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The Canon – Great Games – Grand Theft Auto

Dave’s Best of the The Best, 2000s edition:

 This is an ongoing series of brief, retrospective capsules of the biggest, most hyped, beloved, terrible, wonderful, miserable, and all other types of hyperbolic adjectives that describe the games of the NES era (1984-) of gaming.

Grand Theft Auto

“You will never see Mario kill a hooker.” – Attrib to a Nintendo VIP 

Many times, upon the revelation of a controversial statement of politics, business, or art, there is always at least one demographic where outrage does not seem to register with the core of that group. While the rest of the world is scurrying, gossiping, judging, and over exaggerating the true nature of this statement, there is a core of people who simply never see what the problem is. When Lolita was published, it was banned in almost every free country in the world; the controversy still goes to this day and most literary critics won’t even discuss it with moralists, because they still can’t get over the idea of the content, not even the content itself. A hard to prove unless you have a literary critic handy, but you could try bringing a copy of Lolita into a PTA rally and gauge the disgust… or to duplicate the results, try giving a nephew, cousin, or associates son between the ages of 11-17 a copy of any of the Grand Theft Auto games that have come out since 2001.  

For videogames, specifically the decade of 2000-2009 but just as likely for the history of the medium, the Grand Theft Auto series by Rockstar Games* was the biggest lightning rod for criticism that there was. No game got more coverage from the mainstream press, no work had as many concerned parents, lawsuits, warnings, etc than GTA. People were calling it a new low for videogames, a harbinger of evil to come, and marveled at the sheer mayhem, chaos, and or terror people could enact in the game. What people who never played the game failed to distinguish was the difference between GTA and other games of a violent and graphic nature. The reason why this was the biggest video game series of the decade was the game play itself; this was one of the masterworks of the videogame canon, most people were too busy having fun playing the game to worry about the “negative aspects.” What GTA did this decade was to revolutionize the very nature of games themselves, taking them from games of premade stages to literally new worlds where anything could be done.  

*(noted here as an all encompassing moniker for DMA designs, Rockstar North, and all other developers beneath the Rockstar label who have worked on the games)  

Controversy Perception vs. Artistic Reality  

To be fair, some of the more controversial works of art do not hold up after time. Take videogames like Postal, Manhunt, or even Modern Warfare 2’s airport massacre scene… all were talked about endlessly for their content, but they wound up being terrible or worse, the least interesting thing in or about the game. In music, ICP seems to go out of its way to push buttons; however it’s often their music, not the content, that’s the most abrasive. Even Nirvana’s highly discussed Polly –lightly described as rape-tinged- is the worst song on an otherwise flawless album. Even Serrano’s “Piss Christ” which got the attention of Senators in 1987 seems, 22 years on, much ado about nothing.  

However, sometimes the controversy is merely a product of people unable to deal with the new. Detroit, along with huge parts of the US alongside, wanted to ban the Beatles. In the 80’s hard and heavy metal rockers went to the Supreme Court in a defense of free speech. This happens every decade with almost every medium of artistic expression. And remember, The Simpsons was derided by the First George Bush, multiple times in public speeches  

At the time, people derided the Ramones and much of all punk music of the 1970’s for being musically unskilled, repetitive, crude and under-produced. Now, Blitzkrieg Bop rests in the rock pantheon alongside She Loves You and Let’s Spend the Night Together. Play the song for a teenager who never heard it before and they’ll mock you for claiming this was once controversial and a countercultural touchstone.  

While the work of the Ramones, to my knowledge, did not contain a song about picking up a hooker in a stolen car, paying her for sex, then driving her over with the stolen car, retrieving the money you paid her for lewd acts, waiting for cops to show up, blowing up the cop cars with grenade launchers, seeing them burst into flames, waiting for the fire department to show up, then stealing the fire truck, and using the hood mounted cannon to blast everyone in the area 20 feet away. They did have songs about smacking your ill tempered kids (Beat on the Brat) and sniffing glue.  

For anyone who knows anything about the Ramones knows had any sense knew that these songs were products of the punk scene and while not exactly satiric, they were certainly not written to be listened to at face value.  

