Hello, Javy Gwaltney here, Associate Editor for Game Informer. I currently putting together a series of deep dives into my ten favorite games of all time. You can read all about the origins, as well as the beginning of the series, here.

This week we’re going to be talking about my #8 pick: Grand Theft Auto Vice City. Feel free to leave comments below and thanks for reading. Be sure to come back next week on Wednesday at noon CST for #7.

Rockstar came roaring into the new century with Grand Theft Auto 3. The game's open-world sandbox style of play wasn't new but the third-person perspective in a fully rendered 3D environment was something that hadn't been pulled off as well as it was in 3. As monumental as Grand Theft Auto 3 was, however, it wasn't until Vice City that the developer truly cemented as reputation as the troublemaker developer, the one looking to make headlines and push the boundaries.

Vice City is loud and bright. It's a game with no use for subtlety. The characters are all versions of various archetypes we've seen before in crime movies and television shows. The music is inescapable. Neon in every direction.  If one were to be a tad ungenerous toward Vice City, they could accuse the game of being all style and no substance.

However, that's a mistake: Vice City's style is its substance. Whereas 3 still had the illicit, forbidden fruit content of sex, profanity, and wanton violence--it lacked a personality beyond those things and the freedom the sandbox offered its players. GTA 3 basically existed as a blank space in the middle of a ho-hum modern mafia fantasy starring silent protagonist.

Vice City gave us a story. A cliched story ripped that you'd get from throwing Scarface, Miami Vice, and Goodfellas into a blender but it was story. Tommy Vercetti was a character with ambitions, surrounded by cowardly lawyers and backstabbers. Nothing groundbreaking in himself but his desire for power and excess made him a character befitting the 80s era as well as Vice City's central mechanic, where you take over the whole town by buying property after property. To have that sort of narrative consistency in a game was, and is still quite frankly, rare and makes Vice City among the most immersive open-world games.

The cascade of small touches also help that immersion. How each radio has their own DJ with defined personalities. The (then) ridiculous number of lines for NPCs wandering the streets. The day, night, and weather cycles. The meticulously designed interiors of clubs and mansions. The carefully curated soundtrack.

For me, Vice City marks the beginning of Rockstar truly coming into its own. The developer's crowning achievements--Red Dead Redemption, Manhunt, and Grand Theft Auto IV, have not yet arrived but it's here that the company really started making blockbuster gamers that exuded a particular style that no one could imitate with as much flair of technical excellence, despite the many many many Grand Theft Auto clones that appeared in the wake of GTA 3.

Beyond its historical importance, Vice City was also a game that meant a lot to me when I was growing up, reading magazines (including the one I work for now, oddly enough), devouring reviews and previews, desperate to play the next big thing. Back in 2002 that was Grand Theft Auto Vice City. 

When I was I was 13, my parents let me get away with most things and devour whatever media I wanted. Vice City proved to be a sticking point, though, because the game caused so much controversy that it appeared in the papers actually read. They were fine with me watching r-rated movies on HBO or shooting thousands of people in Half-life. However, embodying a character who can buy sex from prostitutes to restore their health bars was something they were not crazy about, so I wasn't allowed to own the game.

I did it anyway.

A couple of friends were in the same boat as me, desperately wanting to play the game but not allowed to, so we paid one of their older brothers to buy the game for us. We all chipped in and he bought a single copy that we spent all of November through January of that year playing through. We'd sneak away to each other's houses to play. I'd borrow it when my parents were away for the weekend. We'd trade memory cards. It was a rather effective system for a group of adolescent boys to maintain and never get caught, but we did.

In hindsight I imagine at least some of our parents knew, had suspicions that we were going behind their backs, but they were probably too busy with their own problems. Or maybe they were amused by the whole enterprise? Who knows? Either way, it felt like all of us were getting away with something and perhaps that was even more exciting than the crime-laden activities of Vice City itself.

Admittedly the second game in the Grand Theft Auto III trilogy might be bit hard to go back to. The awkward combat mechanics, lack of ragdoll physics, and PS2 era visuals are a bit difficult to stomach sometimes. But even then the stylish and bloody charms of the game shine on all these years later. If you've been away as long as I have, why not take some time to race down Ocean Drive in a convertible, blaring "Out Of Touch" as the street lights blur into each other? Vice City might not be Rockstar's best game but, in a way, it's easily the developer's most magical.