The typical clichéd opening statement would be to say that Grand Theft Auto is one of the biggest videogame franchises of all time. I guess I would also say that it’s synonymous with the medium and that if you were to ask someone unfamiliar with computer games, “What is Grand Theft Auto?” They would say, “Oh, isn’t it that thing where you murder prostitutes and steal cars.”
Well, yes, Helen, you would probably reply. It is those things, yes. But Grand Theft Auto (or GTA, as it is known by videogame insiders) is also known for its staggering recreation of real-life cities such New York, Los Angeles and Miami, in everything but name.
GTA games offer worlds that so accurately mimic and parody their real-life counterparts. It is part of what makes them incessantly playable. The possibilities that exist in these cities that are boundless; the map sizes so grand in scope, heft with detail and – thanks to technological advancements – feel more alive with each entry to the series. And you need your video game worlds to feel alive, don’t you? Yes, you, I’m talking to – I see – you. It’s all you’ve ever needed right now. To feel like you exist somewhere. That’s why you keep picking up the controller don’t you? I understand. I know.
So, with rumours that the next GTA will take us back to Vice City, it’s worth looking back at the franchise and reviewing each city therein. Brace yourselves, kiddies, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
Please note that I’m only looking through mainline entries – so no expansion packs, DLC or handheld games. Soz for the disappointment, y’all.
7) Grand Theft Auto
As a template for the franchise, GTA served this purpose in 1997. Given the game was originally going to be a racing game of sorts, it makes sense that the cities used for the setting of GTA didn’t require much personality.
Sure, each city resembled New York, Miami and San Francisco with their counterparts being Liberty City, Vice City and San Fiero, respectively, but outside of slight nods by way of certain buildings and landmarks, they weren’t that great and lacked any real personality.
As a template for what GTA would be, it was pretty good. Also, you have to remember that the GTA cities were purely virtual playgrounds for carnage and nothing more – GTA back then didn’t even have much of an actual story. Remember starting missions from ringing pay phones? Anyone could answer one. Your nan could answer one, theoretically, if she existed in this world. Imagine that. Your nan stealing a car. Mad.
6) Grand Theft Auto II
Given the success of the first Grand Theft Auto game, a second entry was pretty much a given. Thus, in 1999, GTA 2 was released.
Unlike its predecessor, GTA 2 was set in a city without a modern-day inspirer. Instead, it was set in a futuristic, dystopia called ‘Anywhere, USA.’ This futuristic setting was actually 2013, and given the way things have turned out, futuristic dystopic societies are not that far off.
This sequel maintained the car-theft and phone-answering mechanics of the first GTA, but introduced separate gangs whom you can either earn their favour or make your enemies. This gave context and purpose to the ringing pay phones dotted around the city and made the city feel like a much more ‘lived-in’ locale.
GTA 2 was, during its time, quite an ambitious game and one whose ambition was held back by its own technical limitations. If only there was a way to experience the GTA formula in a world that felt much more alive and realistic.
5) Grand Theft Auto III (Like the Segway?)
In 2001, there was a new and shiny toy on the market, courtesy of Sony, and with this new toy, we also needed a new game to play on it. Cue GTA III, perhaps one of the most influential video games ever made.
The concept of fully explorable 3D worlds in videogames was a pipe-dream of gamers up until this point. Sure, we had seen games in 3D on the prior generation of systems but these were games that featured small, compartmentalised levels – nothing so interconnected and large as GTA III.
What was also impressive was the different weather systems in place and how the citizens of Liberty City – the game’s setting – reacted to changes in weather, or in fact almost anything that happened around them.
GTA III was so influential that any third-person, open world game that has come since – with the exception for other GTA games – have become known as ‘GTA clones’. While, comparably, other games in the same genre that have come since feature worlds that are larger and more detailed, GTA III was the granddaddy – it’s just not aged well.
4) Grand Theft Auto IV
Moving forward to 2008 and we have another batch of consoles for games to look all shiny and pretty on. With that in mind, RockStar Games – not to be bested – gave us another iteration of the GTA franchise.
