, the game’s combat allows the player to commit drive-by shootings by facing sideways in a vehicle. The game provides the player a wide variety of weapon options—they can be purchased from local firearms dealers, found on the ground, retrieved from dead enemies, or found around the city.
In combat, auto-aim can be used as assistance against enemies. Should the player take damage, their health meter can be fully regenerated through the use of health pick-ups. Body armour can be used to absorb gunshots and explosive damage, but is used up in the process. When health is entirely depleted, gameplay stops and the player respawns at the nearest hospital while losing all weapons and armour and some of their money. If the player commits crimes while playing, the game’s law enforcement agencies may respond as indicated by a “wanted” meter in the head-up display (HUD), which increases as the player commits more crimes. On the meter, the displayed stars indicate the current wanted level, and the higher the level, the greater the response for law enforcement (for example, at the maximum six-star level, police helicopters and military swarm to lethally dispatch players).
During the story, Tommy meets characters from various gangs. As the player completes missions for different gangs, fellow gang members will often defend the player, while rival gang members will recognize the player and subsequently shoot on sight. While free roaming the game world, the player may engage in activities such as a vigilante minigame, a fire fighting activity, a paramedic service and a taxi cab service. Completion of these activities grants the player with context-specific rewards. As Tommy builds his criminal empire, the player may purchase a number of properties distributed across the city, some of which act as additional hideouts where weapons can be collected and vehicles can be stored. There are also a variety of businesses which can be purchased, including a pornographic film studio, a taxi company, and several entertainment clubs. Each commercial property has a number of missions attached to it, such as eliminating competition or stealing equipment; once all missions are complete, the property begins to generate an ongoing income available for the player.
In 1986, mobster Tommy Vercetti (voiced by Ray Liotta) is released from prison after serving a fifteen-year sentence for murder. His boss Sonny Forelli (Tom Sizemore), seeking to establish drug operations in the south, sends Tommy to Vice City to oversee an important drug deal alongside crooked lawyer Ken Rosenberg (William Fichtner). However, the deal is ambushed by unknown assailants, with Tommy and Ken barely escaping it. Angered upon hearing the news, Sonny orders Tommy to recover the drugs, alongside the money he gave to him, under threat of consequences. Seeking information, Ken points Tommy towards retired army colonel Juan Garcia Cortez (Robert Davi), who helped set up the exchange. Expressing regret for the ambush, Cortez promises to find out who masterminded it.
While investigating, Tommy meets with several people who offer him help: music director Kent Paul (Danny Dyer), who maintains connections with the city’s criminal underworld; Lance Vance (Philip Michael Thomas), who aided in the deal and lost his brother in the ambush; Texan business tycoon Avery Carrington (Burt Reynolds), who in return enlists Tommy’s help with several deals; and drug kingpin Ricardo Diaz (Luis Guzmán), who employs both Tommy and Lance. Eventually, Cortez begins voicing his suspicions that Diaz organised the ambush. Upon further investigation, Lance discovers this to be the truth and, against Tommy’s advice, tries to kill Diaz, only to get himself captured. After Tommy saves Lance, the pair find themselves forced to kill Diaz before he can retaliate. With Diaz dead, Tommy takes over his assets and, at Avery’s suggestion, works to expand his new criminal empire by forcing businesses to pay him protection money and buying out nearly bankrupt companies to use as fronts for illicit operations. At the same time, Tommy provides assistance to several prominent gang leaders in the hopes they will support his expansion, and helps Cortez flee the city with stolen military equipment.
Eventually, Sonny discovers that Tommy has gained complete control over Vice City’s drug trade without cutting the Forellis in. Enraged at his independence, Sonny sends mobsters to forcefully collect money from Tommy’s businesses. In response, Tommy kills Sonny’s men and severs his ties with him. Later, learning Sonny is personally coming to Vice City to collect what he believes he is owed, Tommy prepares to pay him tribute with counterfeit money. However, Sonny reveals that he was responsible for Tommy’s arrest fifteen years prior, and that Lance has betrayed him and allied himself with the Forellis, having felt inadequate in Tommy’s presence since his rise to power. A shootout ensues in Tommy’s mansion, during which he prevents the Forellis from stealing his money and murders Lance for his betrayal, before finally killing Sonny in a tense standoff. When Ken arrives to a scene of carnage, Tommy quickly reassures him that everything is now fine, as he has finally established himself as the undisputed crime kingpin of Vice City.
Rockstar North began to develop Grand Theft Auto: Vice City in late 2001, around the time of Grand Theft Auto III’s release. While initial development only involved creating 3D models, executive producer Sam Houser said “it really kicked off at the beginning of 2002” and lasted about nine months. After the release of the Windows version of Grand Theft Auto III, the development team discussed creating a mission pack for the game that would add new weapons, vehicles, and missions. Upon further discussion, the team decided to make this concept a stand-alone game, which became Vice City. The game was announced on 22 May 2002, during the Electronic Entertainment Expo. It was Rockstar North’s most expensive game at the time, with a budget of US$5 million. On 5 September 2002, the company announced that the release date of 22 October had been postponed until 29 October to meet product demand. By 15 October 2002, development of Vice City stopped as the game was submitted for manufacturing. Capcom published the game in Japan on 20 May 2004 for Microsoft Windows and PlayStation 2. The game was added to the Rockstar Games Launcher in September 2019.
