It’s fun to kill guys wearing acid-wash and Members Only jackets!

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City goes where no video game has gone before -- into the dark heart of the 1980s.

Topics: Gaming, Video Games,

It's fun to kill guys wearing acid-wash and Members Only jackets!

I don’t give a damn what Donahue says: When a guy goes bouncing across the hood of your car and he’s wearing acid-wash jeans and a Members Only jacket, that’s pretty much justifiable homicide right there.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the new video game for the PlayStation 2 from British studio Rockstar Games, is set in a vividly rendered South Florida metropolis in 1986 — it’s basically Michael Mann’s Miami — and somehow, the time and place make all the felonious mayhem seem much less shocking than was true for the game’s predecessor. (Last year’s Grand Theft Auto 3 was set, more or less, in present-day New York.)

You’re still playing a freelance thug for the criminal underworld, jacking cars, executing drive-bys, plowing over pedestrians, and so on. But none of this feels so horrible when it’s happening in the black heart of the Reagan ’80s, and the clothes are just so, so ugly. Vice City practically eggs you on to play like a murderous Mister Blackwell, barreling down bystanders on a bad fashion jihad. (“You call that a necktie?” WHACK! “Suspenders are for farmers, sweetheart, not arbitrageurs!” SQUISH! “So many zippers, so little time.” THWUMP!)

The game is already a bestseller, with more than a million units moved in its first week, from pre-orders and the instant retail crush when it hit the shelves on Oct. 29. In what may be a game-industry first, the popular momentum has enabled Rockstar to engage in cross-over synergy: Vice City’s soundtrack is also available on a major label, a multi-CD compilation of ’80s stalwarts such as Tears for Fears and Flock of Seagulls. As with Grand Theft Auto III, one of the most enjoyable features of Vice City is the presence of multiple prerecorded radio stations, with commercial parodies, surreal DJ blather, call-in show satires, and plenty of real music, all of which the player can tune to while driving.

Although it doesn’t seem all that antisocial to be jacking cars in the era of Oliver North and Ivan Boesky, Vice City is just as cheerfully amoral as every other installment in the franchise. Rockstar even retains GTA3′s most infamous Easter egg: You can still pick up hookers and get serviced in a dark alley. Only now, you also get to hear the star of Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” murmuring, “You seem to know what you’re doing, baby,” while the car is rocking. (Ray Liotta does the voice-over for Tommy Vercetti, the wiseguy hero of Vice City.)

Naturally, some critics have weighted in with the predictable controversy angle; a Washington Post columnist even helpfully suggested that Rockstar’s developers “should be stoned in the street.” But even more striking is how much respect and acclaim the game has gotten from the same sphere. Vice City will “force us to realize that video games aren’t toys anymore,” argued Time magazine. “They’re sophisticated, thought-provoking entertainment for grown-ups. At their best, they’re art.”

Seamus Blackley, lead creator of the Xbox, once declared that we’d know video games had finally gone mainstream when the New York Times covered them, not in the technology or business sections, but in the arts and culture pages. My money would have been on Peter Molyneux, or maybe Warren Spector, and high-minded games like their Deus Ex or Black & White. But in retrospect, it might have been too much to ask the nongaming media to groove on those titles, which feature alien autopsies and giant, farting lions.

Everyone, on the other hand, has bouts of road rage. So in the end, it took a game whose hero sometimes yells, “Enjoy death, asshole!” when he caps someone, to get us there. And when I clicked to the Sunday Times’ Fashion & Style section last month, my first thought was, My god, those limey bastards pulled it off.

Vice City makes GTA3 feel like a warm-up, a developmental practice lap (albeit one fueled by several lines of coke, every 100 yards). While the essential design remains the same, it expands on the last game’s promise, fleshing out elements that were only hinted at before. Vice City is a great game, and, yes, a fairly great social satire; it’s a work of art, not in spite of, but partly because of its offensive elements. It probably has at least as much to say about American culture and politics as, for example, “Bowling for Columbine.” It will give younger gamers a far better depiction of life as it was lived in the ’80s than hours of documentaries could ever provide. For older gamers, it may revive a sense of who they were then, better than any nostalgia video countdown could ever hope to capture.

The franchise title is becoming more and more of a misnomer; in Vice City, you spend quite a lot of time not grand thefting autos at all. As Tommy fights his way up the goombata food chain, many of his missions are conducted from inside choppers, or sleek powerboats — or, in a très cool addition, from the cockpit of radio-controlled model airplanes. (At one point, for instance, you have to demolish a construction site by flying tiny helicopters armed with plastic explosives into the unfinished structure.) The introduction of motorcycles adds a whole new vector to your street tactics, while giving you even more options for stunt noodling. (The city is like one big obstacle course, with bonus points for taking risky jumps off buildings, bridges and anything else that vaguely resembles a ramp.)

And even more than GTA3, there’s a sense of place in Vice City. Not just in the skyscrapers, or in the long beachfront streets lined with buildings that are bathed with neon pastels. It’s also evident in the high level of banal detail: odd cul-de-sacs, asymmetrical alleys and empty lots covered in weeds, the squalid infrastructure of city life that we usually try not to notice.

When Tommy is living large enough, you can even purchase legitimate businesses, and operate them to bring in a daily income. (There’s an ice cream factory, a print shop and, of course, a strip joint and a porn studio, run by a big-gut artiste dressed in a track suit, and voiced by Dennis Hopper.) Like the Taxi Driver and Ambulance missions from GTA3, the addition of real estate and commerce puts the franchise one step closer to giving the player a fully realized world that seems more like life, and where mob violence is but one option to choose from among a wide array. (It’s like the Sims, with exit wounds.)

