Last week, we glanced at the roots of the biggest series in gaming. From the first Grand Theft Auto and its English counterpart to a tepid sequel and the third entry which created gaming’s ground zero, the impact of the games named for a criminal offense that allows you to be the bad guy will be measured for what could be decades from now.
GTA III was enough of a sensation to spawn two sequels/spin-offs, depending on your obsessive-compulsive tendencies regarding characterization. At least one of them is still regarded by many to this day as the best in the series. Another was played by almost nobody compared to the rest of the entries. Let’s dive back into the world of wheeling and dealing that is Grand Theft Auto!
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Original Release Date: October 27, 2002
Availability: PlayStation 2 (disc), Xbox (disc), Steam, iOS, Android, PlayStation 3 (PS2 Classic on PSN)
After Grand Theft Auto III was the talk of everyone who had ever pressed start to play, Vice City had some big fucking shoes to fill, to say the least. People were in a fever pitch to get their hands on the newly christened Rockstar North’s next helping of organized crime, removed from the gritty Liberty City and transported to 1986, the rivers flowed with cocaine and tequila in a world modeled directly after Miami. Ray Liotta himself voiced new protagonist Tommy Vercetti, fresh out of prison and just begging the producers of Scarface to file a lawsuit. Heavyweights like Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds and Lee Majors rounded out the cast.
What followed was the one Grand Theft Auto that everyone usually refers to as “great.” Not “eh, it was cool” or “holy fuck that was the greatest thing I’ve ever played,” but a solid game that didn’t do much to change the formula…and why the hell would you? If “more of the same” meant dozens more hours of missions, collectibles and plot twists, there was no reason to change a license to print money.
No GTA to this day has been as atmospheric and authentic as Vice City and its soundtrack. The music played on the radio stations combined to make a seven-disc soundtrack box, and that did not include the hours of talk radio and commercials recorded for your listening pleasure. The image of speeding down a highway with police in hit pursuit while blasting “Waiting for A Girl Like You” is just one of the reasons that GTA III‘s immediate follow-up is still so well-loved over ten years later.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Original Release Date: October 26, 2004
Availability: PlayStation 2 (disc), Xbox (disc), Steam, Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Games On Demand), PlayStation 3 (PS2 Classic on PSN)
Naturally, the only game to eventually outsell Vice City and become the top selling PlayStation 2 title of all time was another Grand Theft Auto. Gone is the glitz and glamour of the 80s; the gritty urban environments of south central Los Angeles in 1992 are recreated and represent the home of Carl “CJ” Johnson, who returns to Los Santos after the death of his mother. CJ left behind a life of gang warfare, and the stark realism of crack, riots and corrupt police hits you in the gut with the most well-developed protagonist in the series.
Along with the drastic change in landscape came an even bigger music offering, this time spanning eleven radio stations that gave you everything from west coast hip hop to funk and all the rock and country you could stomach in between talk shows and commercials. San Andreas went on to become the definitive PlayStation 2 experience and would probably stand on its own merits at this point had it not been for a certain mod popping up in the PC version.
Now that we have featured games like Heavy Rain, The Witcher 2 and every God of War on NSFW Gamer, the scene above is a joke by now. In 2005, however, it was anything but a laugh when the media got wind of the fact that Rockstar, amid all of the violence and brutality depicted in the entire Grand Theft Auto series, had the nerve to include people fucking in a game rated “M” for Mature. Some of you may remember Jack Thompson, a thankfully disbarred former attorney who made his bones targeting violence in video games. Rockstar was always his favorite defendant, and San Andreas holds the distinction of being the only North American console release to receive an “Adults Only” rating after it was originally rated and released.
