You might be wondering why I have decided to focus my time on old video games instead of the more recent ones? Well, it’s simple: I’m having trouble trying to keep up. With today’s video games mainly being composed of linear first-person shooters and casual walking simulators, I thought it would be interesting to see how these games would fare when compared to some of the best games from previous generations and so on. And what better way to kick off a new series than by starting with the biggest game of them all?
Grand Theft Auto is considered by many to be one of the greatest game franchises of the 2000s. With millions still playing this game online, it’s no wonder that GTA has officially made its mark on gaming history. It was also that same reason why I recently decided to dig up my old copy of the original GTA to see how the game held up to its beefier more-modern successor. To say the least, a lot has changed over the years, mainly for the better.
Before Grand Theft Auto, there weren't that many open-world based titles on the market. Reports claim that the earliest title to utilize an open-world environment might have been Richard Garriott's Ultima, an RPG developed by Origin in 1981, though 1984’s Elite would expand on the concept greatly by allowing the player freedom to explore a vast galaxy of life, a concept that would later be utilized in future games such as Freelancer and EVE Online. 1986 saw the release of Turbo Espirit, a driving game that might also be the earliest example of a sandbox game set within a city environment, though 1989’s Vette! by Spectrum HoloByte improved on the game by including the ability to run over pedestrians, a rather taboo concept made infamous in the 1976 arcade game Death Race.
Whether or not this was the predecessor to Carmageddon remains to be seen.
The early '90s didn't have anything similar, though the closest we might have to an early variant of Grand Theft Auto might have been Hunter, developed for the Amiga by Activision in 1991. The game involved a soldier who is assigned to assassinate a general in a 3D polygonal environment; what made the title so interesting was that the game gave the player the freedom to accomplish the task however they wanted with whatever weapons they had. They could interact with animals, civilians, and other soldiers, in addition to driving any vehicle they could get their hands on. You could say this title might have been a major influence for future Grand Theft Auto games, especially the most recent one.
During the '90s, this was considered to be next-gen.
GRAND THEFT AUTO
DEVELOPER: DMA Digital
PUBLISHER: BMG Music
PLATFORMS: PC, PSX, GBC
When the original Grand Theft Auto came out back in 1997, players ran around in one of three different open-world environments: Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas (Yes, San Andreas was originally a city). Instead of moving around in a 3D open world, players were limited to an overhead view that showed their 2D pixelated sprite moving about. In order to progress, players had to earn a set number of points, which was usually done either through completing various missions for any of the game’s many crime bosses or just simply going about killing anyone in their way, be it cops, civilians, or even Elvis impersonators. To make things easier, completing some of these missions or other various objectives would increase the game’s score multiplier, which allowed the player to quickly amass a large amount of points and lead them one step closer to the next level. Unfortunately, most of my time playing this game involved driving around like a complete idiot and running around doing absolutely nothing productive in particular.
Everything needed to start somewhere.
Unlike the more recent Grand Theft Auto titles, the game’s protagonist was a mute (save for the occasional burping and farting). In addition, the game also had its own share of radio stations (you can even play your own music in the game if you inserted a music CD into the disc tray). However, the game also lacked any sort of coherent plot, so essentially, it felt more along the lines of an arcadey, blood-splattered open-world shoot-em-up, minus the quarters that is. You could say it was a lot like Hotline Miami, sans the ultraviolence. The weapon selection also reflected the arcade-like feel of the game: rather than being equipped with a ton of weapons, the game’s arsenal was simply limited to a handgun, an SMG, a rocket launcher, and a flamethrower. No shotguns (not introduced until GTA 2), assault rifles (debuted in GTA III), not even a sniper rifle (though I highly doubt a sniper rifle would actually work in a game like this).
But if there is one thing I hate about this game, it would have to be the save system. Instead of allowing the player to save in-game, the game forced the player to save in the mission select menu, meaning the only way to save your progress was to either lose all your lives or to completely clear the level, which meant having to plow through a whole level over the course of several hours (depending on player skill level). This was an extremely annoying feature, as this often resulted inme having to start all over again every time I played the game on my PlayStation (GTA 2 tried to mitigate the problem by introducing churches as save points, but they required players to pay $50,000 in order to proceed).
