The Grand Theft Auto ready reckoner

An exhaustive look at the entire GTA series, complete with star ratings. Which is the best, and which should you ignore?

Few games have caused as much controversy as Grand Theft Auto, with only the Manhunt franchisecausing similar levels of hysteria in the tabloid press. Regardless of your particular standpoint in the violence debate, it’s easy to see why GTA is the poster child for parents against video games.

Basically putting you in the shoes of a criminal who thinks nothing of stealing cars, killing, dealing drugs, destroying property, selling guns and all manner of other decidedly dodgy pastimes, the game has sold millions, and GTA IV, the latest incarnation, is not only the best selling game of all time, but also the fastest selling piece of entertainment media too. With Rockstar still reeling from the whole Manhunt 2 debacle (which was a pretty damn poor game in the end), GTA 4 is just the tonic the company needs.

So, to celebrate the arrival of the latest crime fest, we thought we’d take a look at the GTA rap sheet, from top down to three dimensions.

Grand Theft Auto (1997)

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If only people knew back then just how big GTA would later become. The first outing for the series was developed by DMA Design (which is now, of course, Rockstar North), and was a top down affair.

With fairly primitive visuals (even for the time), the game let players take on the role of would-be criminal. Various characters were selectable, with the only difference being the colour of the protagonist’s shirt, and each was exactly the same as far as gameplay went.

Once in the game, the player had to earn enough points and money to advance to the next city, and the major way to climb the criminal ladder was to perform missions for a number of underworld contacts, which were received via payphones and messages on their pager.

The three cities in the game were, as would continue in the series, themed after real life American cities. They were Liberty City (New York), Vice City (Miami), and San Andreas (San Francisco). These cities would reappear in each subsequent 3D series sequel.

Gameplay was notably different from most games released at the time, and the freedom the player was given was a real breath of fresh air. While there were missions to complete, players could ignore these and simply go around stealing vehicles and causing total chaos, and could rack up points and money to help towards progression to the next city.

There were masses of cars to steal, from jeeps and bikes to sports cars and trucks, and the variety of missions, while nowhere near the later games selections, was enough to keep people playing. It was also pretty damn tough too.

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Along with the action was perhaps one of GTA’s most famous features – the radio stations. Depending on which car you got in, a different radio station would be playing, including pop, rock and even country and western. Songs weren’t real world music, and were composed by DMA, but they added a huge amount to the overall experience, and the feature would become a GTA staple.

Not the best game ever made, by a long stretch, the original GTA was really little more than a foundation for the monster it would become. But, without this breakout debut, we’d never have the epics to follow.

GTA: London 1969 (1999)

Not a proper game, but instead a mission pack for the original title, and to date, the only time the GTA series has stepped foot on UK soil. With the iconic London taxis and even Austin Powers-style Union Jack emblazoned sports cars, this title actually played out in London, and not a renamed fictional version as with the US cities of GTA.

While the location had changed, complete with Cockney rhyming slang and more stereotypical British characters, the game structure was the same, and players had to perform deeds for underworld types all around the capital city.

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Players who wanted even more London also found solace with the free release of GTA: London. An add-on created by DMA and released gratis to the PC GTA community. This introduced new missions and vehicles, but didn’t change the game at all.

The change in setting GTA London brought was welcome, especially for UK gamers, but the actual game didn’t really change, and as such, the game was still enjoyable, but hardly epic. “You’re nicked, my son!”

Grand Theft Auto II (2000)

Universally slapped down as the black sheep of the GTA crime family, GTA 2 moved away from the real world setting of the series and instead took place sometime in the near future. As the main character, Claude Speed, players had the single goal of becoming ‘King of the City’, which basically meant causing death and destruction throughout the three districts of Anywhere City, the location of the game.

Once again a top down affair, the quasi-future setting didn’t wash with fans, and although not exactly blade-runner, the move to more outlandish missions and characters didn’t hit the mark.

