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SummaryLeading the way
The GoodThe games of the Grand Theft Auto series have been called many things: from a despicable, filthy videogame that glorifies crime and violence, to a masterpiece of a young art form. I have been a firm proponent of the latter view ever since I first laid hands on the demo version of Grand Theft Auto in 1997.
While one must assume that its theme of urban crime and gang warfare has been a major reason for the commercial success of the series, and no doubt the high production quality of the titles has had a large impact as well, I am convinced that its real strengths lie deeper, and they are evident even in this very first installment. The reasons why Grand Theft Auto has become one of the longest-running and best-selling videogame franchises ever are to be found beneath the surface. In a time when game concepts and genres seemed to have been explored almost fully, its very mechanics established a new form of gameplay. Something that worked so well that it spawned not only a genre, but a new way of putting players into a game. And something that the players responded to so positively that the games’ elements have been often copied, but rarely matched – maybe because numerous imitators mistakenly assumed GTA’s success to stem from superficial aspects such as the violence, the obscenity, the grittiness, rather than its deeper qualities, thus coming up with a whole slew of mediocre “gangster” games instead of new, detailed, and open game worlds.
Starting out as a simple technology demo showing a zooming and scrolling top-down view of a 3-dimensional urban environment, the developers at DMA Design saw the possibility of using it to simulate a complete living city, and use it for a new game concept. Tentatively titled Race ‘n’ Chase, the idea was for players to take the role of a police officer hunting down criminals. As we all know, things didn’t quite work out that way. The developers figured that as a police officer, players would be bound to a lot of rules. For example, they would have to be punished for cutting a corner across the sidewalk, because it endangers innocent bystanders. This would have collided with the film-inspired, action-packed chase gameplay the developers were aiming for. Hence the decision was made to reverse the roles, and let players control a gangster outrunning the police force. Mob missions were added later as a means of giving the game events some structure and background, which would prove to become an increasingly central aspect for later parts of the series.
Thus from the get-go, the centre of the GTA concept was the living, detailed, simulated city environment. Vehicles rolling through the streets and obeying traffic rules, pedestrians walking the sidewalks, a working public transport system, and emergency services that would respond to the events in the city – this was always at the core of Grand Theft Auto. It is why most players report that they spend more time experimenting with the game world than actually completing missions. The conscious decision to use a realistic city scenario instead of something more fantastic or futuristic, as with most other games of the genre, was very important as well. Most players were familiar with the theme, they knew what driving a car in a city should feel like, and how the environment should react to extraordinary events. Some of the ideas were still a tad too ambitious for the time, but no other game before Grand Theft Auto had ever come as close to a realistic, open, densely detailed and simulated game world.
Apart from the two central ingredients of the open game world and the reactive simulation, the designers’ love for detail was another main aspect for GTA’s success. These supposedly unimportant elements mean a lot of effort on the developer’s side, but in the end it is a main reason for its longevity, and why players spend so much time in the game world. Instead of taking players by the leash and leading them through the game’s storyline, liberal exploration of every nook and cranny of the game world is rewarded with little extras or jokes. In this regard, Grand Theft Auto pales in comparison with its own sequels, but within its possibilities, the levels are diverse and interesting to move around in. Power-ups, nice backyards, hidden areas and secret missions keep the cities from getting boring all too quickly.
Finally, the concept of freedom of choice has been consistently implemented in the game’s actual storyline missions as well. Should players choose to accept a predefined mission, and there is no obligation to, they are given instructions on what needs to be done, not how to accomplish it. Thus, players can really take advantage of the open world, and all the possibilities it gives them. Players are free, even encouraged, to think outside the box and find their own solutions. Again, this means a lot of additional effort for the developers because of the huge number of situations they have to consider, but it pays off in terms of player enjoyment. Each GTA player can find their own way of completing certain missions, and develop their own strategies, hence ending up playing a quite individual game of GTA.
On to some more technical aspects, many players criticised the game's graphics on perspective. This might be a valid point on the Game Boy or even the PlayStation versions, as the low resolution and colour depth really do not fit a game of this scope that well. However, the true-colour and high-resolution PC version is a joy to look at. Although the city can look a little bit too blocky at times, the textures are nice to look at and the cities all have their own style and personality. The top-down view is a wonderful thing and suits the frantic chase gameplay well. Of course, I can also only praise the 60-minute original soundtrack.
The BadThe camera movements could have profited from a little more tweaking. Too often, the car disappears behind a high building, or the zoom-out does not take place quickly enough, leading to unnecessary crashes because one cannot see far enough ahead.
The collision detection can be quite annoying. Unrealistic rebounds after crashing into buildings, the sometimes sudden and almost unpreventable explosions, and cars getting stuck in between buildings – these problems just happen far too often, and can lead to extreme frustration.
And finally, the lacking save system that has been so often criticised. I appreciate the fact that it makes the game more challenging. Too often, the "quick-save and quick-load" of newer games removes all the challenge, I for one can often not resist the temptation of this cheap strategy, even though it means I'll probably enjoy the game a little less. But given that a GTA level can take well over an hour to complete, the lack of a save feature is just impractical. I do not always have the time for a non-stop 2-hour gaming session, which often leads to me not booting up the game because I don't want to invest that kind of time. Make the player pay for saving the game, make it hurt, like in GTA2 where you have to spend quite some in-game money for activating the save feature. But don't just prevent players from interrupting their session. It's not nice.
The Bottom LineI have spent a lot of time in Grand Theft Auto. I probably know the streets of Liberty City as well as those of my hometown. The game is technically "tidy", although arguably unspectacular. But like the good old days of videogames so many of us fondly remember, it is the gameplay that just won't let you go. After 12 years, I still regularly feel like revisiting this wonderfully designed and simulated city, and just drive around in it a little. It appeals to the primitive fascination that made me play with my Matchbox cars when I was a little younger. It appeals to my love of old Hollywood gangster movies and chase scenes. It has memorable characters and nasty, challenging missions. And it allows me to play the game the way I want to play it.
Finally, I would also like to assess the GTA concept from a very, very distant bird's eye view. Personally, I see two main directions future videogames will have to explore and help develop. On one hand, new ways of telling immersive and emotional stories – with the media no longer in its infancy, it is time to find ways of really appealing to people’s innermost feelings, of making truly “mature” games. It has happened with movies, and it will have to happen with interactive entertainment. It is important to keep an eye on experimental developments in this area – projects such as Heavy Rain come to mind. On the other hand, there is the mechanics of game world simulation. Game worlds have to be believable, and to be believable they must feel alive. Giving players freedom of choice and simulating a world that reacts according to their actions is central to the interactive element which sets games apart from other forms of entertainment. After decades of largely linear games, it is hard to imagine where this could take us. But one thing is for sure: wherever tomorrow’s non-linear games will take us, they will owe much of their heritage to that little development studio in Scotland, who in the mid-1990s re-defined what a game world can be.