HYPE = CONTROVERSY
Despite the slightly primitive gameplay mechanics, the original Grand Theft Auto had its fair share of controversy; however, it wasn't what you'd imagine. In order to boost sales of the game, Take 2 Entertainment hired a publicist to write up sensationalist news stories about the game for various British tabloids, resulting in some local politicians actually stepping in and condemning the game. The plan worked, boosting sales of the title thanks to the added publicity of the controversy. Such tactics would not go to waste; during E3 2009, EA staged a fake protest for their game Dante’s Inferno in order to drum up publicity for their then-upcoming hack-and-slash. Unfortunately, it didn't necessarily result in the massive amount of sales the company was looking for.
In many ways, the controversy and resulting popularity of the original Grand Theft Auto influenced a number of titles over the ensuring years, though some titles attempted to build up on GTA’s concept and improve it in a number of ways. In Driver, you are the Wheelman attempted to build up on GTA’s open-world gameplay by replacing the overhead view with a realistic 3D environment, similar to the world seen in later GTA games on the PlayStation 2. Even DMA themselves took a dip into the pool. Body Harvest on the Nintendo 64 built upon the same mechanics in both GTA and Hunter to create non-linear missions, a concept that would later be used in GTA V. Yet despite the minor mishaps and controversy, the original Grand Theft Auto wasn't enough to cement itself in the annals of history. So DMA went back to the drawing board after GTA 2 and came out with a sequel that would literally blow away the competition.
The game that pretty much defined the industry forever.
GRAND THEFT AUTO III
DEVELOPER: Rockstar North
PUBLISHER: Rockstar Games
PLATFORMS: PS2, PS3, Xbox, PC, iOS, Android
Unlike the first two titles in the series, Grand Theft Auto III took place in a more-immersive 3D environment, that of Liberty City, a much-more corrupt and satirical variant of New York. Playing as the always-mute Claude, players would work their way up the criminal underworld following a robbery gone wrong in order to get revenge on the ones that backstabbed them. The radio stations were vastly improved in variety, featuring all kinds of fake commercials and introducing us to the now-infamous Lazlow character. The weapons were expanded upon and made killing crooks a lot more satisfying.
Even the driving system felt refined compared to the top-down days, as different vehicles handled differently, with sports cars like the Cheetah feeling twitchy and off-road vehicles such as the Patriot handling smoothly on the grass. But what made this game so much fun was that the game simply allowed you to essentially run around and be a complete psychopath right from the comfort of your own home. Sure, some of us (including me) enjoyed driving around in a Rhino tank blowing up police cars and wreaking havoc, but in the end, this game was all about getting to the top of the criminal underworld, bar none.
Following the widespread success of GTA III, the video game market found itself flooded with what I would refer to as “GTA clones,” more specifically, games that take place in an open-world environment and were more sandbox than you could ever imagine. Some of these games tried to flat-out copy the GTA formula, while others attempted to provide a unique twist on things. Needless to say, they all had varying degrees of success, none of which was close to what GTA had.
The game that managed to outdo GTA IV in the fun department. This was a good thing, by the way. (Taken by me)
SAINT’S ROW THE THIRD
PLATFORMS: PS3, X360, PC
When the first Saint’s Row came out in 2006, it was praised by the media for essentially being a much improved version of the GTA games. This was due in part to the game’s vast character customization system, which allowed the player to carefully design the perfect protagonist to play as, complete with skin color, hair color, and body size, among other things. It also had something that GTA IV didn't possess: a celebrity voice cast, with such actors including Daniel Dae Kim and Keith David voicing key characters Johnny Gat and Julius, respectively.
The second game improved on that by also allowing the ability to play as a woman, in addition to the inclusion of selectable voices. It also expanded on the original’s cast of celebrities, with new additions such as Neil Patrick Harris and Jay Mohr, adding more to the game’s story in addition to providing it with a sense of Hollywood flair. There was also a minigame that involved running around spraying civilians with septic waste, perhaps a precursor to some of the more ridiculous happenings in the next game.
