Archive for June, 2014

Vice City: Done

I seem to have won. Tommy Vercetti is now undisputed master of Vice City, which is basically what he’s been acting like all along, taking any vehicle he wants and so forth. He’s the player avatar, and the city itself is literally your plaything. Few games acknowledge this, somehow.

Most of the missions in the later part of the game are, for once, part of a larger pattern. You buy a business, then you do one or more missions or other special activities relating to that business, and when you’re done, it becomes a source of cash, which accumulates at a pick-up point in front, building up to a maximum that varies from business to business. Picking up this free money becomes a chore reminiscent of the daily resource pickups in Heroes of Might and Magic and its ilk, except that you can’t keep a separate hero stack devoted to the pickups, as your only hero is Tommy himself. (Expanding the scope of your operations does produce gang members on your side, wandering the streets near your holdings, wearing an imitation of Tommy’s trademark Hawaiian shirt. But you have absolutely no control over them.) You then use this money to buy more businesses. Occasionally you get increasingly agitated phone calls from Forelli, accusing Tommy of cutting him out, which is completely accurate. I should have seen this coming. Recovering the money, the original impetus for the whole enterprise, isn’t even a factor any more. It’s now about who’s in control, and Tommy, having tasted power, isn’t interested in going back to being someone else’s lackey.

The endgame becomes available before you’ve finished all the available business missions, giving you some leeway to refuse missions you find too difficult. It consists of two missions. First, Forelli sends his men on motorcycles to collect the “taxes” from your holdings, and you have to stop them, which is most easily accomplished by staking out one business and waiting for them. This done, there’s a showdown at Vercetti Manor (formerly Diaz Manor), involving waves of goons charging into your minigun. (By this point I had unlocked the next Hidden Package weapon, the rocket launcher 1The rocket launcher was the final unlockable in GTA3, but there’s three more levels here that I haven’t even reached. Apparently one is called a “Rhino”, but it’s actually a kind of tank, rather than a rhinoceros you can ride around the streets, because this isn’t Saints Row. , but the minigun is still the best weapon.) It’s an old story: an absentee lord tries to claim someone else’s spoils, and a rebellious hero refuses, goes to war with the old power, and wins. Americans will see the legend of their own nation’s origins here, but it’s an even better fit to certain older versions of the King Arthur myth, with Rome in the Forelli role, returning after years to demand tribute after Arthur’s knights subdued the invading Saxons without their help. Except I’ve never seen a version of the Arthur myth that was quite this crass.

Despite its mythic resonance, the final battle feels kind of spare and anticlimactic. It’s a pure shooting mission, and shooting is not a very deep or rich activity in this game, or at least not once you’ve finished experimenting and settled on a preferred gun. Also, the absence of music works against it. I’m not saying that climactic battles in games always need to have music, but you spend a great deal of your time in this game in various vehicles, and no matter what’s on the car radio, it somehow always seems to complement the action, whether you’re evading police cars to a mambo or aiming for a sweet motorcycle jump to Flock of Seagulls. This is the game’s soundtrack, and its absence in the final stretch is noticeable. They should really do a GTA where the end boss is a driving mission, if they haven’t already. Driving is more what the game’s about anyway.

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1. The rocket launcher was the final unlockable in GTA3, but there’s three more levels here that I haven’t even reached. Apparently one is called a “Rhino”, but it’s actually a kind of tank, rather than a rhinoceros you can ride around the streets, because this isn’t Saints Row.

Vice City: To the Skies

Much of my last session was spent airborne. First, I found the solution to my problems with that seaplane: switching back to joystick controls. There’s pretty definitely something going wrong with the keyboard input there, because getting into the air was a cinch once I was using a device that the game recognized consistently.

After that, the same mission source (a movie studio, now making porn at Tommy’s behest) gave me a multi-stage mission that involved tailing a limousine without getting too close to it, and while the mission didn’t require that I use a helicopter, it provided one and suggested that I use it. Good thing, too, because the final stage of the mission got me in deep trouble with the cops, and, as before, the easiest way to deal with this is to dash to the helicopter you parked nearby. This has become my go-to technique for evading police in missions that give you a high Wanted rating, which, in this late part of the game, is most of them. The police have helicopters too, but it’s a lot easier to evade them than to dodge all the traffic you’d encounter on the ground.

The final porn mission’s goal was to mess with some searchlights on a rooftop. Considering that it’s already been established that the studio has access to both a plane and a helicopter, you might think this would simply be a matter of flying to the relevant rooftop, but no, you’re supposed to ride a motorcycle into a tall building, up the elevator, through a plate glass window into an adjacent building, and finally over a long sequence of ramps and rooftops, with checkpoints all along the path to guide you. I wound up using a helicopter anyway. I tried to do the motorcycle thing, but fell off and lost my bike after a few jumps, and found it simpler to go back to a nearby safehouse and pick up a helicopter than to find another bike. The thing is, you can’t just go directly to the searchlights. You have to go through all the motorcycle checkpoints, but the game doesn’t care if you’re actually on a motorcycle or not. Of all the borderline cheating I’ve done over the course of the game, flying through those checkpoints feels the cheatingest.

