Continuing our look at Rockstar Games’ biggest franchise, we now move into the realm of 3D and see how it took off.
A couple of weeks ago we explored the humble beginnings of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) franchise by looking at the top-down view games in the series. Today we’re going to look at the series’ transition into the world of 3D and how that cemented GTA as one of the greatest gaming franchises ever known.
So, after many years playing with the top-down pixelated parody cities of GTA, 21 October 2001 saw the release of Grand Theft Auto III, and it gave players a fully-realised 3D version of Liberty City to wreak havoc in. For anyone who’d enjoyed the previous games in the series, this was GTA x 1000, and it was ever so awesome. I remember playing GTA III at any free moment I could find, and I made sure there were a lot of them.
GTA III - A fully-3D Grand Theft Auto game, this is what catapulted the series to the forefront of the games industry. Image from gta.wikia.com.
Much of the previous games’ themes were present; do missions for nefarious individuals, such as killing, driving, deliveries etc. But this time it was all padded out with entertaining full-3D cutscenes and voice acting. The first game in the series to give players a third-person perspective, GTA III allowed you to do whatever you wanted, just like the previous titles. You had a huge sprawling city to explore, and explore it people did. In this new 3D world, players could continue to perform the same actions as in the previous top-down games, albeit in a much more visually compelling setting. Carjacking, police chases, random killing, along with the story elements of various missions and side-missions – this was a game you could lose yourself in.
As silent-protagonist, Claude, players sought to seek revenge following a bank robbery gone wrong, and being left for dead by your girlfriend at the beginning of the game. As you progress you become entangled in a web of crime, gangs, and corruption – with the fully-voiced cutscenes, you were pulled into the world more than ever before, and that made sure this was the only game you’d be playing until that story was finished. Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) and Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix) even voiced some of the characters in the game.
The radio stations were still there, although this time they were a little more fleshed-out. With music written just for the game and also some licensed music, this was a welcome leap from the previous titles. One radio station in particular, a talk show presented by a host called Lazlow, featured interviews with many characters from the story. One interview in particular with Fernando Martinez, a somewhat misguided womaniser, would see him as a regular character throughout the series amongst others.
GTA III set the new benchmark for triple-A games – its execution was so bold and different to anything that had been done before it sparked a wave of ‘GTA clones’. Now, I don’t like that phrase, it’s a little unfair to other similar titles as they’re merely using an open-world setting for their games, but it’s still clear to see that GTA is at the top of the pile when it comes to the execution of the setting.
Grand Theft Auto III’s ground-breaking aesthetic and gameplay unsurprisingly helped it to sell extremely well, and of course the controversial factors plaguing the series once again reared their ugly heads in the media because of its violent and sexual content – such as picking up prostitutes in a car, having ‘sex’ with her, then choosing to kill her and steal back your money. You didn’t have to do that, but if you wanted to, you could.
Building on the huge success of GTA III, just a year later the next game titled Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was released on 27 October 2002. When I bought Vice City I wasn’t prepared for the swan dive I was about to take into the 80s. The whole look and feel of the game took cues from 80s movies, TV shows, and music of the time – it was meticulously created and transported you to another decade which you never wanted to leave.
The soundtrack in Vice City is probably one of the best in video game history. The above YouTube vid (by YouTube user dregshot) let's you listen to the entirety of Flash FM, one of the game's radio stations. **BE WARNED - Strong language, suggestive adverts, and awesome 80s music**
The main protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, is released from prison following a 15 year stint for killing 11 men in Liberty City whilst being a member of a Mafia gang. Tommy is subsequently promoted in the family and sent to Vice City to help expand the mob family’s interests and execute a drug deal with another crime family. Suffice to say it all goes a bit wrong, and Tommy ends up being in the firing line of his boss for losing the money and the drugs. Promising to get the money and drugs back, Tommy then begins his journey to build his own criminal empire.
