Grand Theft Auto: Twenty + Years of Open World Goodness
Just How Far Grand Theft Auto Has Come
It’s hard to overstate the impact that the Grand Theft Auto franchise has had on open worlds games and video games in general. While the first two games in the series didn’t exactly burst onto the scene, ever since the release of Grand Theft Auto III, the series has been met with both commercial and critical acclaim. It is also responsible for introducing features that are nearly ubiquitous across the open world genre to this day.
Despite it’s status as one of the most popular video game franchises of all time (with many installments in the series being considered among the greatest video games ever made), Grand Theft Auto is not without it’s detractors. The franchise has lead to the rise in popularity of mature video games and the violence and language that comes along with them. Discussion has also centered around the role of these games in the commission of real-life violence. However, this has done little to dissuade gamers from purchasing the games in record numbers.
However popular the Grand Theft Auto games are now, it wasn’t always that way. With a history of over 20 years, we wanted to go back and see just how far the franchise has come since it’s beginnings back in 1997. So, strap yourselves in, because here we go!
Grand Theft Auto (1997)
The first game in the series, Grand Theft Auto was released in 1997 for MS-DOS and Windows initially, but was later released on the Playstation as well (albeit with minor changes). The game is played from a top-down perspective and bears little resemblance to the series that we know and love today (at least from a design perspective).
The story involves a group of criminals in three separate (and fictional) cities as they carry out bank robberies, hits and other crimes typical of any Grand Theft Auto game. These mission typically start by visiting a telephone box (a feature that made it’s way into later GTA games). You have the option of playing one of eight characters (four male and four female, so really GTA has had a female protagonist). Just like the Grand Theft Auto titles after it, you are able to do whatever you want in the open world setting, but you do progress through the game by racking up points which can be earned by causing destruction and mayhem.
Grand Theft Auto was by no means the first open world game, but the amount of freedom given to the player really set it apart from other computer games of the time, and helped define the franchise moving forward. The game was supplemented by two expansion packs: Grand Theft Auto: London 1969 and Grand Theft Auto: London 1961. If you are curious about what the gameplay of Grand Theft Auto was like, check out this gameplay video.
Grand Theft Auto II (1999)
Grand Theft Auto II was released in 1999 for Windows, Playstation, Dreamcast and Game Boy Color. Unlike the previous game which was set in cities that mirrored real-life counterparts, this game was set in a retro-futuristic city called “Anywhere, USA” in an indeterminate time period. You play a specific character this time around, Claude Speed, as he carries out various tasks and missions for different gangs around the city.
Grand Theft Auto II also introduced side missions to the game such as driving a taxi, bus or a semi-truck driver (and these would make appearances in later games in the series as well). Also, there were packages hidden around the city for you to track down (which is also continued).
Outside of those changes, the game retained the top-down perspective and gameplay aspects (such as car stealing and phone answering) from it’s predecessor. Again, you are able to roam the open world freely and the objective was to earn a certain number of points. Doing so would unlock another level of the city. The familiar wanted level was introduced in this game where increasing police response pursues Claude as the amount of crimes he commits become more serious and/or numerous.
Believe it or not, Grand Theft Auto II was also the first in the series to feature multiplayer gameplay (which would not be seen again until GTA IV) with four different modes. If you want to see what GTA II was like, check out this gameplay video.
Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
Opinions on this may vary, but in our humble opinion, Grand Theft Auto III may very well be the most important game in the franchise, if not one of the most important games in the open world genre. Not only did it usher in the “3D universe” of GTA, but it also defined what an open world game can and would be. It’s legacy in the halls of videogamedom (it’s a word now) is still felt today.
Set in Liberty City (which is based heavily on New York City), you play Claude, a convicted bank robber who is freed during a prison transfer. Claude gets embroiled in the criminal underground of Liberty City and works for several crime families and others connected to nefarious activities. Claude can obtain and use a variety of weapons and the city is full of plethora of unique vehicles that can be stolen and used.
Originally released for Playstation 2 (and later released on Windows, Xbox and mobile platforms) it received universal acclaim for it’s innovative approach to the genre and the gameplay (which has high replay value). This was the first entry in the series to feature a fully 3D world and established the third-person perspective that has been used ever since.
Grand Theft Auto III is consistently rated as one of the most influential video games of all time and helped launch open world games to greater popularity and ubiquity. It also led to the demand for mature rated games and sparked controversy due to the level violence portrayed in the game (a sentiment that has continued with each subsequent release). Regardless of the issues it dredged up, Grand Theft Auto III’s effect on the gaming industry is hard to ignore.
