The history of Grand Theft Auto
1997 was a benign year for games. Windows was beginning to move towards a usable gaming operating system while the Japanese consumer giant Sony was going from strength to strength with their Playstation console, a machine that was to single-handedly make gaming the mainstream and acceptable past-time that it is today. For both of these platforms to continue their success they would need titles that were noticeable and playable, and fortunately such a title was to barge its way into the public's consciousness at the tail end of the year. And after the ruckus caused by seminal racing title Carmageddon there was a little game called Grand Theft Auto from Scottish developers DMA Design. While it was the violence and subject material which worked the media into a frenzy, it was the freeform, non-linear nature of the first GTA that attracted the actual gamers. GTA allowed players to decide in which order to take on missions, a relatively unheard of concept in an arcade game. On top of that there was all the secret areas, weapons, cars and missions to discover, many of which relied heavily on the freedom the player had to just cruise around the game world. Many of the features that would become so familiar to fans of the GTA series were present in the first game. From the range of tongue in cheek radio stations to the selection of differing vehicles to choose from, everything that was in GTA can be found in GTA: SA. You could even steal garbage trucks and police cars, committing crimes raised your wanted rating and innocent pedestrians were all ambling along, just waiting to feel the bonnet of a speeding car in their back. GTA combined many genres - driving, shooting and adventure - to create an entirely new kind of gaming experience. Not too many games had let you play the part of the baddie before GTA, so the opportunity to play a bad-ass criminal in a freeform city environment was an appeal many gamers could not resist.
Saying this, the tone of the first GTA was not nearly as down and dirty as it would become in later incarnations. Obviously the cartooney two-dimensional graphics played an extremely large part in keeping GTA the right side of humorous. Of course the media didn't see it that way with GTA earning the ire and venom of just about every tabloid - and most broadsheet - editors in the country. Calls to ban the game were plentiful. DMA Design had experienced a tiny amount of this furore before with the Lemmings games (for reasons which seem utterly bizarre these days) but nothing could have prepared them for the full on media assault that GTA was going to generate. Their publishers, Take Two, were quick to capitalise on this. They hired PR guru Max Clifford, a man who has an uncanny ability to make his clients very rich off of press vitriol. His efforts helped to make GTA one of the top selling games of the year. The liberating effects of abandoning strict linearity and morality are still being explored by developers today. The commercial and critical successes of GTA ensured that a follow up would not be a long time coming.
GTA: London - 1999
Set in 1969's London this little number helped to keep the GTA flame burning until the arrival of the proper sequel. As that sequel was released in the same year as GTA: London, this little curio didn't exactly have its work cut out for it. The period setting allowed the design team to incorporate elements of so many classic British films and TV series that the entire enterprise came across as a brashly cheesy spin on the GTA concept. The gameplay elements were the same but this time around the gameworld was meant to represent a real place. Which it did a reasonable job of, in so far as the number of recognisable landmarks involved. GTA: London is an oft forgotten part of the GTA cannon, mostly down to the fact it was so soon eclipsed by the arrival of GTA 2.
GTA 2 - 1999
The third GTA game was the one to get the proper sequel numbering. GTA 2 introduced the concepts of gangs and turf war. There were seven different gangs fighting for control of Liberty City. Setting the stage for things to come, the player could take on missions for the different gangs. But you had to be careful; take on too many missions for one group of thugs and their rivals would shoot at you on sight if you happened to wander into their territory. This time around the police got back up from the FBI, SWAT teams and even the Army, if your crime sprees got too out of hand. The thrill of steaming about in a stolen tank was one of the highlights of GTA 2.
Things went quiet for a while after GTA 2's release. The second title didn't do as well as the first, neither in the eyes of the gamers nor the critics. Many felt it was too similar to the previous titles and as such was released as a budget title not long after its initial release. Around this time the world was slowly adapting familiar genres to exploit the opportunities presented by 3D technology. Many fans hoped that the designers would be able to pull Liberty City into three dimensions but the concept seemed so massive that many thought it an impossible task. Not only were the doubters to be proved wrong, but DMA Designs, now re-named Rockstar North was about to make the popularity and notoriety of the previous GTA titles seem like shoplifting.