More high-profile actors were present again to voice some of the characters, with the likes of Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) voicing the main protagonist Tommy Vercetti, and Robert Davi (The Goonies), William Fichtner (Heat), Dennis Hopper (Speed) and many more voicing other important characters.
Using a slightly improved version of the game engine from GTA III, Vice City’s gameplay and feel was pretty much the same as its predecessor. Although, this time its story, setting, and music were what really made an impact with fans.
Some of Vice City’s main controversy lay around two of the game’s rivals gangs, the Cubans and the Haitian’s, where you as the player would be forced to defend yourself against them. Protesters at the time said the game was ‘a cultural attack on the millions of Haitians living in the United States.’ Which prompted Rockstar to remove some lines of dialogue from the game.
A new feature brought in with Vice City was the ability to buy property – businesses and homes such as a car showroom and mansion were available, with the businesses generating income over time. Vice City was beginning to show exactly what could be accomplished in an open-world game, and how truly immersive they could be, which perfectly set up the next game in the series.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was released on 26 October 2004 - the same day as Grand Theft Auto Advance, a Gameboy Advance iteration of the original GTA, with a few additional features from later games in the series -and further used everything that had been implemented in the previous games to build upon. Set in a parody of California and Nevada, San Andreas was the biggest GTA world yet, with three huge areas eventually being unlocked by the end of the game.
The map in San Andreas was bigger than anything players had seen before. Image from gta.wikia.com.
Set in the early 90s, the game took influence from many movies again, such as; Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, and Pulp Fiction. Players would assume the role of Carl “CJ” Johnson, who returns to San Andreas after hearing of his mother’s murder. As CJ, you would put back together your old gang, build up territory in the city of Los Santos, and eventually travel outside of the city to discover rural areas, two other cities resembling San Francisco and Las Vegas, plus a desert huge desert.
Again, San Andreas took the best elements of the previous games and built upon them. This time round some RPG-like features were included, with the ability to alter the look of CJ by changing his hair, giving him tattoos and buying clothing and accessories using a more in-depth system than Vice City. You could even alter CJ’s physical appearance depending on how much you made him eat or go to the gym etc.
Controversy struck San Andreas too, unsurprisingly, with the release of the ‘Hot Coffee mod’. In the game you can meet girlfriends, take them out on dates and engage in mini-games to build your relationship with them. Eventually your girlfriend would ask if you’d like to come to her house for ‘coffee’, which would then result in CJ and his girlfriend entering the house with the camera staying outside, with suspect noises being heard. However, a mod was later created by a player which allowed access to a previously-hidden mini game, in which you would enter the house and engage in sexual intercourse. This prompted the game’s rating to be changed for adults only and re-released, with many retailers also pulling the game from their shelves.
More famous actors got in on the voice-acting this time round too with Samuel L. Jackson (I don’t really need to put a movie reference in here, do I? Oh, OK - Pulp Fiction), James Woods (Vampires), and Chris Penn (Reservoir Dogs).
The soundtrack was a major strong point for the game, featuring many radio stations with licensed music such as Barracuda by Heart, Nuthin’ But a G Thang by Dr Dre, and Welcome To The Jungle by Guns N’ Roses. So, you could be rolling down the street in your tricked out lowrider (car customisation was new feature too) whilst listening to NWA and bouncing your hydraulic suspension. Nice.
The generation of GTA games that began with the leap to 3D also sparked some spin-off titles such as Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, released in October 2005 for the PSP, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories released in October 2006, also on PSP. Both games are prequels to the games in their respective titles. They also saw later release on PS2 and PS3 (via PlayStation Network), as well as on mobile devices.
And there we have it, with each addition to the GTA series the games grew more and more popular. Their unique and humorous view upon different decades and cities keep players coming back time and time again – and with that being said, I’m off to play some Vice City and lose myself in some 80s Scarface-esque empire building. Join us in the next part where we’ll look at last generation’s additions to series and speculate on where we could be heading to next.