Which should also apply to GTA, however, since so many critical assailants like to point to the fact this is an active experience, and the game seems more like a criminal simulator than anything in their frame of reference. The point of GTA is that is a living, breathing world where the player can move their avatar with wild abandon. Sure, there is the destruction aspect, and while I’m not going to make light of it, doesn’t Mario stem from the same arena? Who is providing the blocks for him to break or who is stashing coins or magic mushrooms in [?] boxes, and for that matter, are those Mushrooms, Flowers, and/or Tanooki suits Mario’s property, or is he simply stealing? I mean he’s clearly taking a violent course of action, littering his path with bodies, and destroying property in the process. But back to GTA---just because the world is relatable to passive viewer does not mean the actions taken on screen are in anyway indicative of the personality or psyche of the player. If you are loathe to kill pieces of code that look like humans, play a different game.  

As a gamer who has played every console GTA released since the series came out, and even one of the PSP incarnations, I can attest that these games have little to no effect on a gamers violent levels, and if there is some truth to the notion about video games have teaching capabilities, I will promise you that I know there are only two outcomes of stealing a car… death and a joy ride that merely delays death. 

There is the old adage “Can’t see the forest for the trees;” if all any moralist critic does is focus on the negative details of a GTA they are going to miss the whole reason why the games were so big in the first place. More so than Halo, Metal Gear Solid, Smash Brothers, the GTA franchise (Grand Theft Auto 3, Vice City, San Andreas, and GTA 4) represent the video games series of the decade. Nothing comes close the massive influence and impact that the series had on… well everything. Sure Halo 2 and PSO helped to usher in online gaming to consoles, sure Metal Gear Solid (2-4), made the games more cinematic and more stealth oriented, and the Wii got people out of their chairs and made the gaming experience a full body experience. The difference between 2000 and 2009 in games is as drastic of a leap in 10 years as the medium has ever experienced. Leading the charge was Rockstar’s flagship, and for all of those who ever played it, it’s hard to understand why people were talking about the violence when there were literally books of material to be written about GTA. Forget the controversy, all that remains now is the art.  

Nothing drives down real estate prices like a good old-fashioned gang war.  

In what would be become a recurring hallmark for the series, GTA 3 began with the avatar coming into the game with nothing-no ties, no friends, only a helpful acquaintance or two. The onscreen character (known in the coding and later revealed in GTA: SA as Claude) has been double crossed and left for dead by his girlfriend. He lives, and is given a room and a garage. And that’s where the intro ends.  

Now it’s easy to say that this is the point when the game portion starts but really, in 2001, this was not just a game, this was a living city. While 3-D game play came in 5 years earlier with Super Mario 64, the levels in it were, in size comparisons, maybe a few acres, at most a quarter mile by a quarter mile. In 1998, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was the first major game to go fully expansive, taking the world concept to another level, going so far as to introduce Epona the horse to make the massive world seem less daunting. Any point before this was unceremoniously dwarfed the moment the player walks out into Liberty City for the first time; this was one of the all time “WHOA” moments in videogames, released a scant 2 years after The Matrix, it wasn’t hard to make the connection… gamers had just been able to link into another world.  

Video game design is tricky, walking a line between available technologies and the scope of a designer’s imagination. Often times games that push the boundaries of previous eras need massive leaps in technology to translate the vision. Pong was the definition of 2-d gaming, it moved along the X and Y axis. Yet the match was trapped to the confines of the TV set; it was a game within a box. Jump forward to 8 bit platformers; they existed along the same basic 2 axes but instead of being limited to the mere dimensions of the screen, so when cartridge space/ graphic technology advanced enough games like Super Mario Bros were finally able to start scrolling from left to right, giving birth to the idea of levels and worlds. Contra took this a step further, having levels that moved not just from left to right, but from the bottom of the screen to the top (and in a few cases, in a tunnel like motion forward). This is the definition of thinking outside of the box… there was no hypothetical limit to off-screen space, games extended along planes instead of screen dimensions.  

