Mat Langford’s Gaming World – A Grand Theft Auto Retrospective

The first new entry in the Grand Theft Auto series in over 5 years, GTA V, hits shelves on September 17, 2013. One of the most anticipated games in recent memory, it has gamers salivating over speculation, screenshots and videos teasing everything from a new 3-character story arc, beautiful hi-def visuals and a brilliant bustling city to the coveted Shack on the Hill – which (unless the droves of Reddit users have their way and make Rockstar bow to their demands) has still yet to be confirmed to contain anything at all.

So in light of the release of GTA V, let’s look back on the GTA series as a whole, and peel back the layers on one of the most influential, controversial and enduring franchises in video game history.

Grand Theft Auto - Cover

When the franchise first reared its head in October of 1997, it was a small endeavor from a relatively unknown studio called DMA Design, a Scotland-based software developer whose previous games included Lemmings and Body Harvest. They decided to try their hand at a free roaming racing/shooting sim, that would allow players to take on missions in an arcade style point race. What started out as an original working title of “Race and Chase”, soon evolved into an overhead, run, drive and gun combination called Grand Theft Auto.

The game allowed players to hijack cars, complete missions and shoot people with a variety of weapons in an open world with very little restriction. Granted, this first iteration was sparsely populated with interactive objects, but the framework was there, and GTA had started to popularize concept of what we now refer to as a sandbox-style game. The player could run and drive wherever they wanted to, and interact with the environment in any way they chose. You could deviate from the missions and run around the city, shooting driving and crashing into basically anything. It let players truly experience the freedom of, well…freedom.

While it was a blast to play, it quickly garnered negative reviews from mainstream news sources, some calling the game out for its excessive violence, over the top gunplay and offensive language. It was even referred to as a “murder and car-jacking simulator”, and critics claimed that it contributed to society’s moral decline. GTA was condemned in Britain, Germany, and France due to its “extreme violence”, and Brazil even banned it outright. The negative press, however, piqued the interest in gamers, and helped push the game off the shelves, selling more than 150,000 copies. The game even spawned two additional expansions, GTA: London 1969 and GTA London: 1961, adding an English flare to the existing premise (albeit with terrible voice acting).

Grand Theft Auto 2 - Cover

DMA knew that they had something with GTA, and began work on a sequel. Released in September of 1999, GTA 2 – which was also the first of the series to be published by Rockstar Games – packed a noticeable upgrade to all aspects of the first games’ visuals, textures, sound and game-play  It utilized a much bigger city, expanded scale and more missions with a deeper objective system. The police got more aggressive, chasing after you and upgrading to heavier vehicles as your wanted rating progressed. There were also more vehicles to drive. One of the biggest upgrades, however, was the introduction of a gang relationship system, which would see players running missions to earn favor with certain gangs, in turn putting them in direct opposition to others. Rival gangs would then take exception to you walking through their areas and shoot at you and your vehicle if you got too close. This loyalty-based system would find itself in many of the series’ future iterations.

Grand Theft Auto III -  Cover

The next game in the series, GTA III, hit the shelves in October of ‘01, and was a massive overhaul of the series as we knew it. Gone were the 2D, top-down graphics, as well as the cartoon style. GTA III used the brand new Renderware engine, which created a fully three-dimensional, 3rd person action experience that allowed players to really feel the action, while being totally immersed in a huge, interactive world. It focused on a great storyline, but allowed the player to divert from the missions and explore the city, doing side quests and collecting things, and the fully voice-acted cutscenes really added a level of realism not seen in the series’ earlier games.

DMA Designs wanted the game to set new standards for freedom, exploration and creativity, giving players all the tools to do basically anything they wanted. In a statement, they said, “When we were designing ideas for GTA III the ideas evolved very naturally out from the original GTA games which set new levels of freedom in terms of interactivity, freedom and non-linearity. The challenge and goal with this game was to take all of the freedom and diversity of the earlier 2D, top-down games, and bring it onto a living, breathing 3D world.”

Not only did they achieve this, but GTA III would essentially set the standard for all future shooter/driver sims, laying the groundwork for not only the future games in the series, but a lot of other highly reviewed games like Red Dead Redemption and Sleeping Dogs. Critical reviews were unanimously incredible, with some calling it game of the year, and it ended up as 2001’s best selling game. To date, over 20 million copies of GTA III have been sold.

GTA: Vice City was released in October 2002, and – while not a complete overhaul like its predecessor – introduced another engaging story with a setting reminiscent of 80’s Miami. While still utilizing the allegiance mechanics and the same game engine from GTA III, Vice City allowed players to immerse themselves into another aspect of the game: empire building. Not only could you partake in the games linear missions, but you could buy houses, apartments and businesses and grow your net worth, eventually becoming a business empire. The storytelling, the characters and the world seemed more fleshed out, giving the player tons of things to do, side missions to take and cars to find. This was also the first game developed after DMA Designs were purchased by Rockstar and renamed Rockstar North. GTA: Vice City would go on to become one of the top 5 games ever made on the PS2.

