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Grand Theft Auto: A Look Back At Chaos and Carjackings

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Posted by: Robert Workman

It’s kind of funny how something small can grow into something so large and cultural.  Case in point.  In the late 90’s, an up and coming team from DMA Design released a top-down over-the-top action game called Grand Theft Auto.  Since its release, the world hasn’t been the same since.  Millions of gamers everywhere have gotten into the pure thrill of carjacking, creating havoc, and just plain doing things criminal, and the series hasn’t slowed down at all.  In fact, it’s about to gain top speed, as a port of the hit Grand Theft Auto III is about to hit iPad 2 and iPhone 4S, and Grand Theft Auto V is mere days from revealing.

Let’s take a look back at how we got here, and what led to the controversial, worldwide powerhouse that is, to date, Rockstar Games’ crown jewel.

Grand Theft Auto screenshot

Back when the original PlayStation was still the popular format, Take Two Interactive ported the Microsoft DOS/Windows game Grand Theft Auto to the system.  Unheard of for its time in terms of freedom of movement and over-the-top violence, the game became a niche hit, though not selling in the millions of units that most GTA games do now.  Still, it built a good foundation, which led to the release of two separate expansion packs, both based in London and taking place in the years 1961 and 1969.  A Game Boy Color port also followed.

For the second game, Grand Theft Auto 2, Rockstar Games would retain the publishing rights.  The game got an expanded release on Windows, PlayStation, and for the first time, a next-generation console, the Sega Dreamcast.  Featuring a set of updated visuals (but still taking place in a top-down format, like the original), the game actually improved gameplay elements, depending on which criminal organization you were devoting yourself to.  Despite the futuristic setting, the game once again relied on “go anywhere, do anything” tactics.  The game sold decently and pushed Rockstar forward into making a third game.  Good thing, too, because this is where business really picked up.

At the time of its release, Grand Theft Auto III didn’t have much to compete against, though some people were concerned about the level of violence it contained, especially in the wake of 9/11.  That said, it didn’t stop gamers from picking it up and experiencing an all-new perspective for the series.  Rather than taking place in a top-down format where people where munchkin-sized, the game featured a trailblazing new 3D engine.  It featured a protagonist fighting his way through the criminal-filled Liberty City, seeking revenge on a woman that wronged him.  The game built upon its free movement structure by adding tons of things to do, such as cruising around for trouble with the cops, finding hidden packages, and performing stunt jumps in cars.  Released for the PlayStation 2, PC, and the Microsoft Xbox, it sold millions of units and remains high on many gamers’ top ten PS2 game lists of all time.

Grand Theft Auto III

With that, Rockstar began releasing successive sequels that followed a similar pattern.  In 2002, they released Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.  It took place during the 80’s and featured a star-studded cast that included Ray Liotta, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, and Philip Michael Thomas (of Miami Vice fame).  It gathered a great deal of critical acclaim and sold millions of copies.  This would become a trend for GTA games for years to come.

The following release, though, would be its most controversial.  When Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas came out in 2004, it brought a new urban theme.  Taking place in a fictional city similar to Los Angeles, gamers controlled a “thug” who fought his way through the city streets, gunning down rivals, dealing with a crooked cop (with the voice of Samuel L. Jackson), and watching his weight – we’re serious – in the process.  The game revealed a whole new open world to explore, including the option of skydiving off buildings.

The game sold remarkably well, despite some controversy with early copies where would-be hackers could access an interactive sex game that was later deleted.  The ESRB turned the rating around to an AO, forcing most retailers to remove it from shelves.  Rockstar quickly corrected the problem, and the game went on its way to becoming one of the biggest selling multi-platform games ever.

The series then moved to the portable front, where Grand Theft Auto Advance came out for Game Boy Advance, and performed very well, despite the competition from San Andreas (and being rated M for mature on a platform usually meant for younger audiences).  Those who owned a PSP, meanwhile, got to play spin-offs Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories, which held up remarkably well for 3D portable games.  (PS2 versions of both those games would arrive months later.)

Grand theft auto IV

Perhaps the biggest leap of all happened in 2008, when Grand Theft Auto IV launched for a new generation of consoles, namely Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.  The game became one of the biggest-selling game releases to date, and why not?  It featured a vibrant, new world filled with crime, side activities, and a compelling story focusing on Niko Bellic, an up-and-coming guy fighting his way through a redesigned Liberty City.  The new 3D environments and addition of multiplayer made this an instant seller across the board.

Following the release of GTA IV, Rockstar continued the saga with two new side stories, The Lost and Damned (focusing on a biker gang) and The Ballad of Gay Tony.  Both did very well on the downloadable format (through Xbox Live and PlayStation Network), and Rockstar later released the compilation as an Episodes From Liberty City compilation.

Portable gaming wasn’t left behind, however.  Rockstar Games produced Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, a wholly original GTA adventure for the Nintendo DS after it was announced at Nintendo’s E3 conference that year.  This game returned the series to its top-down perspective, but it featured much more detailed graphics than before, as well as an original storyline focusing on a man of Asian descent fighting to reclaim a stolen sword, a relic valuable to his family.  The game was later released for PSP (where it sold quite well, alongside the DS), and Rockstar even ported it to the iPad, as well.

Grand Theft Auto V GTA V

So, as you can see, Grand Theft Auto has come a long way in a matter of years, and the series is about to get stronger than ever.  This month, Rockstar will be re-releasing Grand Theft Auto III for a variety of formats, including iPad 2, iPhone 4S, and Android devices, in a stunning new high definition format.  Also, yesterday, the first trailer for Grand Theft Auto V announced.  It showed the new location and a few glimpses at the main protagonist.

Glad to see it’s still around…even if you think it’s morally wrong to run over a hooker.  Hey, maybe she asked for it, y’know…?

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