Noah Robischon
November 01, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

Grand Theft Auto III, last year’s top-selling trip to the G-spot of crime and punishment, has gotten a face-lift and is back wearing one of Don Johnson’s Armani blazers and dangling a crack vial from its neck. That, in essence, is Vice City — the felonious follow-up to GTA3, which is sure to be the most sought-after videogame of the year.

Vice City’s gangster in chief is Tommy Vercetti (voiced by Ray Liotta), who, after 15 years in prison, is hired by the Forelli crime family to oversee their Miami-like cocaine biz. His inaugural drug deal turns into a bloodbath, and now Vercetti has to either recover the Forellis’ money — and wreak revenge on the scumbags who set him up — or hang from a meat hook. But that decades-old story line obscures the scary genius that makes Vice City such a joyride.

In a typical action game, players dash around a set path looking for a key that unlocks the door to a big boss, who must be defeated in order to advance to the next level. But in Vice City, you (playing as Vercetti) roam freely through streets lined with art-deco hotels and crowded with quirky characters like bikini-clad roller skaters. Driving around aimlessly becomes a pastime unto itself, and there are dozens of distractions. Tired of warring with that nasty Colombian gang? Try delivering pizza for a spell.

Then there are the gangland-style missions. Vercetti is ordered to start a riot among striking union workers, which distracts the cops so he can blow up a trio of trucks. Or he must supply gun cover for a payoff and then chase down some Haitian thieves on a racing bike. Finishing the tasks will take at least 100 hours, and there’s no right way to do it: You could sneak up silently, or go in with a rocket launcher. Just as with GTA3, those step-by-step ”walk-throughs” that get posted online will be constantly amended as fans discover ever more ingenious ways to complete each goal.

The robust selection of weaponry, everything from screwdrivers to submachine guns, ought to help. Not to mention the vehicles — more than a hundred to hijack — which are as dangerous as ever. Helicopters make traversing the 13-section city a breeze, and there is a superb collection of motorcycles for Vercetti to fire an Uzi from. He can also dive out of moving cars, and crouch behind them. The radio stations are back too, and with more than nine hours of deejay riffs and ’80s hits. (I suspect Michael Jackson will wanna be startin’ something when he learns that Sony licensed his hit tunes to accompany hit-and-runs.) A lineup of 18 celebrity voice actors — including Dennis Hopper and Burt Reynolds — play supporting roles, and the graphic detail is twice as likely to cause retina burn. If there are flaws here, I couldn’t find them — but I was granted only a two-and-a-half-hour sit-down with Vice City.

And there’s no telling what kind of ire the game’s mass marauding will draw. But given the heat that GTA3 attracted for its gang-banging, Vice City — like a refined form of coke that’s about to demolish the inner city — is sure to raise a ruckus.

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