Ok, let's just put this on the record right now: Rockstar Games in no way, shape or form invented open world gaming. According to Wikipedia, that honor goes to some space game you've never heard of. Heck, Rockstar wasn't even the first person to go with 3D graphics. If you want the genius behind that, you're talking about some other game no one has ever heard of.
And yet, Rockstar's juggernaut still endures. No, "endures" isn't the right word. "Endures" implies that it releases and does respectably despite not being anything new or exciting. "Grand Theft Auto" doesn't endure, "Dragon Age" endures.
"Grand Theft Auto" dominates.
Each new chapter in the series releases to a level of excitement and prestige that no other series in gaming (all of gaming) can even hope to approach. Throughout the franchise's history, "Grand Theft Auto" has consistently heralded a new age of gaming. From the original embracing the magic of the open world to "GTA III" basically inventing modern gaming to "GTA IV" and it's gift for immersion, every time a "Grand Theft Auto" drops, people take notice.
So, join us, won't you, on this trip down memory lane, as we look into the history of this gaming goliath.
Head's up, completionists, there are omissions within. In favor of covering the series' biggest milestones without drowning readers under a mountain of exposition, we lumped the first two games together and left out the original "GTA" offshoots: "London: 1961" and "London: 1969". You also won't find any reference to "Liberty City Stories" or "Vice City Stories" and we're only going to tangentially mention "The Lost and Damned" and "The Ballad of Gay Tony" since none of these games did much to expand the play style or change the feel of the overall series.
GTA 1 & 2
The first two games in the "Grand Theft Auto" saga are the easiest for modern gamers to dismiss. I mean, look at them. Top down, more pixel than picture. They look like they were scrawled on the sides of a cave. The reviews at the time said pretty much the same thing.
When Rockstar North, then DMA Design, released the original "Grand Theft Auto" all the way back in 1997, however, the game was already well on its way to becoming the juggernaut it is today. A bestseller on its home turf (the UK), the original "Grand Theft Auto" and its sequel were praised by gamers for many of the same reasons the series is still beloved.
The game still followed a criminal on his (or her) quest to kill people and break things. The radio stations we know and love featured prominently each time a player got into their vehicle. More than those, though, the original "GTA" featured the freedom that truly makes the series great.
Players still had fixed missions, but they travelled through an open world to get them and then had the option to tackle them in any order and using any method they deemed appropriate. Bored of being told what to do? Jump in a car and run down some pedestrians, get up your wanted level, or just drive around listening to a slow jam.
It's amazing how much a slight change in camera angle can completely re-invent a series. Admittedly, "GTA" wasn't doing too bad with it's top down view, but the move to a more intimate, third person perspective launched the game into the stratosphere.
The gameplay is pretty much the same in "Grand Theft Auto III" as it is in previous installments. You play a voiceless sociopath (apparently named Claude) who drives around the city causing a ruckus.
The story, however, took a giant leap forward, as the talking head's and anonymous directions of the first two installments were replaced with fully-fledged cutscenes that weaved a pretty good crime story (more "Casino" than "Goodfellas" but not bad for a video game). Forsaking the level-based approach of previous games, the entirety of GTA III took place in Liberty City, three smallish islands that were opened to the player as they progressed throughout the story.
The third chapter in the franchise is the one people remember. It's the one that captured the imagination of an entire generation of gamers, forever changing the way we think of video games. This is the moment where the open world started to take over gaming, for better or worse. It was the game that let fans know they didn't have to do things in a certain order or using a certain method. Heck, "Grand Theft Auto" was the first game with enough polish to lure action gamers into setting their own course and creating their own stories.
Also, there was the chilling thrill of watching your otherwise completely normal best friend cackle with glee as he beat a prostitute to death.
GTA: Vice City
If you think of "GTA III" as the game that put the series on track to become the most beloved franchise in gaming history (which I think you could definitely make the case for), then "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" is the one that saw the series' narrative voice come into its own.
Taking a break from their faux New York, Liberty City, the team at Rockstar moved the action to a new locale, the Miami-inspired Vice City. The team also transplanted the modern day setting into the 1980's, complete with the massive, blocky cell phone, flower print shirts and piles and piles of blow.
For the first time in a "GTA" game, players had a fully realized player character at their disposal in the form of Tommy Vercetti. Voiced by Ray Liotta in one the best performances of his career (for real), Vercetti was joined by a cast of off-the-wall characters played by some other famous faces, like Dennis Hopper, Tom Sizemore, Lee Majors, Jenna Jameson and Machete himself, Danny Trejo.
The writing also took a giant leap forward. "Vice City" was the first game in the series that really honed in on the razor sharp parody, solid performances and excellent storytelling for which the series would be known.
