Go Back to the ’80s With Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

I wasn’t one of the guy who latched onto the Grand Theft Auto series when it first hit big in the late 1990s. Instead, I came along in 2002 when Grand Theft Auto: Vice City first was released, and I burned away my 20s trying to get 100% completion on the console title as well as all of its sequels (and eventually, GTA: III). Man did I love that game.

But the GTA series on iOS has been a bit more finicky for me. GTA: III was too difficult to control, and I never saw the appeal in Chinatown Wars. At the time, I chalked it up to my awkwardness with a virtual controller combined with a faulty UI, but Rockstar promised that all that went away with the 10-year anniversary release of GTA: Vice City on iOS. Did they succeed in making the classic game fun to play on a touchscreen device, or is it just more of the same? Let’s find out after the jump.

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The Grand Theft Auto Concept

If you haven’t played any of the GTA games before, here’s the skinny. You play as a bad person — in this case, Tommy Vercetti (voiced by Ray Liotta of Goodfellas fame). He’s a Mafia hitman who finds himself the lone survivor of a drug deal gone bad, and now he’s trying to get his money back. Along the way, he’ll meet all of the scummy and evil people that populate Vice City, and do his best to not only get back his cash, but also take over the entire area. It’s Scarface meets Call of Duty, and it’s a lot of fun.

Ready to go back in time?

Ready to go back in time?

The main draw to the game in 2002 was the open world concept. Prior to the GTA series, there weren’t many worlds where you could just wander around and do what you want, which is exactly the point of the game. If you want to spend 10 minutes running over hookers, go for it. Find doing each mission in sequence more exciting? Have at it. You make your own choices here, and you don’t have to just follow along blindly doing whatever happens to be “next.” It’s that freedom that makes it fun.

Have guns, will travel.

Have guns, will travel.

Oh, and just in case you didn’t already know it, this game is rife with profanity, sex and violence, so it’s not exactly a game to toss to your toddler.

The Look

The town of Vice City is the GTA version of Miami, and the game itself is set in the 1980s. As a result, the colors and characters have a very Miami Vice-esque appeal, where a white jacket and pastel colored T-shirt is considered fashionable. The cars all fit into this theme as well, with the generic versions of the Corvette and Lamborghini Countach making appearances on the road. It’s quite the concept.

Nice Ferrari … kinda.

Nice Ferrari … kinda.

But more specifically, the graphics of the game are also set in a bygone era — the early ’00s. Although Rockstar touts that it has “beautifully updated graphics, character models and lighting effects,” don’t expect to blow up druggies with Infinity Blade imagery. No, this is all very much still stuck in the world of the Playstation 2, and even though it is prettier than the console version, it’s nothing special.


Where GTA: III was clunky, GTA: Vice City seems to have made a few improvements. To move your character you use a virtual joystick that sits on the left side of the screen. Fortunately, it appears wherever you touch, so even if you’re floating around the top of the screen you can still control the character. All of the buttons and their locations are customizable as well, so if you prefer a larger map size or smaller icons to drive, you can do that. That comes in handy.

All of the controls are customizable, but it's still not easy to use on the iPhone.

All of the controls are customizable, but it’s still not easy to use on the iPhone.

The major improvement with the game, is the auto lock for shooting. If this was a console game, we could wield those two joysticks like a pro and shoot everyone down easily. But aiming and shooting isn’t easy to do in Vice City, so Rockstar added a cheat of sorts: just push the trigger, and the bullets will find their target. This doesn’t take away from the fun of the game, and definitely cuts down on the ragequit factor, something I experienced often with GTA: III.

Nothing like taking a chainsaw to someone to brighten up your day.

Nothing like taking a chainsaw to someone to brighten up your day.

But even with that customization, there are some problems. For example, adjusting anything on my screen made my trigger button disappear — that’s kind of important in a game where shooting is a main feature. Also, there is no way to drop a target on the map, something that I used to do all the time when I played the game a decade ago. One nice thing though is the swap between the analog and button controller for driving; by going analog, you’re able to pull stoppies and wheelies just like in the original.

Choose Your Device

To test this game out thoroughly, I used the three iOS devices I have on hand: an iPhone 5, iPad mini and third-gen iPad. Out of the three, the clear winner for me was the iPad mini, without a doubt.

Normally, the Retina display on the iPhone 5 and iPad would have been the deciding factor, but in the case of GTA: Vice City, it hardly played a role. The graphics are just so dated that more vibrant colors don’t do anything to save them, and in the case of the iPad, I found the game stuttered frame rates constantly as a result. The iPad mini’s slower processor and less pixel heavy display actually made it easier to use, and I never once had the game freeze up or slow down as it did on the other devices.

ICloud saving is nice, but the save system still is antiquated.

ICloud saving is nice, but the save system still is antiquated.

There’s another quirk here that should be explained, and that’s iCloud saving. You can save your games to iCloud via the typical save system found in all GTA games: go to your safehouse, walk through the save icon and save your game. That’s fantastic if you want to save your game to multiple platforms, but the entire saving convention is antiquated for the devices we’re playing them on. With the iPhone or iPad, I want to play the game and put it down when I have to. If I get a phone call or need to run out real quick, I just turn it off. I certainly don’t want to have to drive to a safehouse, save the game and then finish. It’s just not fun. If there was a way to fix that, then I’d be ecstatic.

Is It Fun?

The bottom line here on any game is the big question: is it fun? With GTA: Vice City, I can honestly say yes … most of the time.

Playing on a console, you have a dual stick controller that allows you to shoot while adjusting your viewpoint. Although the auto targeting system helps, there’s no easy way to adjust your view as you run towards anything. Frankly, running in general is a bit of an adventure, as you often careen towards walls more than you do targets. Even when you’re standing still it can be difficult to look around, as there’s no clear delineation between where your virtual joystick sits and where your view control begins. At least there’s space to experiment with that on the iPad — on the iPhone, forget it.

Even though there are definite moments of frustration, overall this is still a very fun game to play. It took some time for me to adjust to the layout of things, but because you can tweak and reposition buttons wherever you like, it becomes quite easy to settle into a comfortable spot. I’ve played into the game quite a bit, and I haven’t lost a level yet because of issues with the controls.

Final Thoughts

Yes, GTA: Vice City has its flaws. This is not a game designed for a touchscreen, and as such, there are some issues with the controls. But once you get past that and learn to work with what you’ve got, Vice City is a very fun place to visit.

Would I recommend it to a friend? If you’re a lifelong GTA fan, there’s no reason for you not to get it, just know that you may get frustrated with the control scheme and missing features. And if you have to pick one device to play it on, pick the iPad, either full sized or mini. The iPhone just is too difficult to play with the cramped screen real estate.

Overall, the game isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely a lot of fun.


Relive the 2002 classic game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City in a touchscreen format.