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This is a real shame really, as GTA II introduced a slew of enhancements that have since become standard additions to GTA games. First and foremost were the gangs. Throughout the game you were given the opportunity to accept missions from various factions. However, doing missions for one gang may upset another, affecting their relationship to you. Get on a gang’s bad side and you’ll end up being attacked on sight. Often, missions required you to attack a rival gang, and so a delicate balance was needed to make your life easier.

There were also changes to law enforcement, and while in the first GTA only the basic police force would chase you if you were caught breaking the law, GTA II added the extra threat of S.W.A.T. teams and even the army (and yes, you could find and drive fully working tanks).

The city was beefed up too, with pedestrians hailing cabs and rival carjackers and muggers plying their dubious trade (even mugging or carjacking the player, especially if driving an expensive sports car). And, the game could be played in two modes (on the PC) – noon or dusk, with the latter being darker, but featuring enhanced lighting effects. Later games would instead develop a night and day system that would transition as game time progressed.

But, despite all of these new features, little changed with the real core gameplay. Because of this, GTA II is viewed as the weakest entry into the series. But, oh, how things would change…

Grand Theft Auto III (2001)

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Now this is what we’re talking about! Under the new Rockstar banner, GTA III was, and still is, one of the most impressive evolutions gaming has ever seen. The gigantic leap Rockstar made from GTA II to III is quite simply, stunning, and no one would have believed that such a change was possible. But possible it was, and with GTA III, the gaming public were treated to one of the greatest games of all time.

As the nameless protagonist who’s betrayed by his ‘girlfriend’, Catalina at the start of the game after a robbery, players embark on a long quest for revenge. This means starting at the bottom and making your way through the various criminal groups to reach your goal – the death of Catalina.

Taking place in Liberty City, the first major (very major) difference this time is the leap into full 3D. From a third person viewpoint (or various other camera angles while in a vehicle), players are free to explore the city, steal cars, kill and generally maim their way to the top.

Once again various parties along the way offered missions, but unlike previous GTA’s where missions were optional (you could advance solely by causing chaos), this time the missions formed the basis of the game, and their completion was required to advance (except some of the optional side missions).

Missions were far more varied in this instalment, mainly thanks to the new 3D engine, which allowed far more freedom, and there were more things to do on foot (with some missions featuring plenty of on foot fire fights).

GTA III’s engine was so slick and smooth that it was a joy to simply steal cars and drive around the city finding unique jumps and collectables, and the variety of vehicles was impressive. The radio stations returned again, and this time featured a mixture of real world music and tracks created for GTA. These included various songs from the movie Scarface. The voice talent also rang in the signs of change, featuring some of the cast of The Sopranos amongst others.

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In hindsight though, GTA III wasn’t devoid of faults. The targeting system is one of the worst offenders, and was a clunky mess. There was also little to actually do in the world aside from missions, finding jumps and collecting packages, although emergency vehicle missions were enjoyable, especially the taxi service, which played like a Crazy Taxi mini-game. Indoor missions were also missing from the roster.

Still, GTA III is without a doubt a classic, and like GTA before it, was a great stepping-stone for later versions.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)If GTA III was the experimental prototype, then Vice City was the first, ready for prime time model to roll off the factory floor. Taking everything that GTA III was renowned for, Vice City upped the ante drastically. It featured more vehicles, including helicopters and motorbikes, and vehicle physics were enhanced, adding poppable tyres that certainly made for interesting car chases.

Missions were drastically improved, and the variety increased, including such highlights as destroying a building with a remote control helicopter toy, a bank robbery, and an amusing ride with a car bomb and heavy metal band, Love Fist. Oh, and although still pants, the targeting was improved, and there were indoor missions to spice things up.

A major focus of the game this time though, was the switch to the 80s, which, as the game is set in the Miami-styled Vice City, made perfect sense. As Tommy Vercetti, Liberty City gangster, you’re double-crossed by your ex-boss and have to recover from a drug deal gone wrong. To do this you have to work for, yes, you’ve guessed it, criminal types all over Vice City, eventually rising to overlord of all things illegal. Unlike previous games though, where you simply completed missions and moved on to higher-level bosses, Vice City actually saw the player become a crime lord. You could even buy property and businesses, forming your very own crime empire. And, after a pivotal point in the game, you got your very own mansion, complete with helicopter, swimming pool and army of hired goons.

