Countdown to GTA V: Courting Controversy Pt. 4

GTA 5 release dateThe release of Grand Theft Auto V is mere days away. As we head into what could be your final ‘free weekend’ between now and Christmas, the Twinstick Gaming team are continuing our ‘Grand Theft Appetisers’, this time with a look back at Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. If you haven’t been reading our retrospective, counting off the days to GTA V, where have you been? Worry not, you can head back to find ‘Courting Controversy Pt. 1’ right here. Read through parts 1-3 and then rejoin us! It’s ok, we’ll wait.

Done? Fantastic! We’ll press on.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City followed hot on the heels of blockbuster success, GTA III. DMA Design had finally morphed into Rockstar North, GTA III was still selling well on PS2 and had spread to PC (an Xbox version would follow) and all was good with the world. By 2002, the fury, fear and fanaticism on either side of the Grand Theft Argument had settled down to whisper in the wind.

Enter Vice City.

Bright, colourful, drug fueled excess! Welcome to the 80s. Welcome to Vice City
Bright, colourful, drug fueled excess! Welcome to the 80s. Welcome to Vice City

Though built on what was essentially the same framework as its predecessor, Vice City was a much greater prospect than a mere expansion. It had a completely new game-world, set in a totally different location (Miami-esque rather than New York-esque) and, perhaps most importantly, a whole new era!

Vice City was built in the 80s from the ground up. Complete with chunky, angular sports cars, roller boots, sharp suits and sublime 80s soundtrack. Graphically it wasn’t leaps ahead of GTA III, but everything was tighter and more fluid. Less screen tearing, despite a larger world and even greater freedom. How can you increase the freedom of a game that already let you go anywhere? Simple. Add helicopters.

Taking in the sights.
Taking in the sights.

In amongst the fantastic vehicles from a by-gone era, Rockstar introduced helicopters that allowed you to get above the city and see everything from an entirely new perspective. All part of embracing the excess of the 80s, you could even land the helicopters on top of some of the buildings.

Taking heavy influence from Brian De Palma’s classic gangster movies Scarface and Carlito’s Way (along with a number of other 1980’s classics), everything about Vice City was larger than life. Protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, a Mafia hitman, is released from prison and hits the sun drenched, palm-tree edged, streets of Miami Vice City like a geometric Tony Montana. What followed was a fantastic tale of corruption, revenge, violence, drugs and sexually explicit material!

The city was stunning, it was much busier, brighter and more hectic than Liberty City. The subtle ambiance was gone, replaced by loud colours and brilliantly brash personalities. Tommy Vercetti had a lot more character than GTA III’s Claude, thanks to another fantastic Sam and Dan Houser script and stellar voice work from Ray Liotta. The supporting cast was stronger than ever too. William Fichtner played ‘Ken Rosenberg’, an over-the-top, drug addicted, shady lawyer – cast very much in the Sean Penn as ‘Kleinfeld’ in his Carlito’s Way role – who brought a brilliant edge to the story. Stars like Dennis Hopper and even Burt Reynolds were brought in to give otherwise potentially forgettable characters an instantly memorable slant.

Vice City also boasted perhaps the most iconic soundtrack of the series to date. Absolutely jam packed with licensed tracks from every genre you could ask for. These were high quality tracks, whichever of the 7 music radio stations you were tuned to. Emotion 98.3  hit you with power ballads from Kate Bush, Luther Vandross and Toto, to name a few; Fever 105 boasted acts as big as Rick James, Kool and the Gang – even Michael Jackson. The quality names come thick and fast over the digital airwaves including INXS, Lionel Richie, ELO, David Lee Roth, Iron Maiden, Twisted Sister and more.

Lazlow still finding his way as a DJ
Lazlow still finding his way as a DJ

However, playing in the UK, there was only one station to listen to for me. To really embrace the 80s whilst cruising the highways on a motorbike or drop-top, Wave 103.

Wave 103 was like going to the very best 80s night at your University’s Student Union venue. Frankie Goes to Hollywood singing ‘Two tribes’, Blondie’s ‘Atomic’, Kim Wilde and ‘The kids in America’, ‘Pale Shelter’ by Tears for Fears and the ultimate in catchy 80s tunes that stay in your brain long after you’ve stopped playing, ‘Gold’ by Spandau Ballet. It was an amazing station and certainly the most played in my household!

Plenty of other 80s iconic hits and acts appeared, but Wave was the station that endured. The ‘Talk Radio’ stations (K-CHAT and VCPR) were on a par with GTA III’s ‘Chatterbox FM’, though I preferred Lazlow as a host (back in the 80s, Lazlow was working for V-Rock as a DJ apparently!?). Hilarious insights into the residents and celebrities calling Vice City their home.

Vice City represented the pinnacle of soundtracks in games through careful choices and hilarious presentation. Unfortunately for Rockstar, Sony and distribtor, Take Two Interactive, Vice City also came under the heaviest fire since the original GTA. There were the usual issues surrounding release in certain territories needing some editing (Australia a little stricter than most). The violence, prostitution (in most territories, but removed from the Australian version) and pretty foul language throughout got a lot of attention, however – the worst accusations didn’t come until months after the games release.

It started out with understandable, if misguided, claims – then escalated, quite quickly, towards the sublimely ridiculous.

Despite the open – world and freedom of choice present in the game, this time it was one of the scripted missions that brought the first barrage of controversial claims. This time it was racism. Actually, even this escalated once the media got involved. In 2003, Cuban and Haitian groups based in Florida claimed the game was racist and encouraged people to harm immigrants from these nations. By the time it was being reported on, these claims had grown to include, not only racism, but incitement to genocide. Headlines were never dull where GTA was involved.

Cruising with your uzi through Little Havana, sharp suit optional.
Cruising with your uzi through Little Havana, sharp suit optional.

Racism was certainly NOT the kind of attention Rockstar wanted. Despite the feeling that the groups had massively over-reacted, they conceded the point and removed some dialogue from the game (though still present in earlier versions, this act seemed to calm the groups and law suits that had been filed were quickly settled).

However, it was a lawsuit in 2005 that really set things ablaze. The lawsuit, brought in February, 2005, was against the ‘makers and distributors of the Grand Theft Auto series’. It referred to a 2003 case were a 17 year old had shot three members of the Alabama Police Force (according to the 17 year old’s lawyer, Jack Thompson) because of GTA’s ‘graphic nature’ combined with his ‘constant playing.’

The case, though utterly ridiculous, brought global attention of the wrong kind to Rockstar and Grand Theft Auto (and, coincidentally enough, Jack Thompson). Thankfully, the case was eventually thrown out and, after attempting a second, similar case brought against against Rockstar in 2006 (dismissed in 2007), lawyer Jack Thompson was disbarred.

When playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City in 2002, I was sure nothing could get bigger, deeper, more varied or more entertaining than this. Soundtrack aside, I was in for one hell of a rude awakening in the October of 2004, when I finally got home from working the midnight launch and finally got to play – Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Click here to continue reading with ‘Courting Controversy Pt. 5’

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