However, the games were still limited to the height/width of a screen and the direction it scrolled in. That is until Mario got the leaf power-up and could fly, and in Mario 3, the platformer expanded. Playing as a kid, there was no bigger thrill than seeing Mario lift off the ground and soar through the air. Sure kids may not have grasped the implications of how the games played but with the simple induction of flight, game designers could expand their worlds from this: 

The games which were going left were now going up and out. SMB3 also had levels where players were going right to left in a backtracking fashion, further changing the boundaries and shattering the preconceptions. I mean, until then level based platformers only went left to right.* 

*I realize I’m leaving out Castelvainia II here, but really, try to play that game without a guide or YouTube walkthrough. For all of its innovations (Day/night, RPG elements, a monetary system, sublevels and more) it’s one of the most ridiculously frustrating and poorly translated games ever. There is a reason no one mentions that game in the best of the series retrospectives 

It’s easy to take for granted now, but at the time these were quantum leaps; and they still remain as benchmark points of the evolution of the medium. Coming into the close of the decade, games like Fallout 3, Oblivion, Borderlands, Burnout: Paradise etc, don’t happen without GTA 3. This was not just a level, this was a location. This was a world without walls. Sandbox gaming had been introduced and EVERY conception about what a videogame could do was obliterated; the idea of levels, playable characters, enemies, transportation, anything. GTA was a platformer, it was a driving game, it was a shooter, it was a gangster tale; it wasn’t Mario on drugs, it was Mario for those who grew up while the plumber stayed the same age. While the GTA3 version of Liberty City has features and landmarks of LA, it’s no doubt a New York clone, from the boroughs to the bridges, from the parks to the police; this was a virtual replica of one of the greatest cities in the world. Mind you though… the game was only getting started. What made GTA3 different from Zelda: OOT was that the whole world was interactive; Zelda featured vast plains and small rolling hills; Liberty city circa 2001 featured pedestrians who yelled if you bumped them, mugged each other when cops weren’t around, and responded to events in the game like people would in real life.  

Look at the overworld map of Zelda: OOT  


Now look at the map of GTA 3.  


While they don’t exactly match on a 1:1 to scale, I assure you, GTA 3 is much, much bigger, and that’s not even factoring in the roads and buildings—places where Nintendo merely used space. This was about 5 times bigger of a jump in playable locations than anyone could have anticipated. OOT had rolling vistas; GTA 3 replaced those vistas with surly gangsters and super jumps.  

To get a grip though on what made Rockstar’s game work so well one almost needs to go to one of the competitors to see the difference. True Crime: Streets of LA (TC: SOLA) is a game with a staggering 240 square miles of theoretical location. San Andreas, the biggest of all GTA, had 36 square Kilometers (roughly 14 square miles) which comes to just over %5 of TC:SOLA. Lucoflux, the developer of the TC series, went out of the way to recreate Los Angeles and then put a game in the city. Rockstar seemed to take the opposite approach, spending the majority of the time making a mission based game that revolved around car thefts and shootouts, and then making the set level pieces connected. They worked on making everything the player could do functional and interesting. They created variations in vehicles (something only racing games did to this point), they included various weapon classes, and different families (mission groups) to make the missions seem more varied and deep (even if they were all just variations of drive, shoot, grab, kill, return).  

The city seems almost like it came along later in development (even if it didn’t), as if they needed something to tie all of the features of the games together… that’s how seamless the gameplay fits into the city itself. Playing along with this is the mission structure as well, which bounces the protagonist from gang to gang all in the name of power. Starting off in Little Italy with the traditional Cosa Nostra, the game expands when the player advances to Yakuza based missions, taking the silent hero across the bridge into the Manhattan-esque center island. By the time the game’s story is done, the player has met with top Dons, corrupt cops, and a media overlord all who lead him to his quest for revenge.  

The novelty of a having a city wears off fast if there isn’t anything to do; aside from having a then fantastic mission system; the game was chock full of minigames; some of them rehashed, some complete innovations. Let’s list them:  

  • Super Jumps (newish, but never as interesting as they were mostly unconnected opposed to in Liberty City)
  • Rampages (old concept, but a breakthrough in seamless execution)
  • Taxi Driving (done better in Crazy Taxi, but the mini game allowed you to learn the streets and locations… this was a built in tutorial for the city and functions and yet disguised as a mere minigame)
  • Ambulance Mini-games (akin to Taxis, but had a unique set of rules to qualify as new)
  • Fire Mini-games (Like Ambulances and Taxis, but almost too fun to spray people with the hose)
  • Police Mini-games (Are you kidding me! At this point you start to remember, Rockstar was really thinking of everything here)
  • Racing Mini-games (getting the best cars, like the Banshee or Comet, was almost a minigame in itself)
This wasn’t just a game about the quest, it was almost the antithesis of that—it was game that was more fun to goof off in than play the actual game, and---I have to stress this--the game was great. I spent at least 6 hours of playtime mastering flight in the games awful prop-engine Dodo, convinced it could lead to something. In comparison I pent an hour on Zelda: OOT’s fishing game and was convinced I would never top that for minigames that didn’t really reward me as a player beyond a little monetary award. I spent countless hours trying to jump ramps to get onto rooftops, into the airport to complete more jumps, trying to figure out god knows what. By the time GTA: SA had come around three years later, we as gamers were so spoiled by the minigames, we would have been shocked if the Las Vegas casino’s didn’t have multiple gambling games (true to Rockstar’s innovation, they had off track betting parlors, something no one would have expected them to have).  

