How one of the best Grand Theft Auto - Vice City Stories was developed. The last representative of the classics

14 October 2023

Almost all versions of classic GTA have made it to various platforms, including PC and smartphones. Even Liberty City Stories escaped from Sony's clutches and made it to iOS and Android, despite the fact that the original San Andreas was already running on phones with much more gameplay possibilities. The release of the portable game on PSP was a real event, as one of the best classic games in the GTA series — Vice City Stories was supposed to be ported next... but, alas, it didn't work out.

In this material, we will tell you how the prequel to Vice City was created: how engineers managed to squeeze all the juices out of the weak PSP, what tricks the developers resorted to, why fans still demand a remaster of VCS from Rockstar, and also figure out whether the designers from Leeds managed to outdo the original adventures of Tommy and Lance.

Sony requires exclusive

Outside the window was the winter of 2005 — a special time for game studios. The release of the brand new Xbox 360, which could create incredible things without strict technical limitations, had just thundered. There was a lot of hustle and bustle in Sony's head office, as their flagship PlayStation 3 was in development, and the main competitors in the face of Microsoft and Nintendo were decisively winning back a share of the market. Sales of PS2 and PSP were falling, and the gaming division of the Japanese corporation needed to somehow stay afloat.

Large projects from third-party publishers looked lackluster on the outdated PS2, causing the main gaming audience to switch more actively to Xbox. In the portable entertainment market, Nintendo was crushing PSP with its exclusives and gameplay breakthrough projects. The owners of Mario were not bothered by the early release of the new generation console from Microsoft, they had special trump cards up their sleeve that would help Wii become a real bestseller in the future.

Sony needed another year to polish PS3. The corporation had to squeeze all the juices out of its previous consoles in order not to lose the established audience and earn additional funds on PS2 and PSP owners to support the gaming division. At that time, Japanese consoles still led the market in sales, but Sony earned mainly from the sale of video games. Yes, the cost of hardware has dropped, and yes, with the release of new Slim revisions, the corporation saved on production, but even with these features, the Japanese did not dare to take a year of calm.

In general, only on the final life cycles of the PS2 and PSP did game studios learn to use all the potential in the console and produce incredibly beautiful and technologically advanced projects. On the second PlayStation in 2005-2007, such hits as Black, Metal Gear Solid 3, Persona 3, Final Fantasy XII, God of War 2, Shadow of the Colossus, Ace Combat Zero, Fahrenheit and many other technological games were released. Despite the frankly weak hardware for those years, these projects demonstrated unreal beauty and decent performance. PSP also released small technological wonders: Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, Daxter, Gangs of London, Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition, Manhunt 2, Silent Hill: Origins.

Rockstar Games' games were arguably the main flagship of Sony console sales, so the Japanese turned to the Scots again to help keep life in the fading consoles. Take-Two Interactive was not against releasing some projects on the old PS2 and PSP, but there could be no question of a new GTA coming out on frail hardware. In general, if you believe the rumors and columns in gaming magazines, Rockstar really tried to launch the RAGE engine on last generation consoles, but lacked all the necessary resources. The minimum threshold for RAGE's performance was the Wii, which ported Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis.

The rescue plan for Sony by Take-Two was as follows: Rockstar London's London office had to quickly develop and release a sequel to Manhunt on PS2 and PSP and port Midnight Club to the handheld. The Canadians from Rockstar Vancouver were tasked with making Canis Canem Edit, better known as Bully. The other Canadians from Rockstar Toronto were asked to port The Warriors to PSP. And Rockstar Leeds got another challenging order... to develop another GTA from scratch for PlayStation Portable. The authors hadn't had time to rest from Liberty City Stories when the bosses of Take-Two threw a more complex task at them: to make something almost like San Andreas, but for a portable console. The developers from Rockstar Leeds understood that repeating the technological miracle on weak hardware, and in a way that it didn't eat up the battery charge, would be more difficult than in the case with Liberty City Stories. And they were right.