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Once more the presentation and gloss didn’t fail to impress. Not only did the radio stations feature a ton of licensed 80s music (the soundtrack was available on seven CDs!) featuring such artists as Megadeth, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Kim Wilde, Ozzy Osbourne, INXS, Michael Jackson Spandau Ballet and many, many more, but voice acting was beefed up no end. Tommy was voiced by none other than Goodfella, Ray Liotta, and others to lend their dulcet tones included Tom Sizemore, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds, Danny Trejo and Gary Busey. Even Lee Majors played a part.

All of this was wrapped up in the excellent GTA engine and the game was a huge, huge hit.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

When Vice City was released, it didn’t take long for people to say that GTA simply can’t get any better, so good was the 80s themed incarnation. But, it was quickly discovered that Rockstar was working on yet another instalment of GTA, and that this instalment would be the last to use (then) current generation technology, and the game engine pioneered by GTA III.

Rumours flew around about the setting of the new game, with some suspecting it would take place in the 70s, and many suggesting that the location would be San Andreas, as this was the only location from the original GTA that the new 3D games had yet to explore.

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So, when Rockstar unveiled GTA:SA, only to reveal it would not only take place in the early 90s, but would also consist of an entire state consisting of three cities (Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas) and the rural and desert areas surrounding them… Well, people were excited, to say the least.

When we got the game, all that excitement was well and truly justified. GTA:SA was incredible, and surpassed both GTA III and Vice City by a huge amount.

The game’s protagonist, Carl Johnson (CJ), who left Los Santos to start a new life in Liberty City, gets a call from his brother, Sweet. Their mother has been killed during a drive by hit on their family home, and the Grove Street Families (the street gang led by Sweet, and one that CJ used to be a member of) have hit hard times. CJ gets on a plane and leaves for Los Santos, which is where the game begins, and it’s not long before CJ is framed for the murder of a cop by corrupt officer Frank Tenpenny, and is forced to do jobs for the dodgy rozzers, as well as help rebuild the Grove Street Families and find out who killed his mother. Phew!GTA:SA and the word huge really do go hand in hand. The world was massive and the three cities (themed after Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas) were all about as large as either Liberty City or Vice City. The countryside between them was huge, and included green belt forested areas with farms and settlements, a Nevada-themed desert and flatland rural areas. There were even small towns and factories dotted around the landscape too.

The game wasn’t just big in physical size either, and the number of missions and amount of things you could do and see also dwarfed previous games in the series. Add to this over 200 vehicle types, loads of weapons and far more variety in missions than ever, and you had a total classic.

But, it doesn’t stop there. GTA:SA added an RPG-like character-building element, and players could take CJ to the gym to tone him into a powerhouse, or alternatively, could spend time eating fast food, turning him into a rotund wonder. This physical change affected CJ’s abilities, such as his strength, speed and endurance, and as well as changing his clothes (introduced in Vice City), you could also get a hair cut, buy some tattoos and buy property (including businesses). There were several side games, including the usual taxi and emergency services missions, and new ones like robbery missions, pimping and even a fully functional pool game.

Controls were tightened up, with CJ now actually being able to swim (this was previously impossible in older GTA titles), and the aiming system was given an overhaul with standard FPS controls. Rockstar even raided Manhunt and included better melee combat, stealth and stealth kills.

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The ever-present radio stations were improved once again, with random playlists and plenty of 90s music. Voice talent included the likes of Samuel L Jackson, Peter Fonda, James Woods, Chris Penn, Ice T, Chuck D and Axl Rose.

