When I was younger I absolutely loved the Grand Theft Auto series. I almost certainly shouldn’t have been playing the games at the age I was, although most of the time my older cousins were letting me play and cutting my parents out of the loop. This was before GTA 3, back in the top down era, and I absolutely loved the games.
Despite the age rating for the games, I never actually found them that violent. Sure there was blood when you ran people over or shot them, but the game’s styling made it seem more comical than realistic; it was almost a cartoon in the way the consequences of violence were displayed.
Then came GTA III when I was a bit older (though still four years too young to be playing the game), and the series switched to the now familiar 3D perspective. Despite the more realistic violence and presentation my love didn’t vanish, in fact it increased. GTA III was a great game, plain and simple, and just as fun as the 2D titles. It was certainly a less ridiculous game than earlier games in the series were, but it opened up new avenues of destruction and new ways to play.
In retrospect it seems crazy that the next game in the series, Vice City, came just a year after GTA III was released; I didn’t actually realise that until researching this article. For me, Vice City was where my interest in the series peaked, perhaps because it felt like it was when Rockstar really nailed the formula for the game.
The biggest part of this is that Tommy Vercetti is a simply brilliant character, and was the first GTA protagonist that you were really given a reason to grow attached to. He was a genuine character with growth and a story that really progressed, far beyond any of the protagonists in earlier games. I mean at the start of the game you’re basically alone, trying to survive after your bodyguards have been killed shortly after your arrival in Vice City. By the end of the game you’ve fought your way up to being the kingpin of Vice City. Rockstar had given us a character we could really sink our teeth into and care about.
Given this, San Andreas should have appealed to me even more, it seemed to push things further and give you more reasons to grow attached to the new central character, CJ. I don’t know what it was, perhaps it was the simple fact that I’d grown so attached to Tommy or perhaps I’d simply moved on from those games, but I just couldn’t get into San Andreas and I never finished it. I’ve watched my brother play all the way through it and it seems fine, but it never really grabbed hold of me in the same way that Vice City had.
In fact no GTA game since Vice City has even drawn me in enough to make me really want to play it, the exception being Chinatown Wars, which had a sort of nostalgic appeal. I still pay attention to the series, and I’ve played bits of pieces of IV and its DLC, but ever since Vice City the series has never really grabbed.
There were only two years between Vice City and San Andreas, and I really can’t work out what happened to my feelings for the series in that time. What changed that I loved one game in the series, and then that love simply evaporated by the time the next game rolled around? The answer is probably nothing, and that may be where the problem lies.
It’s not really fair to say that absolutely nothing has changed in the Grand Theft Auto series, in fact Rockstar do seem to try new things and pull off impressive technological feats with every game. However, particularly in recent years, it’s starting to feel like GTA is being left behind, that they’re not evolving the game enough.
At the time that my interest in GTA was at its peak there was very little out there that was doing similar things, and nothing that was doing it to the same scope and as well as Rockstar were. That’s simply not true any more – this generation has seen the open world genre open up, with Rockstar broadening their horizons as well. It’s hard to argue that Red Dead Redemption didn’t open up new avenues for open world games, and the game generated the same kind of fervour that Grand Theft Auto titles do.
Then there’s the titles from other developers, your Assassin’s Creeds and your Sleeping Dogs, that have looked at things in a different way and put their own spin on open worlds. Even games like Batman: Arkham City have contributed to the growth of these games, something that seemed exceptionally unlikely five or ten years ago.
In the wake of that, Grand Theft Auto is starting to feel a bit stale. Despite the changes in San Andreas it felt a little stale in the wake of Vice City, and the growth of similar games hasn’t helped that feeling. What we’ve seen of GTA V certainly looks like it could be interesting, I can’t deny that, but at the same time I feel like we’ve seen a lot of it before, like you know exactly how 90% of the game will play.
That’s not always a bad thing, it can be very comforting to come into something and feel like you know exactly what you’re doing straight away. However, it can also leave you with a feeling that a game’s terribly old fashioned, that it hasn’t learned the lessons that other games have to teach. It would be like releasing a modern military shooter that had only looked at games before the release of Modern Warfare for inspiration; I’m sure it would be fine, but it would feel a bit dated at the same time.
When you look at games that are out now and, more crucially, games like Watch Dogs that should be releasing in a similar timeframe, GTA V has this feeling of being a throwback to an earlier era, like Rockstar have developed this game in partial isolation. That’s not to say they’re not trying new things, and the idea of three protagonists is certainly one of the more interesting concepts they’re bringing in, but there’s nothing I’ve seen of GTA V that really goes “You must play this game!”
Vice City gave me that feeling, and I’d love it if Rockstar could show me something in GTA V that brings me back to a position where not playing it is out of the question. But, for now, my excitement’s other places, and Rockstar would need to do something special to change that.