The mission and city design don’t always feel entirely polished. The city’s visual splendor surpasses that of GTA3 in most places, but falls markedly short in others — particularly downtown, where some blocks seem empty and underdeveloped. The element that truly made GTA3 the gold standard for game developers was its open-ended, improvisational quality, in which missions could be accomplished in an almost unlimited number of ways. Many assignments here, by contrast, are fairly single-tracked, and don’t offer much leeway for creative problem-solving. Even more infuriating, some of them are multipart, which means that if you fail the first time (and you will), you end up repeating the same two-thumb busywork several times more. (Or a dozen more.)

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As clever as the radio programming and commercials are, the writing begins to wear thin as the main story line from the cut-scenes plays out. The idea is to create a pastiche of gangland films and TV programs — several elements are lifted directly from “Scarface,” a recurring Jewish lawyer is modeled after Sean Penn’s character in “Carlito’s Way,” a gang of right-wing bikers is borrowed from the “Miami Vice” episode written by John Milius — but the overall effect doesn’t stream into a coherent whole. GTA3′s “Rise up in the underworld to get back at that whore girlfriend who betrayed you and left you for dead” was not much of a story arc, but at least it’s got a certain nasty charm. And compared to Vice City’s “Kill the punks who stole the mob’s coke,” it’s fricking Molière. Rockstar’s designers are evident fans of “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Sopranos,” but they don’t really get too close to what made those stories great: They’re not just about gangsters, but memorable gangsters we actually care about. (Although at least Rockstar was sharp enough to cast Luis Guzman, the beloved badass character actor, to do the voice of a rival drug lord.)

Then again, this is just a guess, but Vice City might be the first video game to satirize the right-wing effort to cut federal funding for National Public Radio. On VCPR, Vice City’s version of public radio, the talk show is constantly interrupted by an increasingly frantic pledge drive. If the funds don’t arrive, the hosts warn, “Liberals will be burned alive in the streets!”

Overall, the satire in Vice City comes across like the hell spawn of the British press, mating the anti-American cynicism of the Guardian with the tit-happy populism of the London tabloids. No one is spared, but the most lethal fire is directed rightward. If your child expresses any doubts about the fairness of the system, a radio public service announcement warns, he may be a Red, and should be reported immediately. The corrupt, hypocritical congressman for Vice City, Fla., is named Shrub (props to Molly Ivins, I guess), and there’s a spot-on parody of a “Rambo” trailer.

This edge isn’t confined to the radio programs, either, but is built right into the gameplay. Assault rifles are openly sold at franchise outlets in shopping centers inhabited by violent mall rats, and when the cops chase you on foot, they often bellow, “Stop! You know we’re always right!” There seem to be as many bums and prostitutes as businessmen on the sidewalks, and in an early mission, a Texas real estate magnate orders you to turn a labor strike into a full-scale riot. Recognizable American stereotypes are unleashed to interact with unpredictable results in the same virtual space. (There’s something truly brilliant about a game where a New York mobster in an aloha shirt can be cursed out in Yiddish by four Florida retirees, before they bludgeon him to death with nine irons on the 18th hole fairway.) This is the America that Europeans must secretly fear, and believe to be real, playing out in a video game.

While Vice City is at least as violent as its predecessor, there’s still a quirky sense of street justice to the games. Criminals are fair game, true, but killing civilians and law enforcement officers is rarely part of the program. And the responsiveness of the police artificial intelligence has been ratcheted up considerably from GTA3; officers now spot your criminal behavior sooner, and once they’re on your trail, they’re much harder to slip. There’s still enormous consequence for harming a police officer; doing that only summons more backup, then more, quickly escalating up to the National Guard.

In any case, with a game this ambitious, you want to flip the usual question back on itself. What, exactly, is so wrong with a video game that lets adults act like criminals? It’s actually not an easy answer to articulate. (The harm-to-children argument is debatable, and given this game’s adults-only M rating, a nonstarter.) And if the industry is going to become a fully developed medium, with mature content just as viable an option as an R-rated movie, it’s something that needs to be answered.

We can go the Greek route: Do corrupted fantasies encourage bad behavior, or become a safe way to purge those urges? Or to go down a more Judeo-Christian road, is it almost as bad to enjoy the contemplation of immoral acts as it is to actually commit them? (On that front, Rockstar’s answer is a bit like what a wise old nun said when she was asked, “Do you ever entertain sinful thoughts?” “No,” she replied, “they entertain me.”) The mainstream media’s generally positive coverage of Vice City may push the debate past the politicians and critics, who still think they can preempt it with vague moralizing.

Because Vice City was designed for people in their 20s and 30s, who grew up on video games, it’s set in an era when most of its audience was just learning to drive. Learning about the unique, meditative stillness of being in a car, alone with music, surrounded on all sides, but still alone.

It’s here, I think, that the game will most connect with its audience. Ripping through the rain-slick streets with the Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” blasting, or coming over a bridge that takes you downtown, where the skyscrapers rise up to meet you, just as Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It” comes on — you may remember similar times when you wheeled your parents’ sedan around to the same music, as you thought about the future, all night endlessly gliding. Vice City is the first nostalgia sim.

Nostalgia, and maybe history. It’s not hard to see how the Grand Theft Auto series could become our funhouse mirror to recent decades, growing more realistic and detailed with every title. In subsequent sequels, Rockstar will no doubt look to other periods, and blend them into its special mix of political savvy and demented showmanship.

My suggestion for the next installment would be San Francisco in the ’70s. Think of it: a city populated by hippie porn auteurs and left-wing terrorists with a brainwashed heiress, with GTOs and Corvettes going all Steve McQueen on Potrero Hill, accompanied by a radio soundtrack featuring the Village People and Santana. “What were the 1970s like, Grandpa?” a child will ask, and a grizzled hand will point to the PlayStation 3: “Everything you need to know is there.”

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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