Developed by Rockstar North, the Grand Theft Auto franchise has spanned a decade and shaped video game culture arguably more than any other series in that time, generating spectacular critical acclaim for some of its titles as well as public controversy, in equal measure. The franchise was one of the first to provide a completely open-ended environment, even from its initial iterations, and has built upon those roots to produce it's latest title, Grand Theft Auto IV, bringing in over 500 million dollars and selling six million units within its first week.
Original Release Date: 1997
Platforms: PS1, PC, Game Boy Color
Developed by Rockstar North, the original Grand Theft Auto was released in 1998, at a time in which gaming hadn't yet hit mainstream American society. GTA left it's mark as it was one of the few games at the time which rewarded criminal or anarchistic behavior (others of the era included Postal and Carmageddon), and for being unabashedly violent. GTA uses a strict top-down point of view, with the camera set about 40 or 50 feet above the ground and locked on the player's character who always stayed in the center of the screen. There is a chapter system which places players in the role of one of eight different characters across three cities - Liberty City, San Andreas, and Vice City. The game focuses more on the completion of stand-alone missions in each chapter rather than any substantial overarching narrative. In each city, the player is given the goal of earning a specific amount of money, which can be done in any number of ways: killing people, blowing up cars, stealing cars and selling them, completing missions for a variety of criminals and low-lifes, even rapidly killing lines of jogging Hare Krishna monks (which the game enthusiastically calls a GOURANGA!). Players can also use their own music in the game in place of the seven radio stations, and the PC version allows for multiplayer gameplay over a network. Two mission pack expansions were later released:
- Grand Theft Auto: London 1969
Instead of taking place in a fictional city inspired by one or more real locations, this mission pack simply took place in London, England, and is one of only two GTA games to explicitly take place in a real city (the other being GTA London, 1961). GTA: London 1969 was released two years after the first game for multiple platforms, and was built on the same engine, reusing the same format of mission-structured gameplay inside a non-linear sandbox environment.
- Grand Theft Auto: London 1961
Coming only two months after its predecessor, London 1961 was released to GTA fans as a free download from the Rockstar North website, only for the PC version of GTA. London 1961 provided players with new missions, 22 new vehicles to drive, a new cutscene, and a single new multiplayer map for deathmatch based on Manchester, England.
Original Release Date: 1999
Platforms: PS1, PC, Game Boy Color, Dreamcast
Released a few months after London 1961, Grand Theft Auto 2 was launched on multiple platforms (Dreamcast, Game Boy Color, PlayStation, PC). Years later, Rockstar released the PC version of GTA 2 as freeware on their website. GTA 2 is set in a huge metropolis called Anywhere City, puts players in the role of Claude Speed, an ex-con released from prison after being awoken from cryogenic suspension. Claude has one goal on his mind: to become the King of Anywhere City, through any means necessary. GTA 2 included several "firsts" for the franchise, including the implementation of a story and plot based on a singular character, use of day and night modes (which would later be expanded on in Grand Theft Auto III as a day/night cycle), as well as the first inclusion of some recurring elements of future games, like the Zaibatsu Corporation and several different criminal organizations that the player must deal with throughout the course of the game (Yakuza, Russian Mafia).
Original Release Date: October 22, 2001
Platforms: PS2, PC, Xbox
Released to much anticipation in 2001, Grand Theft Auto III represented a significant shift in the franchise, with major ramifications for gaming as a whole. It pushed the medium to new graphical and technical heights, massively popularized its style of open-ended sandbox gameplay, and grabbed the attention of the non-gaming press for its excessive violence. While initially depicted from a top-down point of view, Liberty City was now reimagined as a vibrant, enormous, and fully 3D world, filled with people going about their business by car and on foot. Players took on the role of a nameless protagonist (retroactively named Claude in GTA: San Andreas), who, after robbing a bank with his girlfriend, is betrayed by her, shot, and left for dead. He's subsequently arrested, convicted, and sent to prison. The player escapes during an attack on a police convoy aimed at freeing an unrelated prisoner, and runs off with a fellow escapee, who puts the player in touch with the right people, starting him on a life of crime as a thug for various Liberty City gangs, criminal syndicates and powerful individuals.
Grand Theft Auto III was notoriously attacked by mass media outlets for having excessive violence, allowing the player to kill police officers, old women, and just about anyone else that could be found in the game. (It didn't help that the game was released around the time of the September 11th attacks). Of particular moral outrage was the ability of the player to pick up and have sex with a prostitute (implied through sound effects and the car rocking back and fourth), and then optionally kill the prostitute to recollect his money. As a result of the controversies over GTA III's mature content, the game was banned in Australia, and gave renewed impetus to studying, debating, and often decrying the effect of violent media on children and society at large.
Original Release Date: April 29, 2008
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Giant Bomb Review: (Jeff Gerstmann)
GTA IV once again returns players to Liberty City, only in the most detailed version yet, built to resemble New York City. GTA IV integrated several recent advances in technology, including Rockstar's new and revamped RAGE engine (previously used for Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis) and Euphoria physics and motion technology. The player takes on the role of one Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant and veteran of the Bosnian War, who travels to Liberty City in search of the American Dream. After he arrives in Liberty City, however, he discovers that the letters sent to him by his cousin regarding the ease of life, abundance of money and decadent luxury of the west were all lies, and Niko sets out on his true goal, to find and kill a certain "special someone". The franchise has undergone a significant change in this latest iteration, with an exceptionally strong and critically acclaimed story, advanced vehicle physics and pedestrian behavior, re-worked third-person combat gameplay, and for the first time on consoles, online multiplayer content. While the game was released simultaneously for both Xbox 360 and PS3, the Xbox 360 is known to have more additional downloadable content.