Want to stroll down memory lane? Take a look at this gameplay video.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
Although originally intended to be an expansion pack for GTA III that introduces new missions, vehicles and weapons, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City obviously evolved into a game all it’s own. If GTA III put the franchise on the open world gaming map, then Vice City solidified it and stood out as a flashier, more colorful rendition than it’s predecessor.
Vice City hearkens back to the 1980s (the game takes place in 1986) and is heavily influenced on Miami. You play Tommy Vercetti, a recently released felon who is nearly killed in an ambush during a botched cocaine deal. He narrowly escapes but has neither the cocaine nor the money given to him by his boss, Sonny Forelli. Tommy vows (under threat of consequence) to get back the money, the drugs and kill whoever is responsible for the attack. During the course of the game, Tommy becomes a drug kingpin and gains complete control of the Vice City criminal world.
Aside from the change of location, the gameplay of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is very similar to GTA III. The game does introduce motorcycles, boats and helicopters to the series as well as a limited number of planes. Like it’s predecessor, the game received wide acclaim and again led to debate over the violent content of the game.
For a quick peek at the gameplay of Vice City, check out this gameplay video.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
Building off of the success of it’s two predecessors, Rockstar really cranked things up a notch with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The result is a game far larger in scope than had yet been seen in the series. The open world consists of not one, but three major cities (Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas) as well as a twelve small towns and a great deal of back country to explore.
Set in 1992 in the fictional state of San Andreas (based on California), you play CJ, a former gangbanger who returns to Los Santos from Liberty City after the death of his mother. Upon returning, he is tracked down by a couple of crooked cops who force CJ into working for them, lest they pin the murder of an Internal Affairs officer on him (though it is strongly implied the murder is their doing). CJ also finds that his former gang has been in decline and he joins his brother and friends in order to bring the gang back to prominence.
As you progress through the game, certain areas of the map are unlocked to you. Some elements of role-playing games are introduced in the game as well such as working out to gain stamina and to reduce fat. The player must also eat regularly to stay healthy and avoid losing muscle. You can also customize your character with a variety of hairstyles and through clothing purchases available at different stores throughout the city.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas received rave reviews from critics and gamers alike, but could not escape that same controversies that had accompanied the prior games in the series. Of course, you know you want to watch this gameplay video.
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (2005)
As the name suggests, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories returns the series to Liberty City, but is intended as a prequel to the events of GTA III. The map of Liberty City remains largely the same, although GTA: LCS includes elements introduced in later games such as motorcycles, changing clothes and more indoor places to explore.
You play Toni Cipriani, a member of the Leone crime family who returns to Liberty City (notice how all these characters are returning from somewhere?) after being forced to live abroad after killing a man on the orders of his boss, Salvatore Leone. Toni eventually works his way up through the ranks of the Leone family and becomes a respected leader in the organization (much to the elation of his mother).
Originally released only for the Playstation Portable, a port for Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories was released for the Playstation 2 which would be followed by releases on iOS and Android. Reviews of the game were solid, but it was not seen as an installment that moved the needle on the franchise in any serious way. To checkout the gameplay, see this gameplay video.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (2006)
Why should GTA III get a prequel and not Vice City? Well, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories took care of that. Taking place in 1984 (two years before the events of Vice City), this game takes the franchise back to, obviously, Vice City.
GTA: VCS follows the story of Victor Vance (brother of Lance Vance), who is a corporal in the US Army in order to provide for his impoverished family. His supervisor, Jerry Martinez, is a corrupt soldier who works as a drug smuggler and puts Victor in charge of managing a drug dealing business. Victor is later set up by Martinez and is discharged from the army after drugs are found in his car (planted there by Martinez). Victor becomes involved with a small mafia organization and eventually takes over the operation and names it the Vance Crime Family.
Just like Liberty City Stories, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories was originally released for Playstation Portable, but was also ported to Playstation 2. Also in line with it’s predecessor, it was received reasonably well, although didn’t do much in the way of innovation for the series. Need a reminder of how the game was played? Take a look here.
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
With the dawn of a new console generation, the time had come for Rockstar to up the ante on the franchise. The result, was Grand Theft Auto IV, the first in the so called “HD universe” of the series. Liberty City is reimagined and greatly expanded from it’s previous iterations and contains four boroughs (coinciding with the four boroughs of New York City). While the footprint of the open world was somewhat smaller than San Andreas, the world was far more immersive and the dated graphics from previous games was greatly improved upon.