The experience of flying through the Vice City skyline reinforces one of the game’s greatest strengths: its sense of spatial coherence. You’re interacting with the structures of the city at a different level and a different scale than normal, ignoring the streets that channel your path on the ground, instead paying attention to the spires and towers that are your only obstacles but which you seldom look at from below. And yet, everything about the city is recognizable from the hours you’ve spent driving and walking around it. It helps that the city is fairly small. From the air, you can really feel like the whole thing is spread out around you like a gaming table.

And for what it’s worth, I found that flying in the plane produced this sensation more strongly than the helicopter. In a helicopter, you essentially levitate: you take off vertically, you have buttons to ascend and descend and can rotate in place. Accelerating means tilting the rotor and therefore losing altitute, but since you can just gain more altitude at will, this isn’t very significant. In an airplane, you swoop around madly. You have to struggle to keep the thing level, you can’t stop, you have to swerve around obstacles because you can’t rise fast enough to go over them. In short, as with cars, your control is imperfect, and this forces you to engage the environment more. This reflection really makes me regret cheating on that motorcycle mission, because it seems like I’ve missed out on more of the same thing.

Vice City: Vehicle Choice and Lack Thereof

I made some progress last night, and as a result all of my remaining missions involve difficult driving. I suppose this was predictable, seeing how the minigun zips me past the more combat-oriented missions. One mission is a bit like the premise of the movie Speed: you have to drive through city streets in a limousine containing a bomb that goes off if you don’t go fast enough. One is a race-a-boat-through-a-series-of-checkpoints missions, and somewhat trickier than the earlier such. And one involves piloting a seaplane with controls like GTA3‘s Dodo through a bunch of checkpoints at varying altitude. I’m having so little luck getting that seaplane in the air that I suspect I’m having input problems similar to the ice cream jingle from a few posts back.

It strikes me that part of my problem with these missions in particular is that they don’t let me choose the vehicle. The vehicle is a fixed part of the mission parameters, and that makes success purely a matter of skill, rather than of choosing the thing that makes it easier. This was a big part of some of the earlier missions, and the right vehicle isn’t always the fastest one. For example, the mission that leads into ousting Diaz involves rescuing an injured comrade in a junkyard, and taking him to the hospital. On the way out, you’re attacked by four cars driven by Diaz’s goons, which basically just ram you and make you spin around and run into walls so you can’t get anywhere. After enough of this treatment, your car explodes. Now, getting to the junkyard in time to rescue your partner requires a fast car, but once there, the simplest approach is to ditch it and switch to a garbage truck that’s conveniently nearby. It can take a lot of damage, and it’s heavy enough that it’s hard to knock off course. (It took me multiple attempts at the mission realize this, though. I kept exploding the garbage truck with my minigun on the way in just to waste the goons around it.)

That example is at least one that the designer pretty clearly set up for you. Here’s one that wasn’t: There’s a mission to blow up a store whose owner went to the police instead of giving you protection money. The place is crawling with cops, so you’re told to disguise yourself as a cop and drive a police car to the store. Once there, the bomb goes off before you can get away, and your Wanted rating immediately goes up to near maximum. Suddenly there’s police all over the place chasing you, setting up roadblocks, heading you off, etc. As always, they’ll be off your back the moment you make it to a spray shop to repaint your vehicle and give it new plates, but it’s difficult to even make it that far. Far easier if, instead of driving a cop car to the store as instructed, you bring a helicopter and simply take off into the skies, out of reach of their guns. Helicopters are very conveniently available at several of my hideouts at this point of the game.

Solutions like these take advantage of the open-world genre’s greatest strength, its freedom of action. The missions that lock you into a specific vehicle take that freedom away from you, and with it, the satisfaction of exploiting your freedom in clever ways. It strikes me that there are probably also missions where solving problems through clever weapon choice could produce similar satisfaction, but I pretty much spoiled that for myself by unlocking the minigun so early. There’s not much point in ever choosing any other gun once you have that.

Vice City: Loading Screens

Vice City consists of two parallel islands that span the map from north to south like an enormous pause button, plus a few smaller islands between them, all joined by bridges (although you can also travel between them by boat or helicopter). This layout seems to be at least partly intended to aid in memory management by dividing the city into two zones. My chief evidence for this is that, when you drive across the zone boundary, a loading screen pops up briefly. Very briefly. I assume that it tended to stay up longer on the game’s original target hardware, but on a modern gaming machine, the loading screen stays up for a mere fraction of a second, registering as just a flicker, but a highly distracting flicker. The first few times this happened to me, it was startling enough that I lost control of my car. Now, the game is good about maintaining continuity across the zone boundary: the same cars will be around you after the flicker as before. So the chief thing indicating any discontinuity is the loading screen itself. If they left that out, and simply froze the contents of the screen for the moment that it takes to load the other zone, I might not even notice.

While this might be the ideal approach for Vice City in particular, I can’t in general advocate the removal of loading screens from games where their primary purpose is unnecessary. I have played many older games where the loading screens flit by, and very often my reaction is that I wish they’d linger. A well-designed loading screen isn’t just a waiting room you have to tolerate on the way to the actual game content, it’s part of the the game content itself, whether it’s by providing extra background information or gameplay tips in text, or by adding to the atmosphere with additional art and animation. I’m not saying it’s always good, but when it is, it’s unsatisfying to lose it. If only more developers thought to throw in a “Click to Continue”! It might not be ideal when zoning as in Vice City, but letting the player decide when the level starts is a valuable corrective not just for loading screens that are too short, but also for ones that are too long and temporarily lose the player’s attention.