Grand. Theft. Auto.
Speak these three words in succession and you are more likely to get a nostalgic tale of friends enjoying a late social gathering around a television than an ex-con’s rap sheet. From the early days of MS-DOS through a 3D transition and concluding two weeks from now, the history of Grand Theft Auto is rich enough to fill an entire university class syllabus.
Grand Theft Auto V will officially be released in less than two weeks, and the game is nothing short of everything we at NSFW Gamer strive to be: violent, vulgar and vain. What better way to celebrate the series that has shaped video gaming for a decade than to look back at where it started?
Grand Theft Auto
Original Release: October 1997 in Europe; February 28, 1998 in North America
Availability: PlayStation (disc), Game Boy Color, Steam
Developed for use on a Windows 95 computer, the first GTA existed in what feels like prehistoric era of gaming, long before titles were advertised on TV next to deodorants and energy drinks. Originally conceived as Race’n’Chase, the overhead perspective put you, a small time crook, in a city full of cars that looked like Hot Wheels models. While you always had a target, you were free to roam Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas as you saw fit. The more destruction and brutality you caused, the higher your score and notoriety.
Gamers whose first experience involved holding a gamepad will never know what a joy it was the first time you realized the total lack of restriction on your movement in Grand Theft Auto. Platforming games told you “no, you cannot jump that high.” Racing games told you “no, you cannot drive off the road.” Fighting games told you “no, you cannot keep standing after twenty fireballs.” What GTA attempted to capture was the idea that if a human could do it in real life, you were capable of doing it in this game. This time, however, the ramifications reflected those same human actions: run over a pedestrian with a car and the cops are going to come after you.
Naturally, the game gained popularity for its gameplay as well as its image. The PC was always a system more open to the idea of adult-themed games, but the PlayStation and later-canceled Nintendo 64 versions had to contend with an audience raised on Mario, Sonic and now Crash Bandicoot. First-person shooters had barely made an introduction to consoles; how would Grand Theft Auto fare?
Not only did the game succeed, it marked the first time an expansion pack was released for the PlayStation. Grand Theft Auto: London, 1969 took you out of the fictionalized United States and put you in swinging English 60s, complete with blatant Cockney stereotyping and a main character that directly referenced Sid Vicious and the song “Pretty Vacant.” The mission pack was as much of a hit as its predecessor, inspiring another expansion set in 1961. The seeds were planted.
Grand Theft Auto 2
Original Release: September 30, 1999
Availability: PlayStation (disc), Sega Dreamcast, Game Boy Color, Steam
Find whatever euphemism you want for lightning striking twice. It didn’t quite happen for Grand Theft Auto 2. While the advancement in consoles made it possible to deliver a full-fledged sequel to the fledgling Sega Dreamcast as well as the aging PlayStation, this was not any significant leap forward. Set in Anywhere, USA at a time that cannot seem to stay consistent (the manual says “three weeks into the future” while a radio DJ discussed the approaching millennium), the core of the experience remained the same: get tasked with a mission, find a car, and use it to get to your mission…or simply fuck around.
Truth be told, there were improvements. Multiple gangs now vied for your services. Causing enough damage could draw the full rage of not just the police but the entire army. More radio stations went with each vehicle you stole for yourself. Disgracelands came as close as possible to violating copyright laws without actually warranting a cease and desist from Elvis Presley’s lawyers. The “noon” and “dusk” settings would set the stage for rotating day and night missions in the future of not just GTA but other games where missions were assigned in some kind of overworld.
Let’s be serious, though…in the history of Grand Theft Auto, this was probably the one you played the least or possibly even skipped over. Compounding the redundancy of the gameplay was the irritating censorship that took place on the PlayStation, resulting in a drop from “M” to “T” on the ratings board. Normally, this sort of neutering does not result in the ruination of an entire game, but how much fun can you expect a game about gang warfare and criminal activity to be when the game is made to cater to a bigger audience?
Next time, DMA would release a Grand Theft Auto specifically for a console before the PC. The world has never been the same.
Grand Theft Auto III
Original Release: October 22, 2001
Availability: PlayStation 2 (disc), Xbox (disc), Steam, iOS, Android,
PlayStation 3(PS2 Classic on PSN)
For as many times as the comparison has been made to establish an historic moment in media, I can think of no other way to describe the landscape of video games before Grand Theft Auto III as the world of music before The Beatles arrived in America. The concept and execution of what a video game is, a human manipulating an image on a screen, has been fundamentally altered in some way since this monster of a game was first unleashed a month after the World Trade Center attacks.
I lost count of the number of times I saw this commercial, and I feel like it did not matter how many times it ran. GTA III, with its grand tale about double crosses, romance, necrophilia, changed the way we perceived games on so many levels it scares me to think of what the industry would be like had Rockstar not possessed such ambition. Characters were voiced by established actors such as Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Madsen and Frank Vincent. Hours upon hours of music and dialogue from fictional talk shows could be heard while inside a vehicle. Gone was the overhead perspective, replaced by a 3D, over the shoulder angle that predated even Resident Evil 4 in its influence.
How influential was this game? Ask Naughty Dog. Jak and Daxter, one of my favorite platform games and victim of a December 2001 release date, could have easily stayed its course and remained a whimsical, starry-eyed series reminiscent of Crash Bandicoot and carving out a path with Ratchet and Clank as well as Sly Cooper. Naughty Dog threw all of that away and gave Jak II a darker protagonist, an overworld map with plenty of vehicles to hijack, and a gun. I didn’t like this drastic shift, but every decision Naughty Dog made eventually resulted in The Last of Us and…well, you know that story.
From that day on, every game that had ambition would be compared to Grand Theft Auto III, especially subsequent entries in the series. Those are the titles we will be looking at next week, the ones that have set up arguably the biggest game ever: GTA V. See you in seven days!