This was a game that had people playing it for months, figuring out stuff to do long after they had beaten “the game.” I once watched a guy win a race in the Rhino, the games primitive tank, by memorizing the course route and then driving backward, using the recoil propulsion to speed the instrument of warfare in excess of 90 MPH.  Even if he hadn’t vanquished the last of the competition with the tanks ammo a quarter of the way into the race, he would have won by 20 seconds.  

The game had a few flaws, but none that were really worth noting. There was so much to do, the sheer volume made up for the mistakes and omissions.  

When gamers heard that a second version was coming in less than a year, and it promised to be more of the same, well, they finally had a reason to remove GTA3 from their PS2’s. 

Look, if you don't like the music, start your own station. It's easy. 

Before I get to GTA: Vice City, lets take a moment to appreciate the unsung star of the series, the one, the only Lazlow Jones, and his backdrop, the radio in cars.  

The radio was the cherry on top of the sundae at the end of the seven course meal that was GTA 3. There were contemporary songs they were limited to minor artists who never quite made the mainstream but had enough appeal and style to get someone’s ear, there were a few one hit wonders (such as Push it to the Limit… you know, the song from Scarface and countless other 80’s montages) but the real joy came from the in-game talk radio station “Chatterbox.”  

While there is top notch voice acting and writing throughout the series, Rockstar/DMA’s real humor comes through in the fake products and stores, the made up movies, crazy game systems, and yes, a war between the US and Australia that only the nut jobs seem to recall.  

Here’s a selection of some of the choicer bits:  

“What’s the deal with corn?” 


“If there are no women around, make one out of sand!” 


GTA 3 clearly used its budget in other places than the radio, and to good measure; it’s almost a sin to have a so-so game or movie with a great soundtrack attached to it. If it’s a bad movie and a song you like is highly involved, it can ruin the song for years, a sort of failure by osmosis where the stink of a Kate Hudson Rom-com somehow rubs off on a classic Beatles tune. When you hear a song that used to make you happy and now all you think of is some convoluted climax where Matthew McConaughey gets the girl after putting his life together, I don’t know who should pay, but I don’t think public lashes are out of order.  

While not a movie, I still can’t get over the fact that The Rolling Stones gave music rights to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” to Coca-Cola when they launched C2, a product that was literally diet coke mixed in equal parts with regular coke. It’s my favorite song I’ve ever heard and for two years all I could do was picture the awful commercial that came with it.  

But great movies with great soundtracks… does it get any better?  I own the albums for E.T., Lawrence of Arabia, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 2001, etc. In college I used to play these as I studied, I played the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever when I first got my driver’s license, and so on. When the synergy of sight and sound stimulates the synapses, it can be oh so sublime. These moments resonate because they evoke nostalgia on multiple levels, allowing people to think of the whole experience in ways other mediums can’t.  

Sometimes it’s just luck with scores and soundtracks, a producer finds a new song that perfectly matches a movie, or Celine Dion and her songwriters come up with “My Heart Goes On” and ride the coattails of the biggest movie of all time to a 16 week run atop the charts. As years pass though, it’s clear that some directors and producers know exactly how to match their movies and sound.  

If there a better example of a musical piece that exemplifies this better than “The Imperial March,” I can’t think of it, The Empire Strikes Back was already a great film that had tons going for it… but add the Imperial March to the mix it only multiplies the legacy.  