The game is set in 1986 in fictional Vice City, which is based heavily on the city of Miami. Vice City previously appeared in the original Grand Theft Auto (1997); the development team decided to reuse the location and incorporate ideas from within the studio and the fanbase. They wanted to satirise a location that was not contemporary, unlike Grand Theft Auto III’s Liberty City. The team wanted to choose a location that had various similarities and differences to New York City—the inspiration of Liberty City—eventually leading them to Miami, which producer Leslie Benzies describes as “a party town, all sun and sea and sex, but with that same dark edge underneath”. Sam Houser called it “the grooviest era of crime because it didn’t even feel like it was crime … it was a totally topsy-turvy back-to-front period of time”. The team intended to make Vice City a “living, breathing city”, for the player to feel like “life still goes on” while the character is inside a building.
The game’s look, particularly the clothing and vehicles, reflect its 1980s setting. Many themes are borrowed from the major films Scarface (1983) and Carlito’s Way (1993), the latter for its characterisation and portrayal of nuanced criminals. The television series Miami Vice (1984–89) was also a major influence and was regularly watched by the team throughout development. Art director Aaron Garbut used the series as a reference point in creating neon lighting. In recreating a 1980s setting, the team found it “relatively painless” due to the distinct culture of the time period and the team’s familiarity of the era. The art team was provided with large volumes of research, as well as reference photographs from other members of the development team. The team organised field research trips to Miami shortly after the development of Grand Theft Auto III, splitting into small teams and observing the streets.
Story and characters
The team spent time “solving [the] riddle” of a speaking protagonist, a notable departure from Grand Theft Auto III’s silent protagonist Claude. Ray Liotta portrayed protagonist Tommy Vercetti. Liotta described the role as challenging: “You’re creating a character that’s not there before … It’s so intensive”. When recording the role, the team used blue screen in order to allow Liotta to visualise “how it’s gonna move”. The team ensured that the player felt “real affinity” for Tommy, making the narrative a key development interest. Dan Houser described Tommy as “strong and dangerous and prepared to wait for the right opportunity to arrive”. Director Navid Khonsari recalled Liotta frequently complaining on set and found him difficult to work with as a result.”In some sessions he was … into it, but then sometimes … he was very dark and couldn’t work”, said Sam Houser.Following the game’s success, Liotta reportedly complained that he was underpaid for the role.
The majority of the game’s animations were original, with only a few borrowed from Grand Theft Auto III. For the characters, the team used motion capture and stop motion animation techniques; cutscenes use the former, while gameplay movements use a combination of both techniques. The team encountered difficulty in animating motorcycle animations, due in part to the variety of models. Pedestrian character models use skins in Vice City, allowing the artists to produce more realistic characters. There are 110 unique pedestrian models throughout the game world alongside roughly 50 story characters; each character is rendered using twice the amount of polygons and textures found in Grand Theft Auto III. This also impacted the character physics, improving gameplay aspects such as weapon-hit accuracy. Some character models and scenarios were inspired by films such as The Godfather (1972), and the game’s presentation was inspired by action television shows of the 1980s. The interplay between Tommy Vercetti and Lance Vance was crafted to be similar to the relationship of Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs.
Sound design and music production
The game features 8,000 lines of recorded dialogue, four times the amount in Grand Theft Auto III. It contains over 90 minutes of cutscenes and nine hours of music, with more than 113 songs and commercials. The team was interested in the challenge of creating the game’s soundtrack, particularly in contrast to Grand Theft Auto III’s music, which Sam Houser described as “clearly satirical and its own thing”. In developing the radio stations, the team wanted to reinforce the game’s setting by collating a variety of songs from the 1980s and therefore performed extensive research. The radio stations were published by Epic Records in seven albums—known collectively as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Official Soundtrack Box Set—alongside the game in October 2002. Vice City contains about “three times as much” talk radio as Grand Theft Auto III. Producer and talk show host Lazlow Jones stated that the small percentage of station listeners that actually call in are “insane”; in Vice City, the team “bumped it up a notch”, emphasising the extremity. Dan Houser felt that the talk stations give depth to the game world.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was released to critical acclaim. Metacritic calculated an average score of 95 out of 100, indicating “universal acclaim”, based on 62 reviews. It is Metacritic’s highest-rated PlayStation 2 game of 2002, and the fifth-highest rated PlayStation 2 game overall, tied with a number of others. Reviewers liked the game’s sound and music, open-ended gameplay, and open world design, though some criticism was directed at the controls and technical issues. IGN’s Douglass Perry declared it “one of the most impressive games of 2002” and GameSpy’s Raymond Padilla named the experience “deep, devilishly enjoyable, and unique”.