Portable hell in Sunny Miami

While the guys from Rockstar North are working day and night on the development of Grand Theft Auto 4, their sister studio in Leeds is returning to the office to start planning a new portable Grand Theft Auto. There was very little time allocated for development, and the ambitions and tasks set by senior management were sky-high.

Within Rockstar Games, it was decided that all GTA games released on PSP would be unique prequels, meaning the setting of the next game should be Vice City. Rockstar Leeds founder Gordon Hall said in an interview how Grand Theft Auto: Vice City defined the term «cool game» for the entire gaming industry. It was important for him to bring back those warm memories to players and give them the opportunity to visit the bright places of the sunny city.

The script was handled by staff writer David Bland. He wanted to reveal already familiar characters from a less sophisticated side. Therefore, the events of the game were moved to 1984, that is, two years before Tommy Vercetti arrived. The main character this time is not a hardened bandit and mafioso, but a law-abiding citizen who was destined to step on a slippery path. David was assisted by Dan Houser, who chose the main character and sewed the events of Stories with the main game with white threads. The main plot is focused around Victor Vance, Lance Vance's brother. Both characters previously appeared in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

While the scriptwriters were figuring out the plot twists, game designers were analyzing all the feedback regarding Liberty City Stories. The developers couldn't simply copy all the functionality of San Andreas, as the PSP just wouldn't be able to handle that much information. The missions for the new game had to be more diverse, dynamic, and action-packed than before, with multiple ways to complete them: on land, sea, or air. The main problem for implementing all these ideas was the power of the portable console. Back in the days of developing Liberty City Stories, the authors faced hundreds of problems in implementing the classic GTA gameplay. Here we have the small capacity of the UMD disc, weak hardware, the lack of additional triggers with an analog stick, and a whole heap of other troubles they had to fight with.

The engineering department sat down to upgrade the Leeds Engine, the engine of Liberty City Stories. Programmers wrote a new way of interaction between the central and graphics processors from scratch, to make it easier for game designers to add new features. Thanks to reducing the load on the processor, the developers managed to increase the draw distance and liven up the atmosphere of Vice City, without obscuring the players' view with purple fog, as it was in the previous game.

Also, a new process was added for streaming information and animations from the disc to the console. This allowed loading more data into the game at once, without the need to pause the process for additional downloads. This algorithm allowed programmers to compress and optimize data in a special way, which allowed displaying crowds of people with detailed animations on the screen, as well as not limiting the amount of transport around the player. Also, the new engine could now calmly display models with a large number of polygons, and the new model of light emission could literally blind the player, as if he was directly in Vice City.

The achievements of the engineering department freed the hands of the game designers. The first thing the developers did was to give the main character the ability to swim. According to Rockstar Leeds, this was the main feature that fans of the original Vice City dreamed of. Unfortunately, there was not enough space on the UMD disc to detail the sea depths, so diving was not possible. Long-distance swims were also limited due to the inability to hold the animation of the water space, the model of the main character, and cityscapes in the graphics processor. Game designers explained this by the limited lung volume of Vic Vance. But even in such a truncated form, the ability to swim in the blue waters, and even on the PSP, sounds like an achievement.

But it's one thing to teach a hero to swim, another is how he will interact with the water? Vice City itself is surrounded by water, and if in the original game it was just decoration, then with the ability to swim and frequent use of water transport, the developers had to completely rewrite the buoyancy model, which is needed for the use of jet skis. The appearance of the water was also improved thanks to new transparency, splash, and wave effects. Rockstar Leeds was so obsessed with water detailing that they added several sea states in different weather conditions. And this, I emphasize, on the technically weak PSP.

The unloaded PSP processor allowed displaying more details and ensuring high draw distance. This means that the implementation of air transport was not far off. Using the developments of Rockstar North, game designers easily added not only helicopters but also airplanes. At the same time, the use of flying transport in no way affected performance. When you are in the air, pedestrians, cars, and other objects on the ground decrease depending on the distance, and do not disappear or turn into sprite lodges, as it was in the GTA trilogy on PS2.