Speaking of the Empire Strikes Back… has there ever been a more satisfying movie, pound for pound, minute for minute? Everything got bigger, got better, resonated deeper. Viewers got more of the Sci-Fi elements, more cool vehicles, more villains, more heroes, and just when you think it can’t get any better… the whole Darth Vader reveal at the end. My god, I think at this point in society, where we overanalyze Lost Finales like they were the Zapruder film, I think I as well as half of the internet and all males between the ages of 11 and 35, would have just ceased functioning for like 6 months. People would have stormed Skywalker Ranch demanding to know what happens next. For those of those born after, I don’t even know if anything will ever approach that level of just sheer awesomeness, movie wise.  

Videogame wise though…  

The more we learn now, the less we'll have to learn when we take this town over. 

On the short list, Vice City fixed most of the complaints from the first game:  

  • More Aircraft
  • Better gun mechanics (I said better, not perfected)
  • More Guns
  • Ability to change outfits, looks, etc.
  • More boats
  • Bigger City
  • Motorcycles

Here’s what else it gave us:  

  • Fresh, fun storylines (Scarface with Boogie Nights, Spinal Tap, and Gary Busey all thrown in… check, check, and jackpot)
  • Love Fist (So good they get their own mention)
  • Improvements in all gameplay areas, tightening, improving, etc
  • Better Voice Acting and writing (Burt Reynolds just kills; Jenna Jameson: Hello Nurse!)
  • Purchasable Property with income
  • A whole new location
  • A truly unbelievable soundtrack
And to top it all off:  

How about setting in 1980’s era Miami! It was the ultimate decade of excess in wealth, clothes, drugs, music, movies, sex, you name the topic, it probably peaked in the years between 1978-1988. Was there a city that exemplified this better than Miami, with pastel suits, topless beaches, neon lights, Scarface, Miami Vice, and so on? Can you think of a better setting for a game that was all about excess and the pursuit of wealth by any means necessary than 1980’s Miami?  

I would have paid $50 for a game set in Liberty City that only featured new missions and new cars; I mean, I paid $60 for ODST in 2009. I would have been slightly disappointed-like with ODST—but my god I would have done it in a heartbeat. One of the reasons I put this as the game of the decade was that it smashed all hopes and ideas about what a sequel could be for videogames. Perfect Dark is arguably a better game than Goldeneye… it has more side levels, more multiplayer options, more of everything, and true to Rare, the game has tons of depth. Even if you forgive the frame rate issues, it’s still lacking James Bond and it took 3 years to be released. Halo 2, improved many ideas, added a second playable character, and had literally introduced online play, but it had an incomplete single player with a truly abrupt ending, but took 3 years to come out.  

This was like Michael Jordan and the 95-96 Bulls; just when you thought he couldn’t get any better, when you didn’t think you could see a team kill their opponents with more passion, MJ comes and leads the Bulls to a 72-10 record, just stomping on teams in the process. Like Odysseus who upon returning, did not delay in slaying the suitors who coveted his thrown for 20 years while the true king was no longer there. It was a matter was letting people know who the unquestioned best of the best. No mercy could be shown. It wasn’t enough that Rockstar had revolutionized video games, so instead of merely taking a victory lap, they ran the race again and decided to show up the others who thought they could compete, and by god did they have fun doing it.  

Not everything was perfect, one could still nit pick, or lament that there wasn’t more bonuses, but my god, that misses the point. This is a second go around in a complete videogame world, yet every aspect in the game is designed for the player to have more fun than before. It was the ultimate sequel; everything got bigger, got better, and while it didn’t exactly resonate deeper, it sure was a hell of a lot more fun… and oh yeah… the soundtrack was just awesome.  

Like it says in the book... We are both blessed and cursed. 

Rockstar had been running through the gangster archetypes with aplomb, taking bits from The Sopranos, Scarface, The Godfather, Carlitos Way, etc. For a while, there was talk about having a female protagonist, or maybe going back to the well for another mob style adventure, but many wanted and expected something new. What came out of the mix was somewhat obvious but still totally risky: a videogame world set in 1990’s Los Angeles, right at the epicenter of the West Coast gangsta rap chock full of gangbangers, low riders, drivebys and characters who are Menaces II Society (sorry).  

There are a few overhauls that came in. As usual Rockstar updated much of the lingering issues. They updated the shooting again, added more cars, lengthened the draw distance so the world looked bigger on the horizon. They also finally got around to allowing the character to swim, which is the time in the series where a game play improvement was one game too late.   