GTA 3 - 2001
It's rare for an established series to manage to change itself into something practically unrecognisable from what has come before while at the same time remaining true to both its origins and the fans. GTA 3 was one such title. Many thought that the move to 3D was far too ambitious, that the simple mission structure of the previous GTA games wouldn't lend itself to a compelling or even enjoyable game in 3D. There were also concerns over the quality of the new-born PS2 hardware, specifically the difficulty in programming for its convoluted architecture. Rockstar North were not only able to prove all the naysayers wrong, they absolutely decimated them. GTA 3 was a technological triumph. For the first time ever gamers could drive, walk and run their way through an entire city, all rendered in atmospheric 3D. Although technically the game was a total re-invention the gameplay once again remained the same. Nicking cars, smashing heads in, doing dodgy deals and running criminal missions were still the order of the day. The move to 3D did allow these gameplay elements to take on an entirely new lease of life and the developers weren't daft enough not to introduce something new. Mini-games were a welcome addition to the mix as were the third person shooting thrills and rich narrative thread. The production quality also got a serious shot in the arm with proper voice talent from Hollywood actors like Joe Pantoliano and Kyle McLachlan helping to bring the grimy world of Liberty City to life.
The shift from two to three dimensions also made the whole experience a lot more visceral, a lot more believable. As such the moral crusaders unsheathed their weapons once more and set to work on GTA 3. By now age-restrictions were an accepted part of the industry but still GTA's impressive graphics and controversial subject material seemed designed to appeal to youngsters. The fact that you could pick up hookers and get a health boost from them for a few bucks before blasting them in the back of the head with an Uzi did not go down well. For a while Rockstar looked like they may have gone too far. But the sun of good fortune that had been shining on the company was not about to set as GTA 3 went on to become one of the biggest selling games of all time, with over eight million units shifted world wide.
GTA: Vice City
Lightening never strikes twice is an old and incorrect saying. Rockstar North had struck it rich twice, first with Grand Theft Auto and then with GTA 3. But that was nothing in comparison to the veritable lightening storm that heralded the arrival of GTA: Vice City. Using the same engine and central character as number three, Vice City took the crime model and went on a rampaging spree. The cityscape became more then just a backdrop for an arcade game; it became a real place with real inhabitants. Players could now buy themselves property; from luxurious mansions to a string of business concerns. The gangs now went on turf wars and the pedestrians were so garishly dressed they were just begging to be run over. The production values doubled once more. Bigger Hollywood names, such as Ray Liota and the tache himself, Burt Reynolds, lent their skills and names to the voice credits. For a game that got so much inspiration from Hollywood movies and TV shows, (obviously Miami Vice in this case) to hear the lines being spoken by such legends as Dennis Hopper and Gary Busey added an extra air of authenticity to the proceedings.
But not as much as the utterly superb soundtrack. Eschewing home-grown tracks for dozens of licensed tracks from the decade that taste forgot was a masterstroke on Rockstar's part. The soundtrack not only made the 80's setting it gave the game a boost of positive publicity which helped propel its sales beyond that of any of its predecessors. Who could resist a game that allowed you to play a crime lord while cruising around the neon kissed streets of southern Florida while listening to Motley Crue, Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, Rick James, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Mantronix? Certainly not the millions of gamers who handed over their cash. Critically the game was a massive success, with the simultaneous tightening up of the mission structures and expansion of the freeform elements ensuring that both critical and casual gamers alike often rate Vice City as the best game ever made. The Grand Theft Auto series had started off as a rather innocuous arcade game which grew and grew to eventually become a technological showpiece, an exemplar of modern gameplay and probably the best title to merge gaming and popular media. The question on many gamer's lips is whether or not the next instalment in the series, GTA: San Andreas, will be able to continue the upward curve.