Grand Theft Auto Retrospective Part 2: The Sandboxes of Time
So in part 1 of my Grand Theft Auto Retrospective, I discussed the humble early days of the world’s biggest video game franchise. Those trashy shows and early tours, playing dive bars and garages for petrol money and tequila shots and becoming known for wild and controversial stage shows. It’s hard to remember those heedy days, simple because why would you want to remember the days when people weren’t queuing around the block at midnight for your new album? I mean game…you know what I mean.
It’s so hard to remember mainly due to one moment in late 2001 when Rockstar Games dropped the first edition of their franchise into the mysterious new world of the PlayStation 2. In a world recently rocked by the September 11th attacks, releasing a game based in a city that resembles New York where the player can mow down hundreds of innocent civilians with guns, cars, and guns fired from within cars was either bold or crassly offensive, but that wouldn’t stop Rockstar. Because they knew from experience that controversy and good sales are happy bedfellows. And so it proved.
Grand Theft Auto 3 wouldn’t just be a best-selling video game. It would be the video game industry’s own Bohemian Rhapsody.
GTA Retrospective: Part II
The most crucial aspect this time was the doing away with the top-down view and finally going to full 3D. You were no longer skidding around in rectangular sprites on a totally flat city. You could jump into a fully 3D car, drive across fully 3D landscapes and climb fully 3D buildings and mountains before looking out across a living, breathing, fully 3D metropolis. Then snipe fully 3D pedestrians with a fully 3D gun. And it was all thanks to a hotshot British producer – Criterion Games. Their RenderWare game engine was a massive game-changer, and without that the GTA series would still be limping around essentially being ultra-violent Space Invaders.
What was the most impressive about GTA is how both aspects of game play – on-foot third-person shooting and in-car driving – were nailed so well. Simple controls made gunfights and car chases a joy to play, and everything ran smoothly. Compared to Driv3r’s glitchy game play and unbelievably frustrating shooting controls, GTA made this blending of two previously standalone game play aspects look effortless. And all along it allied all of this to a large sandbox city which warranted exploration, full of secret missions, hidden cars, quirky pedestrian characters and Easter eggs. For the first time in the series, the player actually WANTED to explore the city rather than just plow through the story missions, because there was plenty to find. And plenty of innocents to murder. Players loved being given this choice: want to go do the next mission, or do you want to go and find a prostitute down a back alley, pay her to rock the car around a bit (not sure how she did that), then kill her and get an instant refund? Seeing as video game players become morally reprehensible monsters when they pick up a controller, you can easily see why GTA3 was such a massive hit.
If there was one complaint about the game, it’s that it suffered from the same problem as GTA2 – a huge, grey, cloudy city is interesting to explore but not to look at that much. This was rectified just a year later with many people’s favorite game in the series, GTA: Vice City, which similar to London 1969 took the game engine and formula of GTA3 and switched locations. The grey tower blocks became neon pink bars and clubs, the main character had ditched the dull camo jacket for a bright blue Hawaiian shirt, and the radio stations were loaded down with synth-pop disco and mullet-rock anthems. What Vice City added to the formula was a city that looks gorgeous, a setting that the player will enjoy cruising around in, a Quentin Tarantino-style splatter of extreme ultra-violence and catchphrases. The cinematic elements were expanded on further, with more a-list actors hopping in to voice characters – from Michael Madsen voicing a pussy-whipped Mafia boss in GTA3 to Ray Liotta voicing the shouty protagonist of Vice City, having Hollywood royalty in the mix only added to the feeling that we were actually playing the game inside a gangster film.
Then we arrive at my favorite game of the series, and for many people the high watermark: GTA San Andreas. On the face of it the game was nothing more than another token pallette-swap. Except San Andreas had ideas above it’s station. So we didn’t get just one pokey three-square mile city. We got three. Connected by miles upon miles of sprawling highways, rolling hills, enormous mountains, creepy countryside back roads and barren desert wastelands, all absolutely teeming with secrets to be found. This was the GTA series’ Avatar, a living breathing world of which the gaming universe had never seen before, where mediocre everyday life – taking your main character to the gym or the fast-food restaurant – clashed with the usual GTA bedlam. It’s possible to go for hours finding enough stuff to do that citizens walk the streets un-shot or un-run-over while you prattle around skydiving off buildings and mountains and out of planes, and as such this was genuinely the sort of game you could loose yourself in for days on end, living out Carl Johnson’s life in Technicolor detail even whilst your own drifts by unfulfilled. It still holds records for the amount of voice actors used in a video game at well over 800, and everyone from random pedestrians to bit-part storyline characters is personalized and has unique dialogue. There is quite simply no better game ever made for the PlayStation 2, and quite possibly for any console ever (bearing in mind I am one of the few people yet to play GTA V yet).
It almost seems unfair to discuss GTA IV in this context alongside such titans, because it’s fairly clear to see that IV was the misstep that even the best bands have every now and again – their Hot Space if you will. ‘I know’ said one guy at Rockstar, ‘you know how everyone loves our game because it’s whacky and fun and ridiculously OTT violent? Why don’t we make it more gritty and cinematic and make the main character a penniless immigrant desperately chasing the American dream whilst looking after his poor debt-ridden cousin by going bowling with him every five minutes?’ Inexplicably, that one guy wasn’t immediately slapped in the face, and that’s exactly what IV became. We were back in boring, grey Liberty City again. We played as a poor penniless immigrant striving for the American dream. And in between hiding behind cover and doing Max Payne impressions, he would dote on his poor penniless cousin by taking him bowling. And as a result although the sales figures were still enough to dwarf many small nations, it felt like a disappointment. In fact, if you wanted the more natural GTA sequel, Saints Row 2 was your better bet, which remembered that players do not empathize with the main character because they feel a part of his bitter struggle to earn a dollar in the capitalist West. Nope. They empathize because he (or she in Saints Row) seemed to be enjoying the psychotic mayhem as much as the twisted player controlling them. What GTA did not need was an Oscar-baiting character drama set on the grim, dingy streets of urban nightmare city.
But we can forgive that, because not only is GTA’s back catalog so bulging full of genre-smashing hits, but they are still capable of creating astonishing work. It’s telling that GTA V returns to San Andreas, because that above all the previous series settings offered the most scope and potential for messing about. The head-crushing depth and variety was insane. Hence why this time around, notice how the pre-release hype centered around exploration. How large the map is. How many features there are hiding in the map. And instead of just one miserable main character, we have three guys who look from the preview trailers much more in-keeping with the GTA aesthetic. They know they are criminals, and in this universe, there’s nothing wrong with that – as long as you can stay alive.
With that in mind, I’m off to grab my copy of GTA V, and preparing to join millions of other players around the world who have sacrificed their social life to dive into the murky immersive seas of GTA once more. See ya there!