Then there were the new wrinkles that people knew would be coming, but didn’t exactly expect.  

The list:

  • The overwhelming size of San Andreas; 3 cities, a massive desert, and a huge wilderness area, it was probably triple the size of Vice City. It took 15 minutes by car to get from one side of the city to another.
  • A girlfriend system, adding depth to the protagonist both as a character and an avatar; this was no longer just a fighter, but a lover as well.
  • The flight system went from being a novelty to a full on section of the game. Dozens of planes and helis, ranging from a few typical planes, to an attack helicopter, jet, a massive 100 foot wide cargo plane, and a jetpack. Hold on lets make that its own line.
  • The game has a jetpack. Rockstar was clearly in swing for the fences mode here, throwing in an accessory whole games would be built around. It almost seems like the product of a 2am brainstorming session where one of the guys asks the group, “Hey… what about a jetpack?”
  • There are three unique cities here, based on LA, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. Each one is well designed, alive, and full of personality they could each be the backdrop for lesser games.
  • Car mods; low-rye-der goes a little slower. Pimp your car, your truck, and race them with the best of the best.
  • Gang wars; a minigame that wound up as compelling as anything in the game where the player is forced to fend off hordes of attackers (all bad guys who deserved to die, by the way) so the player can truly “own the city”
  • RPG elements are implemented; the player is forced to build their skills in fighting, driving, and shooting and other categories.
  • Gambling; Multiple casinos with most every kind of game. And seriously… off track betting. It wound up being an almost unfair way to earn easy money, but points all around for ingenuity and carry though here and at the casinos. 
  • Parachutes. The best feature of Pilotwings just kind of hidden for those who wanted to look for it. I myself spent two solid hours riding up the mountain to the peak, grabbing the chute and then biking off the side and coasting to the ground. One of my favorite memories from a series chock full of them. 

The biggest change of all came in CJ, San Andreas’s main character. GTA3’s nameless protagonist was a nameless guy who was more of a plot device than a character. Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti was undeniably awesome, but he felt like an amalgam of Tony Montana, Michael Corleone, and---the role that made Ray Liotta famous—Goodfellas Henry Hill; he was an established character with a ready made path and history that suited him. CJ was a blank slate for the players and for the designers as well. All we know about him is that he has come back to Los Santos because his mother was killed in a drive by shooting; everything else we piece together through the game. He hasn’t lead a fun life, he chose to leave LS to avoid being involved in the gang life, and he’s a decent enough guy who is trying to do right by his family.  

From the beginning of the game, everything is set up as an integration into CJ’s world and every action of the plot seems to bring out more of whom he is and what his part is in the drama surrounding his life. The player grows and learns with his avatar; while there is not a choice based system of actions, most every action or change is plotted in a way that the actions don’t feel forced or contrivances to move the player from mission to mission.  

In the first two installments, the mission set ups just seemed perfunctory; in GTA 3, it was explanation to let the player know what they had to do. In Vice City the plot was clear from the get go—Tony V to the top—that we knew the endgame, so everything else worked in the engine in making Tony V the big boss. With San Andreas, the exact plot is new while it culls elements from other games and movies; it is an original overall arc that tries to build itself organically. For the first time in the series, the game has a true antagonist that ties the whole story together. The villain Officer Tenpenny (the perfectly cast Samuel L Jackson) creates a menacing presence and driving force that we see the motivation for CJ to go against the law, providing a richer and more nuanced onscreen avatar than before.  

Tenpenny’s web of corruption provides the impetus for many of the twists and turns of CJ’s life. From a distance, the plot and episodes of the game are a bit far fetched, but during the gameplay experience, it’s still able to provide a compelling throughline for a game that takes the gamer through a series of far-reaching areas. The game could have worked with much less of a plot, but because the story is effective enough and CJ is so endearing, it becomes a richer, vicarious experience for the gamer the whole way through.  

The game itself is the truest example of what a sandbox game can be, even more so than later games of the genre after it. The turf wars aspect added more hours of entertainment than any minigame introduced at the 85% completion point has any right to. While the game doesn’t have snowy capped mountain or high seas adventures, I can’t think of much else that I would want in a sandbox game, nor can I think of anything that’s exactly missing, other than the obvious “more of everything.” There was enough in San Andreas to keep players busy for over 150+ hours if they wanted to… and many gamers would  

Be Genetically Different! 