The prequel from Leeds also outperformed the original in terms of controllable technology. Here you have cars and motorcycles of any taste and color. Tons of all kinds of original transport: all-terrain vehicles, domestobots (robot-servant), golf carts, amphibians, buggies, loaders and even bicycles, which were perfectly transferred straight from San Andreas. But the most important thing is that now it was pleasant and convenient to drive this transport. The developers reduced the overall speed of the technique, added a minimal suspension game, and also improved the responsiveness of controlling the miniature PSP stick. In Liberty City Stories, driving transport along the hilly and foggy roads of the city was quite a test.

Rockstar Leeds understood that the main feature of the original Vice City was in the setting and visual series, so it was important for them not just to transfer the spirit of the game to a portable console, but literally to surpass Rockstar North in implementation. Having improved the water, visibility distance and overall performance, the programmers closely dealt with the lighting, which always distinguished Vice City among other cities. The PSP screen, to put it mildly, could not convey all the beauty of visual and light effects, so the designers had to resort to tricks to convey the spirit of sunny Miami in the 80s.

To start with, programmers had to abandon the standard lighting model from Vice City and write an absolutely new one. They took as a basis the model of radiation, which came from one central object, in this case, the sun. The light literally enveloped the game space and repainted all models in the desired color shade. For example, moving on transport in the evening, you will always see a pink-red haze throughout Vice City. If you look at the sun, the PSP screen will be covered with a blinding red shroud, creating a realistic effect. In essence, in 2006, Leeds Studio managed to create more lively and pleasant «God rays» — before it became mainstream and a sign of next-gen.

As soon as the sun went down over the horizon, neon light effects took over. The designers did not skimp and scattered neon signs all over Vice City. Now screenshots for the game could be taken not only on Ocean Drive, but even on the inconspicuous Bayshore Avenue. In addition to the signs, there were other colorful light sources everywhere: garlands on houses and wires, bright shops and animated textures of shop windows. All this embodied the very magic of Vice City, because of which you want to replay the game again.

The city itself has noticeably added polygons and has become much more detailed than the original. The map scheme in Vice City Stories is the same. But since the action of the game takes place two years before the events of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, there are thematic and structural differences in the city. Thus, new establishments, shops, active construction sites, and a new Ferris wheel near Vice Point appeared in the game. Some buildings that we saw in the game from Rockstar North are still in the active stage of construction or are completely absent. And yet, the developers tried to keep most of the popular places so that fans of the original would experience an incredible feeling of nostalgia and be pleasantly surprised by some differences.

Having figured out the engine and its features, the developers proceeded to create the main content: missions, structural gameplay, and working mechanics. There was little time left until the release, the engineering part significantly slowed down the entire active stage of development. Artists had to redraw textures several times and add polygons to existing models. All key characters have undergone a total overhaul. The main character no longer looked like Carl Johnson, and the rejuvenated characters from the original Vice City were noticeably improved in terms of textures and the number of facial animations.

Characters and their depth in Vice City Stories

According to the script by Dan Houser and David Bland, the protagonist Vic Vance serves in the army to support his problematic family. In addition, the main character has two brothers: the first one is ill with asthma and needs expensive medicines, and the second brother — Lance, who considers law-abiding work a complete nonsense. Due to his boss, Vic has to engage in drug trafficking to earn money faster. Later, he is exposed and shamefully expelled from the army. Phil Cassidy, known from previous parts of GTA, takes Vic under his wing and introduces him to the criminal world of Vice City.

Vic Vance is a unique character for the GTA series. Unlike his predecessors, he did not have a criminal past and went down the slippery path not of his own free will. Like Carl Johnson, Vic is attached to his family, so most of his criminal actions are for the sake of his brothers' well-being. The line of family relationships became key in the narrative of Vice City Stories. And it's not just about the family twists and turns of the Vances, but about the plot cut-scenes of secondary characters. Here are abusive relationships from which Vic saves his future beloved Louise, problems with self-identification of personality, complex relationships with his mother, and a huge number of conflicts within mafia families due to drug trafficking.

