We've all got skeletons in our closet; things we regret, humble beginnings, crappy graphics. But as we look back it all fades in the rearview mirror as we speed down the highway of this crazy gaming franchise we call life. Speaking of driving, have you heard about Grand Theft Auto IV? It's coming out in a few days. Not important, anyway, here's a history on Grand Theft Auto.
Despite the controversy that has made it a scapegoat target for politicians, nuts, and wack-jobs, GTA is easily one of the hottest, most groundbreakingiest games in history. But everybody's got to start somewhere, and the GTA series had VERY humble beginnings.
Grand Theft Auto (PC, PlayStation)
Released in 1998
By all accounts, Grand Theft Auto was not a sweeping success. The graphics were subpar, the controls were janky, and the limited 2-dimensional top-down gameplay left much of the world unseen. The game did manage to strike a chord with some gamers for it's open-ended gameplay and sandbox feel. Mowing people down in your car or being able to make decisions like shooting pedestrians at your will was not only freeing, but a welcome departure from all games that kept the user on a tight leash. You were able to make bad decisions if you wanted to and that equaled more fun.
Grand Theft Auto 2 (PC, PlayStation, Dreamcast) Released in 1999
It's first sequel, GTA 2 was only a slight improvement over its progenitor. Still top-down, still 2-dimensional, the game had a similar mission style but added the concept of heat from rival gangs. You were free to work missions for both sides, a freedom very much utilized in the later games, acquiring heat from whomever you were not helping at the time. Largely disappointing for not advancing the series in a substantial way, 2 is perhaps the most forgotten of the series, never mind the fact that it appeared on the Dreamcast.
Grand Theft Auto III (PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox) Released in 2001
To say that GTA III was a huge leap in evolution from the first two games might be the understatement of the year. The incredible 3-D physics engine, improved graphics, longer gameplay in the campaign mode, hookers, and the feeling of true freedom make this one of the best and most revolutionary games of all time.
The writing improved and included a lengthy and semi-linear story that followed you, Claude, the main character, through your rise as scrub all the way to mob kingpen. But if the main plotline wasn't your style, there were hours of other side missions and just general extra stuff you could do to pass the time.
For me, the greatest part of GTA III, and what made it so difficult to put down every night for a month, was the idea of trying new things. I could just be cruising around and think, "I wonder if I could make that jump in an ambulance." Boom, my own personal mission. I have to find an ambulance, get back to the jump, get up enough speed and hit the jump right. And by the time I had attempted that personal mission, I would have thought of a new one. "I wonder if I can pick up a prostitute in a semi and get up on the elevated train track and get her to make the cab bounce while listening to an opera."
The game's mainstream success as one of the highest selling games on the PS2 also brought a fair amount of heat from politicians and soccer moms looking for a scapegoat. But this kind of attention typically only draws publicity which in turn adds to sales and does nothing to stop the game's use.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox) Released in 2002
Set in the 80s, Vice City was the perfect sequel for the series. The map got bigger, the jokes were funnier, and the game just had more interesting details tacked on. Taking the game back into the 80s allowed for a lot of new material to be mined, from car design, clothing, all the way down to the killer soundtrack that played on the in-car radio stations.
It was perhaps the expansion of usable vehicles that added the most sandbox gameplay. You could now fly helicopters and dodos, drive motorcycles of various types, and boats which... whatever, the boats bore me. Not only that but golf carts? How awesome was that?
Vice City also took some of the action indoors, with a decent amount of interiors available for more than just cut-scenes. The ability to buy up property as you work your way to the top of the Miami-like setting's crime world also added a little extra oomph. Like when the series went from GTA to GTA 2, Vice City was largely the same game, but unlike the move from GTA to 2, it is still a great game and represents the series' adolescent years.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox) Released 2004
Set in the early 90s, San Andreas' biggest leap was the sheer size of the game, roughly equal, in map size at least, to three Liberty Citys. The requisite additions of more vehicles, a better variety of vehicles including jetpacks, parachutes, harrier jets, and bicycles, and a longer campaign were matched once again by the game's enhanced extras and sandbox freedom. What can you say about getting so much more of a good thing? Well, some argue that San Andreas is too big, that the missions got a little campy (RC biplanes?,) and that the racism was kicked up a notch pitting rival racial gangs against each other in LA. To these people, we say, "pshaw." The game is still fun and the gang violence is just a reflection of real life.
San Andreas is a successful game and can be seen as the teenage years of GTA, but you do get the sense that the series needs a sweeping revolution to stay on top. And just as the series leap onto the PS2, we're hoping the leap to PS3 will provide a similar jump in quality and prostitute rendering. From what we've seen, which is a lot, it is something great. From improved physics, better combat, more interiors, and a slew of multi-player modes, you can bet GTA IV will be the evolution needed to keep our interests peaked. And we can hope it's merely the young adult years so that we can continue to enjoy the series into adulthood and maturity. Wait, do we want to see what a geriatric GTA would look like? ABSOLUTELY YES!
Anyway, forget about all the sales and entertainment records this game is going to break. Forget about how over-reactive politicians will use it as cannon fodder for their own conservative agendas. Forget all the bull***t and just have fun doing whatever you want in a game franchise that has made its money on giving the user the power to f*** up on their own and more importantly f*** s*** up on their own.
F*** IT'S GONNA BE AWESOME!