Four years is a long time to wait between follow ups/ sequels. Four years is a presidential term, four years is a long term relationship, a high school or college career. People who were college freshman when SA came out didn’t get a Rockstar approved GTA followup until the end of their senior year. Four years is a year longer than the time we had to wait between Star Wars movies to be released, and those were almost unbearable waits (especially after the first two prequels disappointed so much and we could only hope they were going to get better). Band careers don’t last four years. What the hell could have taken so long and how was it possibly going to be worth the wait.  

What did Rockstar improve this time around:  

  • A cover style shooting system. No longer were missions failed at the 90% mark because the avatar was cycling through guns or shot the hostage by mistake. They may have taken all of this from Gears of War, but no one will begrudge borrowing innovation.
  • A graphical facelift for HD and next gen systems.
  • More songs, more arcade games, TV programming to match the radio programming.

What Rockstar added/removed, each gets its own section:  

Niko Bellic is the protagonist this time around, and instead of being a gangster tale, this is more of an immigrant’s tale, a glamour-free bottom up look at lower class politics, life, and crime. For better or worse, Niko is GTA 4; gone are the free wheeling days of Claude and Tommy V where it was a Wild-West style adventure, this is a playable narrative, and Niko’s arc comes from very real and often highly moving areas. There aren’t many clichés or familiar tales that the game uses to tell the story. There is no glamour here, no “making it big” montages of success; Niko’s never going to get to the top, he is merely just trying to make a living. Niko has been through hell in his life, and his arrival in American isn’t going to make things much better. All of this could make for a gaming nightmare if Niko wasn’t truly endearing. He’s got a wounded vulnerability that makes him endearing and easy to like. Opposed to being a brash, gun-toting, muscle flexing badass stereotype, Niko is a guy who doesn’t say much because he’s worried about being hurt. This was the biggest gamble Rockstar made, and it pays off huge… Niko is GTA 4.  

Deeper character relationships. Furthering the idea of dating from GTA: SA the player now has the ability to build in game relationships with NPC’s in the game. While much of this can be ignored, the game is designed to have a social aspect to it, and it will reward the player for improving in game relationships. As the game progresses, so does the life of Niko, filling out his new life with friends of different backgrounds, girlfriends from all over the city, and business associates. By the time the game is done, the player has formed real attachment to not just Niko, but Roman, Jacob, Packie, Dwyane, and others. This was a real accomplishment for non RPG gaming; with the exception of Solid Snake, there isn’t any one character I can think of that really sticks out or is worth commenting on after I’ve played a game. When we did our podcast on favorite characters, I put both Niko and Roman in the top 5 characters of the decade, and was hard pressed to find others outside of GTA 4. When an NPC has that level of an impact on gamers, that’s great storytelling exemplified, plain and simple.  

Liberty City is given a complete overhaul. This is the other big draw of the game. While Liberty City is smaller than San Andreas, the amount of activity and attention to detail more than makes up for the size change. The city, more so than any game before or since, is really alive. Traffic exists and goes on in one section of the city, even when the player is in another. While it’s impressive that the pedestrians on the street will notice Niko if he’s left stationary, what’s more amazing is that they will ignore him for their own purposes-people on the street in the game are programmed with a bit of free will, to decide what is most interesting at the moment. Traffic collisions occur without the players involvement, and the people involved will come to blows over who is at fault. I’m not just telling you this because I read about it in articles about the game; I’ve seen it happen in real time, multiple times. There are bars, shows, strip clubs, and restaurants, all of which exist and function whether Niko is there or not.  

The downside of the game comes from its change in philosophy and scope of the game. Gone are fixed wing aircraft and jetpacks; the only way to go by sky is via a chopper, which is much harder to fly in this game. There are no sweeping vistas or thousand foot high mountains, the game is set in Liberty City and that’s it. Gone are the parachutes (until the DLC that is) and other smaller add-ons. The game took a lot of the sandbox elements out of the game, and while it makes sense thematically, it does make the game a bit less interesting to play when the story is ended. This is the first instance of this in the series. The game also cut back on its vehicle spawned missions, leaving only the vigilante from cop missions, no more fire truck or ambulance missions. No turf wars (not that it would have made sense), no truck missions, even the auto collection missions are toned down. The taxi is the same, but I expected more odd job type missions, and all we are given is a drug delivery mission via Jacob and a good but not great assassin side quest. By the time the game is done, there isn’t as much to do as there used to be with the previous games; at least, it feels that way.   