There’s so many reasons why GTA:SA was so good, and very little to complain about. Yes, the world could be a little sparse, with much of the countryside devoid of anything to do, and most missions were a little on the easy side. But, this is solid gaming gold, and the best GTA of them all. Well, at least until GTA IV arrived…

Grand Theft Auto: Advance (2004)

Set as a prequel to GTA III, around a year before the events seen in the 3D title, GTA Advance stars Mike, a small time criminal who, with the aid of his partner in crime, Vinnie, intends to leave Liberty City (the setting of the game). Before they leave, they decide to do some more jobs for the local mafia to earn some cash, but Vinnie is killed in a car bomb. Mike than sets out on a quest for revenge, vowing to kill whoever killed his mentor.

GTA Advance, limited by the relatively low power of the GBA took a step back down memory lane and was a top-down affair, playing in a similar way to the original GTA games. Liberty City resembled its big 3D brother though, so fans would recognise various places, as well as characters, such as 8-Ball.

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GTA Advance was quite a good effort, and the gameplay was solid and challenging. Some cuts were made, such as the lack of radio stations (each car had a fixed, looping track), and missions were a little samey. But, for a GBA crime caper, it fit the bill nicely.

Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (2006)

Rockstar’s GTA reboots for the PSP started with this prequel to GTA III, and put players in the shoes or Toni Cipriani (one of GTA III’s main mission-giving characters). As a young Toni, who’s yet to rise to the power he had (or was that his mother?) your goal is to simply rise through the ranks of the underworld ladder, robbing, killing and being nasty to get there.

Rockstar started from scratch for the PSP incarnations, and used a different game engine (not Renderware), and tried to create a detailed and impressive world for Sony’s new baby. But did they succeed?

Sadly, I’ve never played the original PSP incarnation of this title, and have only had a chance to take a punt at the PS2 port. My opinion of said port is not good. The graphics are a mess, the frame rate is, quite shockingly awful, the draw distance is terrible, and the combat is laughable. Rockstar obviously rushed to port the game to the PS2, and from the looks of it, didn’t make any form of optimisation. The result was an awful title that is best forgotten.

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If you have played the PSP version, please feel free to agree/disagree with my opinion in the comments box

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (2007)

This was more like it. I’ve played this on both PSP and PS2, and this is a far better outing than Liberty City Stories in my opinion. Visually it’s a much better effort, and as you can actually see for some distance, both driving and combat are far more enjoyable, and the frame rate is much improved, particularly on the PS2 port (which was tweaked and improved for the console).

Another prequel, the game stars Lance Vance’s brother, the equally unfortunately named Victor Vance, who finds himself diving headfirst into a seedy criminal underworld, trying to make money to support his sick mother and the rest of his family. Starting off by getting kicked out of the Army, Victor is not only forced to work for the local redneck gangster, but eventually has to team up with Lance, who’s a little unhinged to say the least. And, as you may have guessed, this leads to non-stop shootouts, car chases, drug dealing, and a smidgen of business development.

While Liberty City Stories was a bare bones title, with little more to it than the original GTA III, Vice City Stories added plenty to the mix. The best new addition was the introduction of property development. Eventually, after the first few missions, you could take over a rival gang’s property (by attacking it and clearing it of gang members) and then turn it into a range of businesses, such as gambling, protection or even prostitution. You could then pump more money into these to make them grow and become more profitable, in turn earning you more cold, hard cash. A nice touch, especially as you had to defend your businesses against attack from rival organisations. Also added was a wide range of side missions that you could obtain from your henchmen in any of your businesses. These included pimping, protecting your ‘customers’ from rival gang attacks and even the ‘Beach Patrol’ activity, in which Vic must save drowning beachgoers, help a paramedic and get rid of troublesome biker gangs.

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While many preferred the original PSP incarnation over the ported PS2 release, both are great games, and whichever format you played, or plan to try, should entertain.

Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)

Grand Theft Auto‘s first next-gen outing is one that’s had more publicity than the upcoming presidential election – well, you’ve gotta get your priorities right, haven’t you? Expectations for the game were higher that any gaming release in recent memory, and the world demanded the greatest game of all time. Now that it’s been out for a bit, and people have played it, the question remains (and is argued about on forums everywhere), is it as good as we expected?