Saint’s Row the Third took everything and made it even more crazy. This is a game that essentially gave the player the ability to run around completely naked while wearing a Heavy mask and beat people to death with an giant over-sized purple dildo (which I promptly did during my first two hours of playing). Vehicle customization was heavily improved, as the game gave EVERY SINGLE VEHICLE all kinds of customization options. Needless to say, it was completely over the top, and gave way to some rather outlandish custom characters, some of which may give you nightmares if you stare at them too long. It even had Burt Reynolds as the mayor, which increased the absurdity further. Still, despite the ridiculous storyline and '80s film references, the game was fun for a while until I realized the combat system felt slightly flawed.
GTA + HONG KONG = FUN.
DEVELOPER: United Front Games
PUBLISHER: Square Enix
PLATFORMS: PS3, X360, PC
Before Sleeping Dogs came to be, there was a little-known game franchise known as True Crime. Now, True Crime took the GTA concept of running and killing and placed the player in control of a police officer. While crime was strongly encouraged in GTA, True Crime encourage the player to be good by playing “by the book,” so to speak. Rather than killing perps, you could fire a warning shot or take them down non-lethally. Instead of hijacking vehicles, you were instead borrowing them for police use (a similar idea that would also be featured in another Rockstar title, L.A. Noire). The game would spawn two sequels, one of which, True Crime: Hong Kong, would eventually be cancelled, only to be resurrected by Square Enix as a completely different title: Sleeping Dogs.
When I first reviewed Sleeping Dogs for Monthly Gamer about a year ago, I referred to it as “GTA in the Pacific Rim,” seeing that it felt more along the lines of a Grand Theft Auto title, but set within an Asian city and so forth (then again, so did Sega’s Shenmue and Yakuza games). In reality, the game was more of a homage of sorts to Hong Kong cinema; more specifically, the movie Infernal Affairs, which revolved around a HKPD officer infiltrating the Triads while a Triad enforcer infiltrates the HKPD. In this situation, the player is Wei Shen, a former San Francisco police officer working alongside the HKPD. His assignment? Infiltrate the Sun On Yee triad organization, and take them down from within.
Unlike Grand Theft Auto, Sleeping Dogs’ combat system can be said to be more along the lines of an open-world brawler (more like Arkham Asylum than Shenmue, to be exact). Rarely would you use guns, either in certain levels or when picked up from the ground. Instead, fighting was usually done through your fists and feet, especially since the game was heavily inspired by Hong Kong Cinema. All you had to do was mash the X/Square Button and you’d be able to punch and kick your way to victory. You could also grab targets and throw them into all sorts of environmental deathtraps, a la Mortal Kombat.
Doing such brutal kills such as impaling a guy on a meat hook or drowning them in a tank filled with electric eels reminded me of some of the executions in games like Manhunt or The Punisher, though they did give the fighting system a bit of variety. Driving, on the other hand, felt more like an arcade game, no doubt due to the game’s handling system and the fact that developer United Front Games was previously working on the Sony kart racing title ModNation Racers. That being said, the game was pretty much the closest thing we got to a GTA sequel, at least until GTA V came out a year later.
JUST CAUSE 2
DEVELOPER: Avalanche Software
PUBLISHER: Square Enix
PLATFORMS: PS3, X360, PC
If GTA was a film by Michael Mann, then Just Cause 2 would be a Michael Bay movie filled with grappling hooks, ridiculous stunts, and way too many explosions to count. In other words, it would be Armageddon. Just Cause 2 was essentially GTA V-lite: the entire map was open to the player from the start, and everything you found could easily be driven. Sure, some of the guns felt extremely useless at times and the story was rather mediocre, but most of the game’s entertainment value came from fooling around with the grapple hook and grappling bad guys and vehicles to one another. Because of the game’s surprising popularity, it even spawned a multiplayer mod on the PC which pretty much turned Just Cause 2 into the equivalent of playing on a free roam server in San Andreas Multiplayer, only with more explosions.
Grand Theft Auto has managed to influence it’s share of titles over the years, yet at the same time, it also managed to borrow from it’s competition in a number of ways. Sure, people are going to claim that their games are essentially going to be GTA killers (and fail to live up to expectations in the process), but when you think about it, GTA’s prominence in the industry has made it a milestone of sorts, influencing many titles with the promise of an open world to explore and changing the way we play the games themselves. In fact, had GTA never even existed, who knows what video games would've been like?