For the next iteration, Rockstar knew that players – now used to the quality of game that Rockstar could provide – wouldn’t accept just another cookie-cutter version of GTA. So when GTA: San Andreas was released, they added a bunch of new features that further immersed the player in the fictional world of San Andreas. It was the biggest city in any GTA game – essentially, it was the STATE of San Andreas, with its divisions being the cities of Los Santos, San Fiero and Las Venturas – and it was the most densely packed playground a gamer could ask for, with loads of missions, Easter eggs and cars/weapons to be found. But first and foremost, the game now included classic RPG elements, allowing players to tailor their experience depending on choices they made throughout. If you ate too much food, you got fat. If you exercised, you got buff and muscular. These traits, along with how you dressed, would dictate how NPC’s viewed you. You could spend more money on clothing to increase your appeal, or walk around in sweatpants eating burgers and people would cringe as you walked by. The ability to level up your skills was also included, allowing players to hit the gun range to improve their accuracy. They were simple mechanical additions, but they had a huge effect on the games general appeal.

The franchise then hit the PSP with GTA: Liberty City Stories, and GTA: Vice City Stories. Both were met with critical acclaim, though, they notably suffered from the lack of power the handhelds provided. It was infamously ported to the PS2, but used the same code and engine that the handheld used, causing critics to pan that iteration. That being said, they were two good additions – story wise – to the franchise, and you can probably pick up copies fairly easily at a local game store.

Then came the mother of all GTA games, GTA IV. With over 40 Game of the Year awards, 3.5 million copies sold in its first day on the shelves and 1.5 billion in sales in its first week, this game created a revolution in what the gaming public believed could be done in an open world game. The first next-gen iteration – released in April of 2008 for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 – was truly groundbreaking. It utilized the new ‘Rage’ game engine, which got rid of the cartoon-style graphics from the previous versions and introduced players to a darker, more gritty urban landscape. Game physics were given a face-lift  with cars acting more like real life ones – though probably the hardest to drive in the entire series. Pedestrians became a more active part of the city, reacting to your actions both in vehicles and out of them, and gun play was much tighter and fun. The characters were all likable albeit a little annoying at times (read: Cousin! It’s your…cousin! Let’s go bowling!), and the story was gripping and intense. All of the great mechanics from prior games were there – save for the eating/weight fluctuation ones in San Andreas –  and players could really get caught up in the story-line  while also having the freedom to do anything they wanted in this hi-res, next-gen world. The city was smaller than San Andreas, but it was packed full of things to do and see including flying planes, swimming and base jumping/parachuting.

The game was followed by a few DLC packs including The Lost and the Damned, a Sons of Anarchy style motorcycle shoot-em-up and Ballad of Gay Tony, where you’re charged with protecting a high-status socialite club owner. Both were stand alone DLC, and combined in the package release GTA: Episodes from Liberty City.

The Nintendo DS, shortly thereafter, got GTA: Chinatown Wars, which was a take on the GTA IV city, but with a cell-shaded, comic book design style. One of the most prominent features of the game, however, was its drug dealing mini-game, where you could create and run a drug empire by delivering various drugs to location around the map. My Recurring Bosscast counterpart Jett will tell you that it was probably the most engaging part of the game, and that most of his hours in-game were spent peddling narcotics instead of running missions. He’ll also tell you that he could be the greatest drug kingpin Chinatown Wars has ever seen, and – as I enjoy having full use of my knees – would have to agree with him.

And this, my friends, brings us to the upcoming GTA V, due to be released on September 17, 2013. We’ve seen a lot of changes to the series over the years, and this should be no different. While we can’t really get the graphical improvement that we got with the jump from GTA II to GTA III, we’re sure to get a bigger, more diverse world with more to do and see than ever before. With 3 main characters that are so distinct, and all existing and interacting in the same timeline, we should get a story that rivals any in the series so far. The series is moving back to present-day Los Santos, and will jump between the three leads, involving everything from the traditional drive and shoot missions to elaborate “heist” missions that players can plan and execute the way they see fit. There will be tons of new vehicles and weapons to explore and wreak havoc with, and a story that looks to be as engaging as anything we’ve seen prior.

The Grand Theft Auto series started out as a top-down mayhem simulator, and evolved into a fully rendered, 3D juggernaut that took the video game world by storm, revolutionizing the way we think about sandbox gameplay and laying the framework for many of the best games of our generation. Its constant skirting of the moral border has generated countless conversations on the morality of video games, and sparked intense debates on whether or not video games can contribute to violence in society and the desensitization our youth. While the series has taken a beating in the press over it’s content, it has done nothing but drive sales, making Grand Theft Auto one of the most profitable franchises in gaming history.

Have a look at the preview for GTA V below, and let us know what your favourite game in the series was in the comments section!

Leave a Reply