It’s time for the last in my series on gaming sequels and exceptions to the law of diminishing marginal returns. In this case it’s Grand Theft Auto (GTA), because I’m basically drooling in anticipation of GTA5’s release. Grand Theft Auto started from humble beginnings as a top down 2d pixelated anarchic crime spree from DMA Design (now known as Rockstar North) back in 1997. A city based free roaming open world game with the combination of casual criminality and the ability to do almost anything you could want drew me and my friends in like depraved moths to a sexy flame. I didn’t have a PC at the time but I played it with great enthusiasm at my friends’ places.
With the release of GTA3 in 2001 this series took a great leap forward and set its feet firmly on the path to the gaming big time. Shifting from 2D top down to a third person perspective breathed a whole new type of accessibility and sense of engagement into the game. This was also the first iteration of the series where I’d had a PC at the time and I gleefully raced through the streets of Liberty City, carjacking and becoming an organised crime overlord by the traditional methods of gun and bat.
The next two games, Vice City and San Andreas each departed from the present day setting to include the time periods of the 80s in Miami and the early 90s in Los Angeles respectively. While Vice City was fun, it was the massive scope and evolution that San Andreas brought to the series which was irresistible to me. When I managed to get my copy of the game, I told my then girlfriend that I’d see her in a fortnight (obviously a now ex-girlfriend) and I held to that promise. Roaming around the countryside of faux LA County I was drawn into the game world like few other games. Whether it was doing insane missions for the cannabis cultivating counterculture relic ‘The Truth’ voiced impeccably by Peter Fonda, or trying to keep off rival gangs from my territory in ‘I can’t believe it’s not Compton’, this game had me firmly by the balls.
The scope of the game was epic, it encompassed 3 full sized cities and a huge area of open land with townships and villages, forests, mountains and desert in between. This allowed for a whole new type of gameplay. The developers to their credit did a lot to allow players to make the most of this freedom, the game allowing for base jumping with parachutes, to a selection of aircraft and even a jetpack. This ensured that I played and replayed the game for several hundred hours.
When GTA4 came out, I will admit that while I was happy to see the huge advance in the game engine used, I missed San Andreas every time I realised I was stuck in the one city, unable to escape. I’m a country boy though, so maybe my upbringing contributed, but the game’s incredible story and the amount of open world fun it contained couldn’t stop me from feeling like the game had lost something since San Andreas. For all the depth and interest of the story of Niko Bellic, it couldn’t replace that feeling of being unable to get out of the city. Don’t interpret this as that I didn’t love the game, I do. But it just felt like a step backward from the huge scale that San Andreas offered. Then I saw GTA5.
My heart leapt into my mouth when I first saw the GTA5 trailer. Could this be a new San Andreas? Much of the information that has trickled into the press has pointed to this. Reputedly larger scale than any previous game, the screenshots with fighter jets and the hiking and rural landscapes featured in the trailer. If they return some of the RPG like characteristics that San Andreas possessed such as going to the gym or getting overweight, learning to fight better, or just the ability to accessorise with haircuts, clothes or tattoos, this game could be absolutely mind-blowing.
The Grand Theft Auto series is in some ways like gaming royalty. The core games (ignoring expansions here) have each offered an ever more impressive storyline, expanding maps with ever more detail and an open world experience few games can match. The ability of the game writers to balance genuine emotional engagement and parody is also rarely approached by any other series I can think of. All of this has translated to a series which has created and then gone on to define an entire genre of gaming. Because of these factors, the GTA series has been beset with imitators since its inception, the world’s most genuine and annoying compliment.
While I’ve played Saints Row 2, I found that the developers just couldn’t quite get the balance right for my tastes, with the game just feeling like a very unsubtle satire of GTA. My comparison would be comparing any British comedy show with its inevitable American remake. It took the subtle and amusing and made it painfully obvious, all the game was missing was canned studio laughter. I haven’t played Sleeping Dogs yet, and while I’m sure I will enjoy it, the game seems to have some of the scale but not the length and depth that makes a GTA game pop (that’s what she said).
So once more I stare down the barrel of another dose of my own hypocrisy. Well I’d be feeling worse but honestly I feel like GTA should get a free pass here. Sure there are other games which have embraced the genre, but everyone I know who plays games will tell you that there’s really nothing like GTA. The scale and sense of a world just waiting to be explored and then possibly shot at and/or kidnapped makes these games unique. That and the ability to do insanely stupid stuff you’d never think about doing in real life. So now I just have to wait for GTA5 to come out, damnit!