Grand Theft Auto IV also introduced the cover system which Rockstar would utilize in later games (such as Red Dead Redemption and GTA: V). This allows you to use objects for cover and shoot blindly from behind them, or to aim freely and target a specific enemy. Also, individual body parts could be targeted. In addition, the wanted level was revamped. Instead of simply painting a car or changing clothes to reduce wanted level, you must evade law enforcement for a certain amount of time. This system has persisted (including in other Rockstar games) ever since.
In GTA IV you play Niko Bellic, who arrives in Liberty City (see, there it is again) via a cargo ship from Eastern Europe. He reunites with his cousin, Roman, and hopes to pursue the American Dream as well as find the man who betrayed his army unit years prior. However, he soon finds that Roman has grossly exaggerated his success in America (or lack of). It isn’t long before Niko is forced to carry out tasks for Roman’s loan sharks in order to keep his cousin from harm. As time goes on, he becomes more intwined in the criminal underworld of Liberty City as well as with a government agency.
Released for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Windows, Grand Theft Auto IV continued the high praise that has been heaped upon the series up until that time. It received a perfect score from several game review sites and garnered many Game of the Year awards as well. Two episodic packs were released for the game, The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony which act as standalone stories (as they feature different protagonists). Again, much like the rest of the games, GTA IV was controversial even before it was officially released.
Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
With the bar set high after GTA IV, Rockstar had to put it’s best foot forward in order to meet the expectations that were sure to accompany the next release. Not only did Grand Theft Auto V deliver, it surpassed anything that could have been imagined before the game was released. In a triumphant return to San Andreas, the game features a reimagined sprawling city of Los Santos (San Fierro and Los Venturas do not make an appearance in the game) and a huge back country with rural towns and plenty of areas to explore and a ton of additional content to consume.
The game follows three protagonists (that can be switched between at will) Michael, Franklin and Trevor. Michael faked his death after a botched robbery attempt years before the beginning of the game, a robbery in which Trevor was also involved. Franklin works for a crooked car salesman. Michael and Franklin meet when Franklin attempts to repossess Michael’s son’s car. The two quickly begin working together when Michael gets in hot water with a Mexican Drug lord. The two eventually pull off a jewelry heist and Trevor, who lives outside of Los Santos, hears word of the robbery and recognizes it as Michael’s handiwork. He returns to Los Santos and tracks down Michael. The three become embroiled in operations by the FIB (a play on the FBI) and rival government agencies, leading to tough choices that must be made.
In addition to the ability to control three characters, the game also lets you choose how to carry out large scale robberies and heists. The decisions you make can greatly effect the outcome of your operations. There are also many different activities to engage in such as scuba-diving, sky-diving, various races, golf, tennis and even yoga. There is also a thriving internet economy in the game. You are able to invest money is the stock market, which is greatly influenced by the events of the game world. You can also purchase cars, boats and clothes online as well. Businesses can also be acquired that provide you with money, as well as some missions.
The impact this game upon release was gigantic. Despite being released shortly before the Xbox One hit the market, Grand Theft Auto V absolutely annihilated sales records. It became the fastest grossing entertainment product in history, raking in over one billion (with a “B”) in revenue in just three days. It received universal acclaim for just about every aspect of the game from it’s narrative, gameplay, world design and so on. It was later released for Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC. GTA: Online soon followed and has become a huge product on it’s own, allowing up to thirty players to roam San Andreas and form crews to complete missions and collect in-game money. Again, controversy accompanied the release of the game, specifically targeted at the violence, treatment of women, and a depiction of torture in the game.
To see GTA: V in action, check out this gameplay video.
So, What’s Next?
The sky is the limit on where the franchise can go next. There are still a number of features that fans have been talking about for some time that could be featured in upcoming titles such a female protagonist, a return to Vice City, or an altogether new location that has yet to be featured in any previous games. Rumors are beginning to circulate that suggest some of these requests will be fulfilled, but they are simply conjecture at this point. With Rockstar hard at work ahead of the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, it is probably safe to say that any new game is still several years away. Still, while past performance does not necessarily guarantee future results, Grand Theft Auto certainly has a strong enough pedigree from which we can say with confidence that whatever the next game looks like, it’s going to epic.