Grand Theft Auto: Then and Now
Everytime I pick up a new Grand Theft Auto, I remember why I love the GTA series as much as I do. I’ve been a pretty loyal GTA fanboy since GTA2 (albeit having skipped GTA3 and the portable GTAs). As a result, I’ve born witness to the evolution of the series from a simple 2D action game to the revolutionary 3D open-world game it became.
Grand Theft Auto 2 was largely in the same spirit of Grand Theft Auto (or as it’s known now, Grand Theft Auto 1). It was a 2D open-world action game where you can take on missions for various gangs. The new feature GTA2 had over the original was the dynamic between rival gangs as working for one will inevitably anger another one. Being able to proceed and make the maximum amount of money involves trying to work done for all the gangs, so you do need to keep your chaos balanced. Missions typically involved stealing something, delivering something, blowing something up, or something a criminal would be told to do, and it was fun…for a while.
The reason GTA2 got old for me was primarily as a result of its inherent design: It got really easy to get lost. When you take on a mission, you have a pink arrow pointing the general direction you’re supposed to go. It wasn’t helpful when there was a mess of buildings or bodies of water in between you and where you needed to go, and it only got worse when the objective was a moving target (such as a truck you had to steal). I found myself frequently checking the folded map packaged with the game to get my bearings.
Also, as a result of a lack of real story, it felt like there really wasn’t a real point to the mayhem you cause. Sure, like in later GTA games, you could go off the beaten path and start a crime spree of your own, but even that had its limiting appeal. Despite that, GTA2 was a commercial success. Even with that, Rockstar didn’t rest on its laurels.
In 2001, Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto 3 for the PlayStation 2, and it took the world by storm. You play as an unnamed criminal on a path of revenge in a fully realized 3D world. It was also probably one of the first games to get an M rating and really deserve it. The missions you took on usually involved committing acts of violence, and the game turned into an absolute bloodbath if the player decided to start his/her own random crime spree. In addition, you had rapid-fire profanity and the ability to get serviced by in-game prostitutes for a health bonus.
A critical and commercial success, GTA3 not only revolutionized 3D action-adventure gaming, but (along with its sequel Grand Theft Auto: Vice City) woke back up controversies associated with violent video games. That didn’t stop Rockstar when they released Vice City two years later.
GTA: Vice City was the last straw for infamous Florida attorney Jack Thompson, who advocated a correlation between playing violent video games and violent behavior in real life. Thompson went on to claim the perpetrators of the Beltway sniper attacks trained themselves by playing Vice City. Let’s just say that was a time where there were many people that had a very hard time accepting the much stronger correlation between violent behavior and inherent mental illness and lousy parenting. I first got my hands on Vice City when I was 14, and I graduated middle school, high school, and college without ever feeling the need to take a gun to school and kill people.
Vice City was also my first experience with the 3D GTA series. Set in the 80s, Vice City was largely in the same spirit as GTA3, and it has you playing as Tommy Vercetti, voiced by actor Ray Liotta, in a story about taking over the titular city inspired by basically all of your favorite Al Pacino movies. As Vice City was largely a “smoothening” of the GTA3 experience, I think I basically got everything that was special in GTA3 in Vice City, with the added bonuses of helicopters, motorcycles, and significantly cleaner graphics. It is also important to know Rockstar was forced to really sacrifice detail because of the sheer amount of stuff going on in the game’s world; there’s no way a PlayStation 2 could run it if the characters looked like they came out of Metal Gear Solid 3.
Despite that, Rockstar proved themselves to be programming gurus when they basically squeezed out everything the PS2 could do in developing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, released in 2004.
Rockstar sought to take an already winning game, add a nice early 90s “ghetto” flavor to it, and some very deep RPG elements to it. As Carl “CJ” Johnson, you save your family in a gang war as you manage his skills with various weapons, his ability to drive, and interestingly, other things like his strength, fat levels, and sex appeal. Not only that, but you live in not one, but three massive cities in the fictional state of San Andreas. The most amazing part? They all existed in one game world! Vice City was divided into two islands, and you had to cross bridges to get from one to the other. As you cross the bridge, the game would pause at a loading screen for a few seconds as it loaded the other island up. San Andreas rendered the world on the fly much more seamlessly.