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
Original Release Date: October 24, 2005
Availability: PSP (UMD and PSN), PlayStation 2 (disc), PlayStation 3 (PSN)
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
Original Release Date: October 31, 2006
Availability: PSP (UMD and PSN), PlayStation 2 (disc), PlayStation 3 (PSN)
I included these two because they share the namesake of their successful big brothers. At most, however, these feel like expansion packs that if released today, would come in the form of DLC. The continued revision of the PSP hardware did not do these games any favors, as the eventual introduction of the PSP Go removed the disc slot and required you to purchase the game digitally, had you not already spent the money on either the UMD or the heavily-criticized PlayStation 2 versions that received next to nothing in terms of visual updates. If you absolutely cannot get enough of the Liberty City universe, these will get you more time out of an investment. If you don’t find yourself wanting a GTA tattoo, move along.
Grand Theft Auto IV
Original Release Date: April 29, 2008
Availability: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows, Steam
Grand Theft Auto IV does not feel like a “game.” Playing as Niko Bellic, you enter a fully-realized Liberty City that has not only jumped from one generation of consoles to the next, it had time to marinate in today’s world of smart phones and social media. Rockstar wisely did away with high profile actors and concentrated on making you feel alive as you played this game, an entire universe that holds everything from criminal databases on a fictional internet to comedy clubs featuring Ricky Gervais. The 19 radio stations become background ambiance while you wait for a new assignment and evade fake versions of the police, SWAT teams and FBI.
While there are enough missions and gameplay options to keep you occupied for weeks on end, it is just as easy to lose yourself in the world that occupies as much space as an Elder Scrolls game and altogether ignore the main campaign. TV programs exist entirely within the world of GTA and it is only by sitting through each and every facet of the game that you can begin to appreciate just how much time and effort went into crafting an experience that started as soon as the shrink wrap on San Andreas was finished.
Two expansion packs, The Lost and The Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony came as DLC but packed enough new gameplay and characters to stand on their own as individual games. Should you purchase the Complete Edition, you are looking at enough content to last you for months. Furthermore, in a sign of things to come, each new main character has their own interpretation and rationalization of the events of Grand Theft Auto IV. Metacritic[link=http://www.metacritic.com/game/playstation-3/grand-theft-auto-iv ] has this at the top of the mountain for this generation, and rightfully so. Rockstar deserves to be commended for the heart and soul that exists in Liberty City, rather than pumping out a new GTA every year.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Original Release Date: March 19, 2009
Availability: Nintendo DS, PSP (UMD and PSN), iOS
While some ports and a half-assed attempt at a Game Boy Advance game exist, a proper story had yet to told on a handheld. Enter Chinatown Wars, the first Grand Theft Auto meant to stand toe to toe with its numbered cousins. The hype was as present as could be for a handheld; preorder bonuses and marketing were shoved in your face as if GTA IV had never existed. All signs were that this would be the ascension of GTA to its throne on, at last, a Nintendo console.
Except that didn’t happen.
While Chinatown Wars enjoys some of the highest critical acclaim for the entirety of the original DS’s lineup, the sales are another story. Fueling message board vitriol about how nothing “mature” can ever exist on a Nintendo console, the game failed to sell 100,000 copies. Its port on the PSP fared even worse. While the Stories games managed to move a few million, they were also lazily shoved to consoles. Chinatown Wars will forever be the black sheep of Grand Theft Auto and it’s a shame.
And here we are.
According to Rockstar themselves, Grand Theft Auto V is bigger than San Andreas, GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption. Combined. That, my friends, is something our own Geist 01 would refer to as “fucking bonkers.” I cannot honestly tell you that GTA V is going to be an immediate purchase for me because, quite frankly, I don’t know that I can do Rockstar the disservice of not playing it to the fullest extent possible. The sheer amount of things to do in this game should be the death knell for bullshit annual releases, and with all due respect to Ubisoft, maybe they should reconsider their business platform for Assassin’s Creed after reevaluating Take Two’s formula.
It is pretty safe to say that the console Game of the Year is going to come down to three choices: Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V. We have already had one hell of a year for video games, and with all of the holiday season still to come, Rockstar is making an amazing argument for quality over quantity.