The short answer is a resounding yes, for the most part anyway. No, this is not a perfect game, and some critics have been a little overzealous in flinging around superlatives when discussing the title, but upon playing it, you won’t be disappointed. Any people who claim otherwise are either lying, or just don’t like GTA-style games, which is fair enough.

As Niko Bellic, an east-European illegal immigrant just off the boat, you’re welcomed into the astonishingly realised New York-inspired Liberty City in a way only Rockstar and GTA can do. Yep, there’s no tour guides, 5 star hotels or leisurely walks through Central Park (or Middle Park as the game calls it), oh no. No sooner are you off the boat than you’re running errands for underworld movers and shakers, breaking laws, killing people and generally causing a bit of a ruckus. That’s not to say the game starts with a bang. At first things are decidedly low key, with the game taking its time showing you the ropes. But, eventually things move to true-GTA territory, with car chases galore, tons of gunfights and a sprinkling of social activities.

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The first thing you’ll notice (aside from the improved visuals) is the control system, which has been radically changed in some ways. Driving in particular has been given a total overhaul, and the once unrealistic arcade handling that made it so easy to perform handbrake turns at speed and drive like a Hollywood stuntman are gone, replaced with a far more realistic system. Cars are now truly heavy machines and to take corners you need to slow down ahead of time, or risk ploughing into pedestrians and buildings. Each car handles very differently, with old bangers feeling like a brick on a string, and finely tuned sports cars flitting around the street like a dream.

This change in handling has come under fire from many fans, who preferred the previous GTA feel, but personally, I like the change, and feel it makes car chases and general driving more enjoyable. And, it does one thing that previous GTA titles didn’t – it makes you value any high performance cars you find, rather than taking them for granted.

Combat is also beefed up, and sees the return of San An‘s free aim as well as an improved lock-on system. Squeezing the trigger half way lets you free aim, and then pulling it all the way back locks on to your target. This takes a bit of getting used to, but it works very well. Rockstar have also introduced a cover system, a la Gears of War, and although not a patch on Epic’s title, it works very well and Niko can pop out and fire from cover and can even blind fire.

The mobile phone is a big addition, and through this you keep in touch with other characters. They’ll call you to offer you work, or even ask you if you want to go out for a drink, a game of pool, bowling and other activities. You can also phone them, sometimes triggering new missions, or you can ask them if they want to get rat faced, should you wish (with the best drunken simulation special effects ever) and if you get a girlfriend, you can arrange dates too. The phone also enables texts, and later you can use the camera function, which is essential for some missions. In fact, the phone is almost as much a central character as Niko, as the majority of missions and story progression involve this handy little fella.

There’s a mass of other features included, such as impressive stunts, the stunning lifelike city, improved police and car chases, a great collection of radio stations, the fantastic TV channels you can watch in your safe houses and even the 100 interactive websites you can browse on in-game computers, but you should experience all this for yourself.

On the downside, GTA IV is nowhere near as varied as San An, and missions, although all enjoyable, are a little samey after a while, and there are few that offer any real challenge. And, while the city is excellently rendered, and very lifelike, there’s actually not that much to do once you’ve got bored (and you will) of the social side activities.

It’s also a pain in the backside when your friends keep calling and nagging you to go out every five minutes. Melee combat is a little ropey, as usual, and on foot controls still need some work and responsiveness could be improved, as could the AI of other drivers which is possibly the worst of any GTA so far. I’ve lost count of how many times my nice shiny car has been rear-ended or smashed into, even when stopped at lights.

But, one of the biggest problems is Rockstar’s iron-clad reluctance to include mid-mission checkpoints. Yes, missions are easier on the whole, but you will die in some, which results in you starting the entire mission over again, including the often long car journey to your destination. You can use a cab to skip there right away, granted, but a simple checkpoint system would be welcome.

Despite these flaws, there’s no denying GTA IV‘s sheer class, and this is one hell of a game. It’s long, strong and very entertaining and should not be missed. Game of the year? It’s certainly the odds-on favourite at the moment.

Agree? Disagree? Head to the comments box!