Drug trafficking in Vice City Stories acts as an antagonist to the family. Bland literally quotes The Godfather, Scarface and The Sopranos, asserting that drug trafficking is the easiest way to quarrel with everyone and arrange a bloody massacre in an empty place. Despite his involvement in drug smuggling, Vic shows hostility towards them, believing that they destroy human lives. He himself does not use them and throughout the game will discourage close people from them.

Compared to Vic, Lance looks like a complete fool. Unlike his future version, Lance in Vice City Stories appears as a capricious child with a carefree attitude to life, irrational thinking, and selfish motives. Throughout the story, Vic has to constantly pull his brother out of trouble and deal with the problems that Lance causes in a fit of uncontrollable aggression. The scriptwriters wanted to show how the personality of the antagonist of Vice City was transformed and why he would eventually betray the main character. Essentially, Lance, both in the prequel and the sequel, is in the shadow of more successful and ambitious people. Hypocrisy and fixation on his own selfishness do not allow Vic's brother to let the situation go and remain second. Vice City Stories for players is like a new trilogy of Star Wars, where they can see firsthand the transformation of key characters for Vice City, including the charismatic antagonist.

Missions and gameplay features of Vice City Stories

The key feature of Vice City Stories was the management of your own criminal empire. Rockstar Leeds mixed the business purchase from Vice City and the squeezing of territories from the rival gang from San Andreas into one cocktail. The player arrives at the competitor's territory and arranges a raiding takeover by destroying physical property or shooting waves of enemies. To prevent the takeover of enemy property from becoming routine, developers have given players the opportunity to hire gang members to assist, again as in San Andreas.

For the business to grow and prosper, Vic has to upgrade the establishments by performing certain tasks. Sometimes hostile clans will try to reclaim the business, so the player will often have to be distracted from the storyline missions and shoot off restless competitors. Speaking of shooting and combat system. After the release of Liberty City Stories, Rockstar Leeds studio received hundreds of messages with complaints about the inconvenient aiming system and unresponsive controls. The developers were not directly to blame for this, of course, since the PSP had only one analog stick and only two top triggers. Game designers had to completely redesign the targeting and aiming system so that players would not accidentally dislocate their fingers during the next mission. The hand-to-hand combat system also underwent significant changes. Now Vic can perform grabs and throws, climb on the opponent and perform finishing moves.

Missions in Vice City Stories were meticulously matched to the narrative, but at the same time they were not lengthy and allowed for short gaming sessions, which is necessary for a portable console. Also, the game added traditional side tasks related to professions: firefighter, taxi driver, ambulance driver, or lyncher. With the added ability to swim, Vic could become a lifeguard on the beach of Vice City and repeat the feats of the heroes of the Baywatch series. The main improvement in such activities was the ability to leave the transport (taxi, police car, motorcycle, etc.) without the possibility of failing the task.

Rockstar Games purchased over 100 licensed tracks for Vice City Stories. According to the Leeds developers, this package is the best and deepest collection of songs in GTA history. Special compression was required for the music, as the UMD drive was literally bursting at the seams from the amount of information. The programmers wrote a special plugin that allowed the compositions to be compressed to an acceptable size while maintaining quality. The radio music sounded great, especially from the not-so-advanced PSP speakers. But in headphones, the sound was no longer perfect. An added bonus to the coolness of Vice City Stories music was Phil Collins, who not only voiced a character but also personally appeared in Vic Vance's storyline.

There were only a few weeks left until the scheduled release on October 17, 2006, in America and October 20 in Europe. The Rockstar Leeds team was exhausted and hastily finishing up multiplayer modes, without which the game could not be released on PSP. The programmers didn't have any special requirements for working out gameplay features for network battles, so they mostly just copied already ready modes from Liberty City Stories and stretched them over Vice City decorations.

