How do you follow up a game that caused as many waves as Grand Theft Auto 3? This was the question that haunted Rockstar Games as they moved on from their insanely popular game. With the bar set and gamers anticipating more, how could things get better? It wouldn’t take long for the world to find out – that games sequel came out not twelve months later. That game would go on to become one of the most beloved games of all time, for many eclipsing its predecessor and becoming a cultural icon all of its own. That title – Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

The first thing to say about this game is just how impressive it was that Rockstar managed to scale everything up in such a small timeframe. While Grand Theft Auto 3 was a step above the competition, it still left enough holes in its armor that improvements could be made. Vice City went about delivering these improvements en masse, fleshing out the world it set its players loose in while building on the successes of the previous outing.

The biggest change comes in the overall tone. Out went the muted Claude and in came the tour-de-force that was Tommy Vercetti. Here was a protagonist that wore his 1980’s influences on his sleeve, quite literally in fact. Everything from the palm print shirt to the quiff hairstyle is a nod to all things 80’s, and it’s delightfully indulgent. The game isn’t afraid to go hard when it comes to nostalgia, throwing in the pastel blasted colors and sporting the kind of quips that wouldn’t be out-of-place in gangster movies. Typically this kind of overindulgence leads to burnout on the audience’s part, yet Vice City manages to tow the line and define itself away from its influences.

Not that Vercetti is the only character that wears his influences so brazenly. The entire cast around him feels lifted from Scarface, with plenty of tropes and nods to much-loved movies playing a huge role throughout. There are friendships made, alliances forged and ultimately betrayal. These twists keep things interesting -f and help to flesh out the world. Sure there’s a complaint that it sits too heavily on these indulgences, but Vice City isn’t shy about letting the gamer know what it’s all about.

One area it truly excels is in the story – where progress feels more natural. If there’s a complaint about Grand Theft Auto 3, it’s that the mission structure doesn’t feel truly rewarding. Claude never rises the criminal ladder and thus the stakes never truly grow. Vice City ties itself to a rag to riches story, a drugs deal gone south and a tale of redemption and revenge. Vercetti is a powerhouse, a criminal that pushes hard to get what he wants and isn’t afraid to break all the rules to get there. It’s empowering and grants the audience true autonomy over how they achieve this.

To assist in this, the game throws in a heap of new mechanics that help build up the world for the player. As you progress through the game, the ability to purchase property and businesses open up to the gamer. This opens up revenue streams and allows you to begin building the kind of business empire not possible previously. Buy a movie lot and indulge in missions based around that, invest in high-end cars or just help the criminal underbelly by buying the cities biggest night club. The world is your oyster, and it’s these investment opportunities which make Vice City feel that much deeper than Liberty City.

The changes don’t end there though. Shifts in some of the minor mechanics allow the game feel tighter. An improved aiming system, as well as better depth in the choice of weapons, opens up experimentation. The introduction of motorcycles and mopeds was huge at the time – it’s funny looking back but the ability to hop on two wheels felt like a big departure at the time. It’s these kinds of minor additions that punctuate Vice City – reminding you that this game is better than what came before.

But of course, we can’t talk about Vice City without mentioning that oh so glorious soundtrack. Rockstar not only raised the bar with its nostalgia laden radio selections here, it very likely hasn’t been surpassed since. Everything in the game’s soundtrack is a glorious nod to the synthesized 1980’s neon-lit world, and there won’t be a second where you find yourself hating it. From the iconic Billie Jean to Video Killed The Radio Star – you’ll love every second.

That isn’t to say the game is without flaws. The inability to swim is still a huge bugbear for the series up to this point, leaving you out of luck if you end up in one of the many rivers or lakes that fill the Vice City landscape. The original PlayStation 2 release also suffers from issues of the time. Loading screens are an apparent feature when heading across islands while the amount of pop-in can get ludicrous if the action picks up too much. In early PlayStation 2 releases, there was a smoke grenade weapon that had to be quietly removed from future updates – it impacts on performance was devastating if used. ┬áThe camera’s also hilariously crap still – doing its absolute best to murder you at every turn.

The camera’s also hilariously crap still – doing its absolute best to murder you at every turn. Try taking a sharp turn and you’ll inevitably plow into something you didn’t see coming. It is possible to master, but compared to the silky smooth camera operations offered up in modern games – it’s a huge grumble.

I also kind of feel that a fair chunk of the games last third suffers from an awkward cliff-face. The story up to the point where Vercetti ascends his drug throne and claims his spot at the head of Vice City is a huge moment – and then the game awkwardly hand waves that momentum away. Instead of telling you explicitly what to do, the game kind of nods to the businesses and expects you to find ways to cough up the money to unlock these missions. There’s a fair amount of money grinding in the games latter third which might rub some people up the wrong way – in particular if you don’t find the business related stuff all that interesting.

But let’s be honest, Vice City is easily one of the series high points. So loved is this game that it regularly features in lists for locations Grand Theft Auto should return too. Rockstar have said they don’t want to ruin Vice City, the feeling is that a modern retelling of the city would strip the game of its magic. Of its glamour. I’m inclined to agree here – a gritty modern Vice City would be a bizarre place to be when so much of the city is buried in the 1980’s nostalgia. It’s unclear if we’ll ever get to go back to Vice City, but there’s no question that 2002’s Vice City is a monumental achievement – and still as catchy as heck to play through.

Vice City represents the point at which Grand Theft Auto ascended from being “great” to genuinely excellent. Ironing out the creases of its predecessor, there’s a lot to love in this touchingly wonderful tribute to all things 1980’s.

It’s available on PlayStation 4. If you fancy a nostalgia trip like few other games can offer – Vice City certainly has the goods to offer up.