Lost and Damned
Players take control of Johnny Klebitz, the vice president of The Lost motorcycle club, in a long lasting feud with the Angels Of Death biker gang. The DLC comes with a brand new storyline (that occasionally intertwines with Niko's story), new weapons, new songs, multiplayer game modes, and more.
The Ballad of Gay Tony
Giant Bomb Review: (Ryan Davis)
The second DLC pack for Grand Theft Auto IV. Players take control of Luis Lopez as they help legendary night club owner "Gay" Tony to keep his buisnesses afloat and his head attached to his body. This DLC has a new story, new characters, new weapons, new songs, mulitplayer modes and even more outlandish gameplay features such as base jumping.
Original Release Date: October 27, 2002
Platforms: PS2, PC, Xbox
The success and popularity of Grand Theft Auto III led to the production of a sequel, set in Vice City (modeled after Miami, Florida), set in the year 1986. Developed in an enhanced version of GTA III's engine, Vice City similarly depicted an active, vibrant city, dotted with skyscrapers, hotels, pedestrians, various businesses, and vehicles. In GTA: Vice City, players take on the role of mafia thug Tommy Vercetti, originally a Liberty City-based mobster, recently released from prison and sent to Vice City to oversee a drug deal. Half-way through the deal, the participating parties are ambushed, with the attacker making off with both the drugs and the money. Tommy vows to retrieve the money or die trying. As Tommy tries to find out who stole his money and how to get it back, he gets involved in several avenues of "business" that allow him to rise up and form his own crime syndicate. GTA: Vice City was noted for having many more vehicles the player could control (including helicopters, motorcycles, and boats), as well as several graphical improvements over its predecessor, including better lighting and sharper textures. Several modifications adding multiplayer over the internet were released for the PC version, and the game was just as if not more controversial then GTA III, being cited for racism and inciting genocide against Cubans and Haitians.
Original Release Date: October 26, 2004 Platforms: PS2, PC, Xbox, Xbox 360 (Games On Demand)
Probably the most controversial game in the franchise, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is also the largest in scope. Players fill the shoes of Carl "CJ" Johnson, as he returns home from Liberty City and slowly picks apart the reasoning behind his mother's murder while establishing a small criminal empire based around the revitalization of his old gang as well as various businesses and individuals he encounters throughout the course of the game. Unlike previous titles, which occurred within the confines of a single city, San Andreas represents the borders of an entire state, made to represent parts of California and Nevada. The player travels between three cities, each of which corresponds to a real location. Los Santos (Los Angeles), San Fierro (San Francisco), and Las Venturas (Las Vegas). GTA: San Andreas is noted for having even more vehicles available for the player to control than Vice City, as well as diverse cast of celebrities supplying the voice for many important characters, such as Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Dick, James Woods, Peter Fonda, Charlie Murphy, and Axl Rose. Additionally, the game provided several minigames, allowed the player to participate in or incite gang wars, allowed cars to be modified, and let the player commit robbery in the form of home-invasion. GTA: San Andreas also included a diverse system of RPG mechanics, letting players increase CJ's speed and strength, improve his weapon handling and unarmed combat techniques, change his clothing and haircuts, and otherwise modify his appearance, to which NPC pedestrians will react differently, insulting or complimenting him accordingly.
- Hot Coffee
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas created what was at the time the most pressing controversial video-game issue to ever appear in mass media publications by inadvertently allowing players to engage in a crudely rendered, fully naked sex minigame, in which the player comes into their in-game girlfriend's house to get a cup of joe, but ends up engaging in sexual intercourse. This explicit mini-game was actually excluded by Rockstar, who accidentally left the source code in the game. Someone hacked the finished game and brought to light what is now called the "Hot Coffee" mod. Rockstar initially denied creating the minigame, but shortly thereafter versions making use of the Action Replay service for both Xbox and PS2 were released onto the internet, gaining the attention of several United States politicians, lawyers, parent groups, and social organizations, eventually resulting in the game's recall, modification and re-release. The re-release also coincided with the Entertainment Software Rating Board revising it's initial rating of the game to Adults Only (AO), making GTA: San Andreas technically the only mass-released AO title in the United States.
Original Release Date: October 25, 2005
Platforms: PSP, PS2
Released initially for the PSP and later for the PlayStation 2, GTA: Liberty City Stories took players back to the Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto III, but set in 1998, three years before the story of its predecessor. Players fill the shoes of Toni Cipriani, a mobster who recently returned to Liberty city after laying low for a few years as favor to Don Salvatore Leone. Gameplay changes are minimal, and simply serve to limit the size of the world and the number of controllable vehicles the player can use.
Original Release Date: October 31, 2006
Platforms: PSP, PS2
Similarly released for the PSP and later the PlayStation 2, GTA: Vice City Stories is a prequel of sorts to GTA: Vice City, and featured several gameplay changes that the previous releases (on any platform) lacked. For example, players were able to bribe police and hospital staff when either killed or arrested, allowing them to retain their equipment that otherwise would have been lost. Additionally, players can partake in an empire-building mechanic, allowing them to operate a variety of businesses on seized territory, including smuggling, robbery, protection rackets, and prostitution. In GTA: Vice City Stories, players are Victor Vance, a dishonorably discharged United States Army soldier. Victor takes on a series of missions for a variety of characters from previous Grand Theft Auto games, and ultimately confronts the corrupt sergeant that got him dishonorably discharged in the first place.