The other big problem with the game is that the missions are repetitive in the game and of what gamers have done before in the series. There aren’t any missions that give the thrill of the back alley shootout on motorcycles or rooftop chopper fight of Vice City, nor are there any great stealth missions like in GTA SA (both the casino and rapper’s house heists). This was the first time in the series where the gameplay actually took a step back. There wasn’t much innovation; instead everything was made better, but less interesting as well.  

However, most of the changes in the game sense in a way. For all of the controversy that Rockstar had in the four years between installments, GTA 4 seems more of a statement game about the nature of the title and of games themselves. GTA 4 went out of its way to be more conscientious about the effects of living on the wrong side of the law. Niko is a character who deplores what he does, the game makes it difficult even to steal cars, and the lack of heavy firepower and vehicles reduces the random sprees that were prevalent in the earlier games in the series.  The game forces meditated murder upon the player/Niko no less than three times and each one of the sequences (Playboy –X or Dwayne, Francis or Derrick, or Darko) has wrenching effects.  

The finale is so the ultimate no-win scenario, leaving Niko damned either way the player plays the game. While I applaud Rockstar for its narrative choices, I really didn’t want to play the game much more after I beat it based primarily on the emotional heft of the final mission. Between Dwayne’s monologues about losing his soul and miserable time in prison, the failing plight of Packie’s family, or Niko’s unfathomably dark back-story, I’d argue GTA 4 is the most effective anti-crime game or text out there. It doesn’t beat the player over the head with the notion that crime is bad and doesn’t pay; it’s more like a Greek tragedy where characters are lulled into calm after tragedy only to repeat their mistakes when they think they are safe, each time with more disastrous consequences.  

I left out what was the best in game section of gameplay when I was talking about the monotony of some of the missions, but I intentionally omitted the Rescue of Roman from Dimitri’s men. This was maybe the most tenuous playing experience of my life. The voice acting of Michael Hollick for Niko is unimpeachable in this scene and in the course of the rescue; the emotion he delivers through an avatar is almost unbearable. Hollick makes Niko real. His emotions, his alternating cries of terror and vows of vengeance, rescuing Roman isn’t an accomplishment, it feels like a reunion with beloved.  I had to put the controller down for a bit after this one. The level itself is wonderful too, implementing the cover system to the best effect in the game; Niko walks into unimaginable odds, and the game has the rescue set up to a manageable task.  I did this level in my first take, and I’m forever grateful… I don’t know if I could emotionally withstand the scene through repeated failures. I probably would have driven a cab for awhile before I got myself ready for another go. It was one of the few times in the game where violence really was the answer, and Rockstar’s message comes out clear…killing takes a heavy weight on the soul.  

The American Dream, four times over 

What makes Vice City the pick over San Andreas, GTA 4, or GTA 3? While SA does more of everything, and does it really well, it doesn’t have that overwhelming sense of environment that Vice City just nails. Until SA gets to the Riots that close the game, I never felt fully enthralled by the setting, or at least, it was never used to the level it could be. Los Santos could have done so much more in terms of Hollywood missions, the time San Fiero was really solid but could have drawn more from the tapestry of one of the coolest cities in the world, and for the Las Venturas, there is an airport and a few casinos, but I kept thinking there would be more missions based out of it. All that said, it’s hard to argue that the gameplay in Vice City is superior to that in San Andreas, because SA has much more and in most cases it is done better than before. What gives Vice City the edge is that is does everything as a whole better while SA does all of the little things better, which in the grand scheme of things makes a big difference. Vice City is a whirling, top down in the convertible, radio cranked, double barreled thrill ride and Rockstar figured out just the right way to give everything the extra polish it needed. San Andreas will keep you occupied for longer, but in ratio of pure fun to time spent, Vice City beats not just all other games in the GTA series but everything else this decade.  

I’ll never be able to hear Loverboy’s “Everybody’s working for the weekend” without smiling and thinking of my house on Starfish Island with the Infernus parked out front and the Helicopter on the pad. In Vice City, for one game, the world is yours.


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