The release of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories took place a little later than the publisher's scheduled date — October 31, 2006, in North America, November 3, 2006 — in Europe. Critics were thrilled with the work done. Rockstar Leeds once again proved that it can create technological projects on any hardware and produce a quality product no worse than Rockstar North. Most popular publications at the time called Vice City Stories the best game on PSP.

The release of Vice City Stories had a positive impact on the longevity of the PSP. Players were forced to buy the outdated portable console just to return to their favorite setting and immerse themselves in the plot twists of the Vance family. In its 2008 financial report, Take-Two Interactive will reveal that Vice City Stories was successful and sold 4.5 million copies. Although it did not reach the financial records of Liberty City Stories, which sold over 8 million copies, there were several reasons for this: first, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 hit the entire gaming industry, second, with the release of the iPhone, portable consoles lost their previous relevance, and with the arrival of a new generation, it was impractical to buy games for old consoles. But even with these problems, Vice City Stories recouped its costs and became the most successful game from the «Rescue Kit of Projects», which was destined to keep Sony afloat.

The Legacy of Vice City Stories and San Andreas Stories

As with Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, Vice City Stories needed to be ported to the old PS2. Rockstar Leeds wanted to significantly improve the already finished game by adding new content, improved models, rewritten lighting code, and fine-tuned urban environment simulation with additional activities. In general, to make Vice City Stories a project at the level of San Andreas. Only Take-Two allocated three months for all the work, as the fourth GTA was approaching the release, and the publisher did not want to get a competitor, albeit from a subsidiary studio. Rockstar Leeds had nothing left but to release the game with minimal changes.

Critics reacted more coolly to the PS2 version than to the PSP version. Journalists criticized the game for the lack of significant changes in graphics, multiplayer, and glitchy code. But as in the case of Liberty City Stories, Vice City Stories sold well on older consoles, and indignant exclamations did not prevent Take-Two from making money on a quite mediocre port.

It was impossible to transfer the project to PC due to partnership agreements with Sony, so players had to hope for modders who undertook to adapt all the content of Vice City Stories under the San Andreas engine. However, the process did not go further than the third beta, Take-Two accused the creators of the modification of copyright infringement. Nowadays, any willing player can go through Vice City Stories, as modern emulators allow running PSP exclusives without special hardware requirements.

Years after its release, Vice City Stories has not made it past the PSP and PS2. The game could not be ported to iOS and Android due to an ongoing exclusivity agreement. The developers would have had no problem with the porting itself, as Vice City Stories was faster and smoother than Liberty City Stories in terms of performance. It would have run smoothly on any smartphone.

After the release of the PS2 version of Vice City Stories, publisher Take-Two naturally suggested Rockstar Leeds implement San Andreas Stories on the already prepared engine. The programmers understood that it would be impossible to fit an entire state on a tiny UMD disc, which raised the question for game designers — in which city would the events take place? But the developers did not have time to make the right decision: Electronic Arts announced that the RenderWare engine was no longer for sale, it could only be used by the publisher's studios.

Rockstar Leeds did not want to develop a new engine for another GTA for a half-dead console. And Rockstar Games decided to leave the 3D universe of GTA alone and focus on the new HD universe. By that time, Nintendo, seeing high sales of the Stories duology for PSP, approached Take-Two with a request to develop some GTA for their portable console. Rockstar Leeds understood that they would have to make the game for an even weaker console than the PSP. So they were preparing for another feat.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories surpassed its predecessor on all fronts, becoming the most technologically advanced game for the portable PSP. Rockstar Leeds proved that they are capable of any, seemingly impossible, tasks. The Leeds studio has become an important part of the Rockstar Games ecosystem, capable of delivering games that meet company standards in a tight timeframe.

Would you like to now hear a detailed story about the difficulties of developing Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars? Have you tried Vice City Stories and what emotions did it evoke in you? Share in the comments!

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