Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Grand Theft Auto or: How I Learned To Steal Cars and Love the Series

Last week I posted another preview for Grand Theft Auto V. After basking in the new trailer I am more excited than ever for Rockstar's upcoming game in the (in)famous series. With this latest (and I predict greatest) installment of Grand Theft Auto approaching, I've thought about the games that brought it to where it is today and my personal relationship with them. What follows is my love letter to the GTA games. There will be some (constructive) criticism, but mostly this is exploring how the series has evolved over the years and the experiences I have had playing several of them.

You could run down the sidewalk with an assault rifle and body armor from the very beginning. Grand Theft Auto (1997)
This year we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the original Grand Theft Auto developed by DMA Design (now known as Rockstar North). It was first released on computer in Europe. From the series' top-down roots, it had the same sandbox feel that that attracts so many players to its shores even to this day. It was always a game where you were a thug on the streets who could work his way up the ranks of gangsterdom through "missions" or you could just run amok throughout the city, blowing up cars, running over pedestrians, and getting the attention  of the police. And of course, hijacking a car was just a button-press away. By always having a control devoted to stealing vehicles, it's no wonder the series has always kept the name Grand Theft Auto.

Exploding cars was a class back in "old school" too. Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999)
I did not have a PS2 when so many were ranting and raving about Grand Theft Auto III, though I realized the number on the end must mean there were at least two before it (how about that assessment Sherlock?).  Plus, I am somewhat of a completionist as a gamer. I like to play from the beginning of a series (as we almost always do with literature and film) to see firsthand how story, game mechanics and technology progresses.  And so my personal devotion to the series goes back to Grand Theft Auto 2, but even after that I've gone back to sample the original and even its British-based spin-off, London, 1969. The phone-booth based missions of these earlier games are easily overshadowed in my memories of a nighttime street strewn with the smoldering remains of Beamers and taxi cabs. Years before Grand Theft Auto 2, a friend and I used to cause pile-ups in imaginary intersections on the living room floor with our Hot Wheels. This game let us cause similar havoc in a fully simulated sandbox. We had grown up, but so had our toys. Even today it's fun to play.

Aerial views, animated frames for cut-scenes, and touch controls. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009)
In recent years they revisited their own past with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. It is somewhat of a callback to the earlier games with its aerial viewpoints, though it brought along plenty of change to the experience. For one thing thing, you use touch controls to perform any number of tasks, including jacking a car (see above). Also, for the first time you get to assume the role of an Asian protagonist, Huang Lee. Chinatown has frequently appeared throughout the series, though this time it is all the more meaningful. GTA: Chinatown Wars is widely considered among the best handheld games of the last generation.

You play as silent protagonist Claude on the streets of Liberty City. Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
I will always consider Grand Theft Auto III to be one of the most influential games of all-time. It appeared on the PlayStation 2 (where the next two games would debut before better versions would later appear on Xbox and PC) back in 2001. GTA III set a new standard for open-world (though "open-city" is far more appropriate a term in this case, more on these semantics in that future post that I will reference at the end) and sandbox game experiences. We were no longer an omniscient yet distant player looking down at ant-sized action, we were down and in the game leading a character around though intimate third-person perspective in a city that seemed to function whether or not we were there. Does a falling member of a forest make a sound if no one is around to hear it? Does Liberty City keep on keepin' on when I'm in the corner of the map, inside a building, or even have the game turned off? A decade ago this New York-esque city was alive, vibrant, and exciting. Games have come so far since then, but I see this as trailblazer for countless titles and I am not just referring to the large array of GTA-clones (though many arise above this stereotype, see the Mafia series for example). Once we've reached greener pastures we ought not forget the bridge that brought us there.

A look at the cluttered interface on the iOS port of Grand Theft Auto III (2001/11)
I recently purchased GTA III for the iPad during a Halloween sale and had a hard time putting it down. For a game that worked so well on the controller I was pretty shocked by how well implemented and easy-to-use the touch screen controllers actually were. Even driving is very doable! Rockstar released GTA III for iOS last year in a special 10 Year Anniversary edition. They've announced a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City port to iOS as well, which should release sometime next month.