Reviewers generally considered the missions an improvement over Grand Theft Auto III, although some noted occasional awkwardness and frustration. IGN’s Perry wrote that the game’s missions give the player “a stronger feeling of being inside a story within a world that truly exists”. Game Informer’s Matt Helgeson found the missions to be more complex, and AllGame’s Scott Alan Marriott felt that the storyline was improved as a result. Marriott also found the lead character of Tommy to be more engaging than Grand Theft Auto III’s Claude;IGN’s Perry felt that Rockstar “found the right person and the right choice”, and Edge wrote that Tommy “sweats charisma”, commending Ray Liotta’s performance.
The game’s open world design was praised by reviewers, many of whom felt that it contained more detail and felt more alive than its predecessors. GameSpy’s Padilla made favourable comparisons between Vice City and Grand Theft Auto III’s Liberty City, noting the former’s level of detail. Game Revolution’s Ben Silverman wrote that the game’s depth is “unparalleled”, praising the world’s realism and detail, while AllGame’s Marriott commended the “ambitious scope in design”.
Marriott of AllGame named Vice City an “unforgettable listening experience”, and Perry of IGN declared the music as “the most impressive list of songs in a game”. Many reviewers commended the game’s radio stations and talk radio, and felt that the game’s collection of licensed 1980s music fit the tone and time period of the world. The voice acting also received praise; GameSpot’s Jeff Gerstmann named the cast of characters “colorful and memorable”, and IGN’s Perry found the voice acting “among one of the best of its kind”. Game Revolution’s Silverman felt that the acting “gives the story credence”.
Many reviewers found that the game offers a better variety of vehicles than Grand Theft Auto III, and found them easier to control; GameSpot’s Gerstmann named the driving “more exciting and dangerous”, and IGN’s Perry found the motorcycle’s controls pleasing. In addition to the vehicle handling, reviewers noted improvements in the targeting and shooting mechanics, although still recognised issues. Helgeson of Game Informer wrote that “targeting is improved to the point where combat can actually be fun”.
Some reviewers recognised an improved draw distance over Grand Theft Auto III, although many identified frame rate drops during hardware-intense sequences. The changes in character models polarised reviews; while GameSpy’s Padilla and IGN’s Perry noted the improvement in character models, Eurogamer’s Tom Bramwell considered it “maddening to see that character … models haven’t been smartened up at all”. The game’s artificial intelligence and long load times were frequently criticised in reviews, and many reviewers noted the awkward camera angles and environment during gameplay.
Microsoft Windows version
When Vice City was released to Microsoft Windows in May 2003, it received similar critical acclaim. Metacritic calculated an average score of 94 out of 100, indicating “universal acclaim”, based on 30 reviews. It was the highest-rated Windows game on Metacritic in 2003. Reviewers liked the visual enhancements, and were generally positive towards the control improvements.
The port’s visuals received a positive response from reviewers. AllGame’s Mark Hoogland praised the improved car details, environment textures, and weather effects; GameSpot’s Greg Kasavin echoed similar remarks, noting occasional frame rate drops. GameSpy’s Sal Accardo commended the draw distance improvements, identifying very few texture issues. IGN’s Steve Butts found the port’s system requirements to be reasonable, unlike Grand Theft Auto III, and praised the faster load times. Eurogamer’s Martin Taylor was critical of the visuals, stating that the higher resolutions “aren’t kind to the overall visual quality”, and criticising the hardware requirements.
The control changes of the port were generally well received. Most reviewers found the targeting and shooting mechanics to be improved with mouse and keyboard controls; Eurogamer’s Taylor called them “far more fluid”,and GameSpy’s Accardo wrote “there’s simply no substitute for aiming with a mouse”. However, the driving control changes were widely criticised; IGN’s Butts called it “crap”. AllGame’s Hoogland found the controls to be “more forgiving” over time.
When Vice City was released on mobile devices in December 2012, it received “generally favorable” reviews. Metacritic calculated an average score of 80 out of 100, based on 19 reviews. Reviewers liked the enhanced visuals, but criticism was directed at the touchscreen controls.
The port’s visuals were well received. Destructoid’s Chris Carter felt that they “[suit] the neon and bright pastel veneer”, and wrote that the “new lighting effects and smoothed-out engine really allow the game to pop like it never has before”. IGN’s Justin Davis praised the updated character models, lighting, and textures, and Touch Arcade’s Eric Ford noted that the “visuals are improved but not in a drastic manner”. NowGamer found that the mobile display improves the visual enjoyment of the game, despite the issues with the original game. Tom Hoggins of The Telegraph identified some issues with character models, but stated “the city looks terrific”.
Most reviewers criticised the port’s touchscreen controls. Pocket Gamer’s Mark Brown found them “not ideal”, but noted that this was also the case in the original game, while Digital Spy’s Scott Nichols felt that the game “only complicated [the controls] further”. IGN’s Davis was thankful for the addition of customisable controls, and wrote that they “make the experience much more controllable”, and Touch Arcade’s Ford greatly appreciated the developer’s efforts to “make the situation bearable”. Destructoid’s Carter spoke favourably of the controls, despite noting awkward character movement, while The Telegraph’s Hoggins found the controls “far more accomplished” than Grand Theft Auto III’s mobile port.