GTA IV is the sequel to GTA III, if you choose not to count GTA: Vice City and San Andreas as sequels, that is. It is probably more of a sequel in the purest sense, given the technological leap between GTA IV and its predecessors. See, while GTA III, VC and SA were all released on a variation of the same game engine, IV was a whole new beast. Never had a GTA city had such personality and life to it. You could feel the grittiness of the revamped Liberty City slipping through the controller and on to your fingers. It was truly a beautiful thing to look at.
It is a shame that it felt so stripped back compared to previous GTA games when it came to side activities and variation within the city. No matter where you went, everything looked the same, making use of the same bland, neutral colour scheme. By contrast, GTA IV was bland and perhaps the most underwhelming entry to the franchise.
3) GTA: Vice City
Coming just one year after GTA III came into our lives and stole our hearts, our cars and our wallets is GTA: Vice City. What was more than likely meant to be presented as a spin-off from the open-world formula RockStar Games had established with GTA III, ended up coming one of the most successful games of 2002 and of the PS2/Xbox era.
This was assisted by the titular setting of Vice City. Based in Miami, GTA: Vice City shamelessly brandished its inspirations either out in the open or by way of little, tucked away Easter eggs. Vice City, for such a comparatively small location in the GTA lineage, has such an outstanding sense of place. Its diversity – from the slums of Little Haiti, the mansions of Star Island and the glitzy hotels and bars of Vice Strip – is what lends such strength to Vice City.
You are also able to ground yourself in Vice City by purchasing businesses, such as a failing taxi firm or a movie studio that produces films of the more mature variety. Doing so puts the money you earn from completing missions to good use for once and provides further content to play through. Such care was taken in crafting Vice City its hard to believe that it came just one year after GTA III came on the scene.
2) GTA V
The hype for GTA V was unreal back in 2013. It was all people who played and covered videogames talked about. It was, by all accounts, a sprawling monster of a game. If GTA IV was RockStar Games’ underwhelming debut into the seventh generation of consoles, GTA V was their grand curtain call – their triumph.
GTA V focused on recreating the city of Los Santos and its surrounding areas – the woodlands and desert. The city of Los Santos is a densely packed metropolis; filled with life in all its stinking glory. Los Santos appears to have a constant haze in its skyline, reminiscent of its real-life counterpart, Los Angeles. Travel north of the city, past the Vine Wood sign, and you’re met with the rural parts of the state where the vibe changes dramatically. The ‘hustle and bustle’ of Los Santos is left behind and everything looks serene and calm, but just like everything in the GTA universe, there are just as many nefarious characters and activities to find in the countryside as there are in the city.
The living and breathing sensation of GTA V’s setting doesn’t stop with the contrast between each area; the world feels dynamic with the multitude of interactions you can encounter. At any given moment, you will be presented with the opportunity to chase down a crook who just stole a woman’s handbag – to either keep or return – or talk to a paparazzo hiding in a motel bin and, ultimately, end up helping him take some elusive photos. Most of these activities end shortly after they start and some turn into ongoing missions. Such is the beauty of GTA V’s Los Santos – it never seems to switch off.
1) GTA: San Andreas
As impressive as it was to see the improvement between GTA III and Vice City, the two year difference between Vice City and San Andreas wielded staggering returns, given just how much RockStar managed to achieve.
GTA: San Andreas gave us a whole state to explore, with the cities of Los Santos and the surrounding rural areas; San Feiro and Las Venturas and its own surrounding desert. For its time, GTA San Andreas was a hulking giant, with so much to see and do it felt overwhelming sometimes. You could spent hours playing in the different casinos of the Las Venturas strip or completing street races in Los Santos. Even obtaining your own touring bike – fully upgradable in one of the many body shops – and taking it for a spin in the rolling hills of the country side or the vast desert highways with a bit of good old country music, if you want a more relaxed experience.
There has not been a GTA game since that was so ambitious with how much it tried to pack into its game map. For the next GTA game, RockStar should return to the idea of having an interconnected state to explore, or even a country to roam around, to give us that sense of freedom that GTA games embody so effortlessly.