A complaint people had with GTA3 and Vice City was the clunkiness of the gunplay, as you often find yourself locking onto a schmuck down the road while a gangbanger five feet away is filling you up with pistol rounds, and San Andreas attempted to address that by giving the ability to manually aim all your weapons and CJ acrobatics (like taking cover and executing combat rolls) that no-name and Tommy sorely lacked. Because of the sheer number of new small things added to San Andreas, I very clearly remember San Andreas just being a better experience than Vice City was.
Of course, there is no way I can talk about San Andreas without mentioning the Hot Coffee mod that was all over the news. San Andreas added the ability to date women, which included engaging in sex. What was in the final, released game was just the camera outside the girl’s house as CJ and his date made sounds. What Rockstar originally meant to put in was a full-on minigame of the sexual act. As they knew it wouldn’t fly by the ESRB, Rockstar blocked that feature off, but left it on the game’s disc. It didn’t take long for someone to hack the PC edition of the game and unlock the Hot Coffee minigame, and the press (and attorneys hoping to make names for themselves) were all over it. It resulted in San Andreas being the first game in years to get awarded the AO (Adults Only) rating by the ESRB, which in turn caused retailers to drop the game like a hot potato. Rockstar then pulled the game back and re-released a “Second Edition” which included a short movie detailing some story elements and, more importantly, with Hot Coffee not even on the disc.
Rockstar then decided to take a break from releasing GTA titles, coming out with Bully in 2006. Instead of playing as a criminal, you’re now a mischievous kid in a boarding school. You still have the GTA-style open-world gameplay, but you now lack the ability to inflict lethal damage. The worst thing you do is help a perverted gym teacher acquire girls’ panties (Ok, I admit, that’s pretty bad). Despite that, combat was a a lot more fun than it was in any of the GTA titles that came before it, and Bully was overall a really enjoyable game. I also do need to point out that while Bullworth Academy, where the game took place, is billed by the game as the worst one in America, I saw much worse going on on a daily basis in the high school I went to, including possibly pedophile teachers and drug use, the latter of which wasn’t depicted in Bully at all.
More importantly, I saw Bully as a testing ground for gameplay features that ultimately made their way into Grand Theft Auto IV, namely the new ways you escape authorities when you’re caught committing a crime. Instead of getting your car sprayed a different color, you have to get out of the prefects’ (or cops’) field of vision, and you can do that by hiding in trashcans or lockers, Metal Gear Solid-style.
Grand Theft Auto IV came soon after the release of the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. It was a much more cinematic adventure as you play as Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant, in a reimagined Liberty City. As it was released on newer hardware, the difference in quality of graphics and sound between GTA4 and San Andreas was almost like night and day. Not only that, but Liberty City felt much more like a living, breathing city; the earlier games tended to populate their worlds with sleepwalking zombie clones acting as pedestrians. GTA4 just had a lot more going on, and it had what was an unparralleled attention to detail in making Liberty City a convincing fictionalized New York, complete with something that looked a lot like Times Square.
As Niko was a former soldier, it only makes sense to make the gunplay nearly flawless, including a cover system that worked extremely well.
Admittedly, what disappointed me was the fact that Rockstar actually scaled back on some of the gameplay features that were present in San Andreas. For instance, you can’t fly jetpacks and you don’t have to worry about if Niko had a healthy fast food burger breakfast to keep his fat levels up. In addition, Rockstar also scrapped things like the ability to pretend to be a taxi driver and drive people around for extra money or the ability to pretend to be an ambulance driver and ferry people to the hospital. I think it’s purely because that would’ve made the game unable to see the light of day because they would simply never be able to finish programming it.
Did you ever want to play GTA, only have it set in the Old West? Then look no further than Red Dead Redemption! While “GTA in the Old West” doesn’t sound like, much it was actually an extremely good game. In fact, I have a full review of it on this site, so you can go check it out there for a full-length rant about how awesome it is.
What inspired this post is the fact that I got started on Grand Theft Auto V, which I’m enjoying a lot so far. I encourage you to stay tuned for a full review.