Tommy Vercetti, reporting for duty Vice City. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
Speaking of which, here is a far-and-wide favorite of the series, Vice City, first seen in 2002. You play as Tommy Vercetti who is not only fresh out of jail but fresh out of Liberty City. Vice City is a Miami-inspired island setting and pink and blue color scheme. This entry took leaps and bounds in the story department with a colorful character and cinematic cut-scenes. I cannot talk about Vice City without talking about its music (even though I already did so in last week's Crew Post). This is the single greatest mix-tape soundtrack of all-time with 100+ hits from the '80s, from Michael Jackson to Nena's "99 Luftballoons" and including Rockstar's own Lovefist, the seven iconic radio stations are an instant classic in whatever you're driving in the game to whatever you're driving in real life.

Runnin' and gunnin' through South Central. Grand Theft Auto: San Andrea (2004)
Two years later (2004) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas changed the game again. You're Carl Johnson (CJ), a young and insignificant gangbanger who has returned (once again from Liberty City) to his ghetto hood  in Los Santos (Los Angeles) after the tragic death of his mother. Calling it Boyz n the Hood: The Game is not far off. On the surface it appears full of "life on the streets" complete with gangsta rap and all the disrespect that seems to come from it, but it turns out to be a game all about respect. Most of the early missions are about sustaining a reputation amidst your own before improving your monetary situation is even an option. As our first African American protagonist in the series we experience his plight especially how "the Man" (in the embodied form of crooked cops) keep pushing him down. 

It seems to me that San Andreas is one of the more divided games in the series. Some felt there was too much going on that distracted from what these games were initially about. However, if I had to choose a favorite of the GTA games this may be the one. There is so much to do in the game that is spread out over three full cities and all the countryside in-between. All the car-stealing, mob-hunting and racing you've come to expect from the series is in tact if you want it, but I see the dozens of other activities (from basketball to base jumping) as more toys in the sandbox that are there if you want them. San Andreas even brought some Sims-like light-RPG elements to the table where you had to keep an eye on your body fat for example.

The Liberty City skyline in the richest detail yet. Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Four years later and with a new console generation well underway and we were treated with the highly-longed-for release of Grand Theft Auto IV, which brought us back to (surprise, surprise) Liberty City, this time looking more like Manhattan and company than ever before. Speaking of looks, we were finally able to get a game that approached realism in its graphical design. GTA IV is a solid and polished game with the series' richest storytelling and protagonist. You are Niko Bellic, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who has shipped himself to American to find his cousin and join in the American dream. When he arrives he finds a city that is cold and unwelcoming. His cousin's emails were pleasant exaggerations and Niko, an experienced war veteran, finds himself mixed up with wrong crowd and wondering how now to improve his situation. 

With impressive physics and tight controls (including the long-needed cover mechanic) this game continued the tradition in improving upon what had come before it. Many extracirricular activities from San Andreas were shed, though more true-to-life elements were added: a usable cell phone, email, and a vastly improved relationship system. Those who were just looking for a good action-packed time found these to be annoyances as well. Regardless, I think anyone who has experienced any of the game's vast multiplayer modes is thankful for its addition.

Bicycles return in a gloriously looking Los Santos. Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
This was not a comprehensive history of all the the games in the series (though I would love to write one someday when I am more qualified), just lightly touching on the standouts and what stood out in each. From everything I have read and seen about Grand Theft Auto V, I truly expect it to be both the best and my new personal favorite in the wildly popular franchise. 

In these months before the game, I will publish more posts about the series here on These Things We Call Video Games. Besides previews, reviews and other features, the Grand Theft Auto games themselves will surely be referenced in explorations and analyses of open-world/sandbox games. This may very well be my favorite variety of game and GTA put that "genre" on the map. Furthermore, there is much to discuss about morals in video games. Has GTA gotten a bad rap over the years? Yes, but in many ways it merits and calls for that status. More on these pertinent topics to come, though you may have already sensed whispers of them in this post.

Words by J.S. Lewis

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