Grand Theft Auto Double Pack
For so long the express pleasure of PS2 owners alone, Grand Theft Auto 3 and its follow-on Vice City have done Sony uncountable favours in ensuring that there has always been one overriding reason for not heading over to the more advanced offerings from both Nintendo and Microsoft. Indeed, the only reason it seems Sony relinquished their stranglehold on the series to allow this port to slip out is because by early 2004, PS2 gamers had already heard that the next in-line (whatever you think its going to be called) would be out in the winter, and would once again be a PS2 exclusive. So then, a better-late-than-never arrival on the Xbox, and what's more Rockstar aren't going to leave us hanging around with just one version of these two seminal hits; but have in fact bundled them together in this 'Double Pack' of absolutely outstanding value. After all, they could have quite easily released these cracking games individually, and no doubt still sold a bucketload, such is the ever-present hype surrounding GTA titles.
Of course, with this game topping the Xbox sales charts for weeks, Microsoft must now be becoming slightly concerned that the next instalment will actually win fan's over to Sony's camp once again. Anyway, on with the review of this hefty beauty - which it has been my pleasure to toy with over the last few weeks, reminding myself just why Rockstar's formula equates so perfectly.
We'll begin with the basic stuff for those of you've who've played or witnessed the PS2 versions before. This is a good port, but it is nonetheless, a port. If you've got both a PS2 and Xbox (and lucky you if you have), I won't be suggesting this is a worthy purchase in its own right. If you've yet to experience its unique and downright sinful pleasures however, then I urge you to invest at once. In terms of what the Xbox offers over the PS2 originals, we're talking much faster load times, better frame-rates, perfected camera work and the ability to customise the soundtrack. That's it. What you also get is, as Rolling Stone described it, "a pop-culture phenomenon, redefining the way people play and think about games", and what Time magazine also called "art" (both these quotes are currently featured on the Xbox packaging, if further proof were need - most games have to settle for Edge or PC Gamer!). Whether you agree with this last definition I'll leave for Late Review-style debates about post-modernism and pastiche, suffice to say that never has a title offered the innate freedom and interactivity of 'play', combined with the cinematic plottings, storylines and set-pieces of films quite as GTA does. The fact that many have tried and failed to imitate this blend stands as testament to the amazing design abilities of Rockstar North.
Moving on from such elevated discourse, lets touch-base with something we can all understand: one-hundred hours plus of gameplay. Not bad for forty-quid. There might even be more in there for inexperienced GTA players keen to get to grips with all the missions offered and follow-up all the plotlines, whilst enjoying all the expertly realised cut-scenes. The phrase 'sand-box' gameplay is of course banded far too frequently for my liking, but I simply cannot think of a better phrase to describe GTA3 and Vice City's gameplay. What you have is several plot-lines our hapless hero has stumbled across (both in Liberty and Vice), all of which can be joined, and can lead to certain missions and ends, while dashing and choosing between these progressions, you can also embroil yourself in several diversions, or simply go on a rampage, exploring the city, annoying the police, etc. Indeed, piss-off the powers that be too much and you'll soon find helicopters and special forces in pursuit of you, which can be just as great a buzz as completing a mission or discovering the next twist in the story. Of course, the beauty of all this is multiple levels of choice, which keep the gameplay fresh and challenging like pretty much no other videogame can.
And then there's the music. Of course, the original radio stations of GTA3 weren't bad, but it was with the myriad of 80s tunes in Vice City that made us realise this was indeed a very new and special kind of game. Very few titles demonstrate such stylistic attention as to offer retrograde elements, like music and cinema have been doing for years, and therefore enrich the experience on offer far beyond just car chases and shooting. Of course some of the 80s stuff (in a fashion typical of that most bizarre of decades) is utter dross, but equally there are some forgotten classics to be unearthed as you tinker with your FM radio amid the throngs of Washington Beach.
A quick word while we're frothing excitedly about what a groundbreaking piece of delight this double-act is, on the infuriating targeting system which reduces some missions to a frustrating mess and did, at times, cause a rather worrying blood vein to begin to swell upon my temple. Quite why Rockstar didn't overhaul this balache of a system after GTA3 is beyond me - even if some attempt appears to have been made to improve the situation in Vice City - it still fails. Nothing doing in this port either - why-oh-why? I'm not saying it ruins the game, but when all else is so great - why not go the extra mile improving the dodgy bits?
While we're moaning about stuff, the fact that saving your game is hardly convenient or timely is also an issue that could be resolved - at least so that we don't have to re-arm after every mission failure - which can be time-consuming and grates on the tougher missions that require several attempts. The Taxi in Vice City doesn't help much, either.
So, back to the good bits - and there is plenty to relish as you'll already have guessed. Whilst the Xbox ports sadly don't look any better than the PS2 originals, I won't be complaining too much as both games still look nice - conveying setting and atmosphere wonderfully - even if it could hardly be described as pixel-perfect. Quite frankly if you haven't played both these games then you should, as a games player you owe it to yourself, and at least Xbox owners will have something to do whilst waiting for the next in the series, even if their PS2 counterparts will be busy gloating by the end of the year.
Two truly great games that are both landmarks in gaming history. We'll be feeling the influences of their achievements for years to come.