"Vice City" also features the first iteration of an economy, as a large portion of Vercetti's time was spent purchasing and improving businesses set around town. It was also the first appearance of helicopters, motorcycles and fixed wing aircraft you actually had a chance of keeping in the air (remember how impossible the Dodo was to fly in "GTA III"?).
GTA: San Andreas
If you're looking for the ill-informed, ever humble opinion of this writer, there is no more complete game in the history of gaming than "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas". Period. Don't talk to me about "Elder Scrolls" or some MMO or "Assassin's Creed". They pale in comparison to the scope and beauty of "San Andreas".
The largest game map in the series to date, "San Andreas" saw a return to the multiple-city formula from earlier "GTA" games. The only catch was all of the cities included in the game were housed on the same map, rather than on separate levels. Enormous cities based on Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas (and all the trailer parks, highways, mountains and national forests in between) made up the state of San Andreas.
Set in the gangsteriffic 90's, the game follows newly returned C.J. as he works to mend his broken family, rid the streets of crack, and establish an empire. Along the way there are turf wars, casino heists, jetpacks, and more action than you can shake a nine millimeter at.
While you'd be hard pressed to say "San Andreas" offered anything extremely new to the series, it perfected what was already there and allowed players an unprecedented amount of customization options. Was your C.J. fat, muscle bound or skinny as a rail? Somewhere in between? Did he roll around in gang colors or rock a neatly tailored suit? Did he have a gambling problem? Mine sure did. Did he waste his days shooting baskets or parachuting from a stolen plane onto the not-Vegas strip? All of this, and more, was possible when you were a tourist in San Andreas.
When it was released in 2008, "Grand Theft Auto IV" was the first console game to receive a perfect score from IGN in almost a decade. Reviews were positively gushy, and to some extent, they were well deserved.
In terms of gameplay, the fourth installment in the series was a major step back. Gone were the planes and jetpacks. The RPG elements, like customization and character building, had totally vanished. The economy that had grown so robust in previous games was just demolished.
Of course, the team at Rockstar did this on purpose, to showcase a more grown-up narrative and immersive environments. While some gamers were ticked off about the lack of customization options and the reduction in size, there can be no argument that the plot and setting of "Grand Theft Auto IV" was hands down the best of the series.
Taking players back to Liberty City for the first time since "Grand Theft Auto III," players found themselves in the sympathetic shoes of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant trying to make a better life for himself in the land of opportunity. Ok, so most of the time in America that means working two jobs and going to night school, whereas Niko takes the more direct "shoot your way to the top" path, but the themes of chasing that elusive American Dream is plastered all over "GTA IV". And Rockstar nails it.
In the cast of most video games, when fans say that a game had an amazing story, you can almost universally add the qualifier "for a video game" to the end of that sentence. If you noticed, I actually did that earlier in the article.
In the case of "Grand Theft Auto IV," you can stop at the period. Twisty, exciting, brutal, hilarious, and most of all, affecting, the "GTA" series really climbed to new heights in Niko's chapter and maintained that same narrative quality throughout the game's two episodic DLC offerings, "The Lost and Damned" and "The Ballad of Gay Tony".
The other shining star in "GTA IV"? The city. Never before (and really not since) has a game gone to such effort to make its environment seem so life-like, so lived-in, so freaking dirty. Walking down a street in Liberty City was flavored with all of the sights and sounds that might accompany walking down an actual street: people running errands, trash blowing across the street, criminals (who aren't you) committing crimes, the list is endless. Bonus: no city smells!
Multiplayer, too, was a bright spot in the last installment of "Grand Theft Auto IV". Sure, there was the usual variety of Deathmatch and Race missions that are basically obligatory for any game these days, but Rockstar also tossed in what, in my mind, serves as the precursor to it's sure to be amazing "Grand Theft Auto Online". Essentially it amounted to running around the city and shooting cops with your friends (or just shooting your friends), but the freedom to cover the whole map and make up your own challenges (bet I can skip a rocket through rush hour without hitting a car … it's fun to play even if you fail!) gave the game a life that went beyond its admittedly engrossing single player campaign.
And so we arrive at the chapter yet to come, "Grand Theft Auto V". The expectations for this title are impossibly high. Gamers are going into it expecting everything. Literally.
We want our customization back! But, you know, keep the incredible storytelling and anal retentive attention to detail. We want you to give us planes! And gambling again! Seriously, I might have a virtual problem. And we want more useless activities like cycling and golf that let us play the game without actually progressing in the game. And we want it all on the biggest map you can possible give us.
And we want it now!
Except for that last one, the latest installment looks to offer all that stuff and more (plus a submarine!) alongside a story that should (hopefully) be as good as "GTA IV" and its American tale. Plus, for the first time in the series, players have the opportunity to split their time between three player characters.
Undoubtedly, critics will eat it up, but only time will tell if this installment can once again reinvent the genre and capture the public's imagination with the same gusto that has marked each major entry in the series to date.