The last ten days have witnessed one heck of a war of attrition. On one side, yours truly - a twenty-two-year-old white male whose love for games is apparently only outweighed by a masochistic desire to self-inflict horrific gaming punishment. On the other, Grand Theft Auto - the fifteen-year-old great grand-daddy of one of the industry's most popular critically-acclaimed franchises. It's been a hard-fought war, with great numbers of casualties on both sides. Today, however, I finally beat the game into submission, and have just about survived to tell the tale of my great battle. Sit down and get comfortable, folks. This could be a pretty long story.
My first ever exposure to the original Grand Theft Auto was at the tender age of eight years old, when a friend from school managed to sneak it into my house. Despite being the very antithesis of the tear-aways that most eight-year-old boys are, I remember being captivated by the game's premise - being able to steal any car, go anywhere, and do pretty much anything you pleased as long as it didn't abide by the word of law. Neither of us had any idea there were missions in the game, but we were too busy shunting cop cars and blowing up passers-by to care. My mum caught the two of us playing it and threw my friend out of the house, horrified at the content of the game on the screen. Three years later, my parents now considering me informed and mature enough to make my own decisions on such matters, I was allowed to own a copy of this controversial crime-'em-up. Now a more seasoned player, the structure of the game became apparent to me - do missions, get cash, hit target, complete level - but I struggled with the game's imprecision and never managed to make it out of Liberty City. For me, Grand Theft Auto was a fun distraction - something to turn on for twenty minutes just to blow shit up, rather than a game I'd ever seriously think about trying to beat.
Fast-forward ten years or so to March 24th, 2012 - the day this war began. I picked Grand Theft Auto up on a whim, purely to distract myself while I decided what game to play after finishing Tomb Raider: Underworld the day before. I took on some missions, ran a few errands around Liberty City and before I knew it, I'd cleared the first of the game's six scenarios. "Hmmm," I found myself thinking, "Perhaps there's a possibility of me seeing this through to the end." I threw myself into the second scenario, and managed to beat that with relative ease as well. With the city of San Andreas opened up and my gaming adrenaline pumping, I committed myself to seeing this rampage through to the very end. After all, I'd just powered through the first two scenarios with no trouble at all. And with only four more to beat, how hard could it be?
It wasn't long before I started to regret making that commitment. The remaining four scenarios posed me countless problems as I stumbled through issue after issue. Some of these were the fault of the game - the imprecision of the controls and top-down perspective making gunfights near-impossible, missions hitting dead ends and not letting me progress, vehicles becoming stuck on something and refusing to come free, and the game completely locking up on me on three separate occasions. Some of them were my own fault - stupidly giving away lives, or needlessly getting arrested two or three times in quick succession and watching my impressive score multiplier plummet back down to nothing. Individually, and with the exception of the lock-ups, each of these problems isn't that big a deal. When you run into several of them in the same scenario, however, Grand Theft Auto quickly starts to verge on either impossible or unplayable.
I think these issues are compounded by the way that Grand Theft Auto was designed. It's very much a product of its time, a fact illustrated by the emphasis it places on high-scores and near-perfect runs. As a result, it's very unforgiving. Fail a mission and it's gone forever, no do-overs. Get arrested without a Get Outta Jail Free Card in your possession and your multiplier is sliced in half, drastically damaging your future earning potential. Want to save your decent progress at the halfway point of a scenario? Forget it, you've got to beat it in one straight run-through. All this makes Grand Theft Auto a challenging game, but also a very frustrating one. At multiple points in my time with the game, I seriously considered just putting it down and walking away from it forever. What's even worse is that I can't tell you for certain what kept bringing me back to it. It certainly wasn't the fun-factor, because taking the game seriously pretty much removes that completely. The best answer I can give is that I guess I didn't want this game to beat me yet again. I'd suffered that fate at its hands far too many times to let it get away with it this time. Thankfully, I managed to beat it before it beat me.
I may not have enjoyed playing Grand Theft Auto, but there's a lot to like about it. Having to rely on an actual map for orientation rather than simply following a blip on an on-screen mini-map made for an interesting change in a game of this type, as well as being evocative of my recent time spent with Skyrim and my constant references to the paper map pinned to my bedroom wall. Similarly, there was a rewarding element to the trial-and-error approach I found myself taking with the game. Every time I failed a scenario, I at least came away from it with a better knowledge of the map I was on - memorised locations of armour and Get Outta Jail Free Cards, which missions were easy enough to prioritise so I could quickly boost my multiplier - that I could carry into my next attempt. I extracted a lot of pleasure from learning the game, even if that amounted to just rewarding satisfaction rather than actual enjoyment. Another thing I appreciated was the level of detail that went into the game. Attention to detail is something that the later GTA games are lauded for, but I'd never extended that association to the original until now. Little touches like the radio fading as your car passes under a bridge, or each car having an appropriately-themed radio station, are incredible inclusions in a game that seems so shallow and facile on the surface. When everything else about the game had my face contorting into twisted grimaces, noticing things like that was usually enough to relax it back into a smile.
So there you have it, folks - that's the tale of how I vanquished Grand Theft Auto from my Pile of Shame. Now it's finished, I feel I can say with confidence and certainty that I'm never ever going to play it again. It's 1969 London mission pack and bona-fide sequel are still sat there, taunting me, but I think it's going to be quite some time before I'm ready to tackle either of them, if I choose to at all. My next GTA experience will probably be when I pick up Vice City towards the end of the year to celebrate its tenth anniversary. In the meantime, there are other (hopefully less frustrating) games on that Pile that won't play themselves! Thanks for reading guys, I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy XIII-2 (X360)