At the time of this posting, it will officially be FOUR YEARS of service for me here at The J’. Four years. A presidential term. A college career. The entire run of a midlevel-yet-underachieving sitcom. But it’s not about me, it’s about the games we cover here, and for anniversary occasions like this, we like to cover games that have a certain significance. Y’see, ask a person under 25 about their first experience with the Grand Theft Auto series. The younger ones might say GTA IV. Some might say San Andreas or Vice City. Hell, the older ones might even remember GTA3. In fact, if it wasn’t for the suffix, you might even believe that GTA3 WAS the beginning of the series. The reality, though, is that the genesis of GTA actually goes back a few years beyond that, to the era of the original PlayStation, to a time before name actors and licensed soundtracks. To a time where you had to look at your car from the top down. A strange time known as 1998, that’s where we’ll find today’s project, Grand Theft Auto, by Take-Two Interactive and DMA Design.
As the title implies, Grand Theft Auto puts you in the role of a small-time hood trying to climb the criminal ladder, wreaking havoc across three towns, Liberty City (hey), San Andreas (wait a minute), and finally Vice City (that sounds familiar). Unlike the later games in the series, however, there isn’t a single overarching narrative here, instead, things play out in a more episodic fashion. There are two episodes per city, each requiring you to reach a certain target score by completing missions and causing wanton destruction. Stringing together completed missions without getting busted or whacked builds up a point multiplier, so if you’re managing to survive multiple jobs in a row, you can possibly finish an episode without actually having to complete all the missions. Unfortunately, you can’t save during an episode, and have to complete an entire run in one sitting. You generally get your assignments from a bank of payphones somewhere in the city, working for mostly unseen shot-callers, but other times, especially after completing a first mission, you’re dropped straightaway into a new one. In Liberty City, notably, you can also trigger missions by hopping into certain parked cars, and even outside of the main missions, you can rack up points by completing Kill Frenzies (similar to the rampages in later GTA titles) or by taking cars to the docks for export, with the payouts changing depending on how high-end the cars are and how smashed up they are when you get there.
As for the missions themselves, most of them are driving-based, picking up hot cars and stashing them elsewhere, being the getaway driver for bank heists, dropping off cars for pickup at the docks, things of that nature. Of course, there will also be some gunplay, as certain people need their tickets punched, but unfortunately, the combat here is DREADFUL. For one, there is no ability to lock onto targets, so you have to line up your shots yourself, and trying to make tiny projectiles line up with equally miniscule targets that move around a lot is not a very fun proposition. That’s also assuming whoever you’re shooting at isn’t attempting to fight back, as unlike later games in the series, you do not have a health meter. ONE SHOT is all it takes to ice you unless you have body armor, and even fresh armor is only good for three shots, which a machine gun-wielding thug can evaporate in a second if you stumble into his path or are standing still in an effort to line up a shot. On the upside, your enemies are just as vulnerable as you are, but the fact of the matter is that’s very little consolation when you’re being asked to wipe out an entire gang and you’re having to dance around to fend off 10-on-1 odds. Even worse, there are times when you’ll actually have a perfect shot lined up and the game just flat out refuses to count it. You’ll CLEARLY see rounds passing through enemies without actually doing damage, especially at point-blank range. It also seems like there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on combat in the first place, as there isn’t exactly a very large arsenal at hand here. You get pistols, machine guns, and if you’re lucky, flamethrowers and rocket launchers.
The on-foot segments are made even more frustrating because of some very ass-backwards controls. Neither the control pad nor the analog stick actually move you around. Instead, they just turn you around in place, and you have to hold X to walk forward. Now, granted, this is the same scheme that you use to drive around, but there, it at least makes sense, because you’re pushing the accelerator to move forward, slightly less so on foot. And speaking of controls, the driving is a little bit buggered by tank controls. Much like Resident Evil, left and right correspond to which way you’re facing, not relative to the screen, which is workable, but even near the end of the game, I would have brain farts at the worst possible time and accidentally plow into a building or another car instead of shooting down the alley while being chased.
Now, we should probably address the elephant in the room, the top-down perspective. Yes, it’s less than ideal, especially when you’re driving under overpasses or trying to drive into a building you can’t see the door of, but for the most part, it’s less of a hindrance than you would think. The faster you’re going, the more the camera pulls back so you can see what’s ahead, and you can see a decent bit around you, which is helpful if you’re being chased or if you’re on foot and a cop is sneaking up on you, because here, all it takes to bust you is for them to run into you, so it’s useful to have some kind of eyes in the back of your head. I also suspect that the top-down camera was less of an bad stylistic choice and more of an effort to save space, as it probably takes a lot less memory space to only have to design a car from one angle instead of having to render it in a full 360 degrees, and giving buildings a 2D look probably allowed the developers to lay out a much more elaborate city.
And if that was their intention, they definitely succeeded. Each of the three cities is vast, to the point that you will probably need either a map to get around or take some time to drive around to familiarize yourself with how to get around. You do have an arrow that points you in the general direction of your goal, but it’s not exactly a GPS, and doesn’t have any compunction about pointing you in the direction of a river or a dead end. Even if you have a map, it’s probably a good idea to drive around for a little bit before diving into the missions, because the only way to obtain weapons is to run over crates scattered throughout the cities. If you’re willing to travel the less beaten paths, you can also find other useful pickups like armor, get-out-of-jail-free cards that allow you to retain all your weapons and such after getting busted, multiplier increases, police bribes that eliminate your wanted level, and extra lives.
Yes, kids, you actually have to worry about running out of lives here, and getting killed wipes out your score multiplier and weaponry as well, which REALLY accentuates how annoying the combat system is, to the point it’s probably better to get busted than killed by the police. Speaking of the boys in blue, they strike a weird balance between being completely impotent at times to being incredibly dangerous. You can only achieve a wanted level of four in this game, so the FBI and the National Guard never get called out to stop you; the biggest step they take to stop you is throwing up roadblocks, and even those only appear on wide, four-lane roads. Yet, as I said, on foot, all it takes for you to get taken down is to have a cop bump into you. The police cars are insanely fast, and are more than capable of catching up to you regardless of what you’re driving, but even then, they just kinda bump into you from behind instead of trying to spin you out or cut you off.
You might also be wondering why I gave GTA as high of a score as I did considering I’m not exactly showering it with praise. You also have to remember the era it comes from. There weren’t exactly a metric ton of games out there that encouraged you to do dirty deeds in 1998, at least not as blatantly as GTA did. There weren’t a lot of games out there that used words like “shit” and “asshole” and had characters that talked like they were in a Martin Scorcese mob flick. There weren’t a lot of games that used black humor the way GTA did, giving you a dirty laugh in-between the mayhem. And there were virtually no games, if any, tying this all together by giving you essentially free reign in what felt like a living, breathing city. You want that car? Go steal that car! You want to shoot somebody without repercussions? Go for it! How do you want to navigate the city? Feel like climbing up the stairs and hitting the rooftops? Sure, why not? There’s probably something cool up there too! Need to wipe out a clump of gang members? Well, you can hop out with a flamethrower and burn them to a crisp, or you can rig a car with a bomb and park it next to the group! It may not seem revolutionary or groundbreaking to us now, but twenty years ago, this was some virgin territory, and playing through it now, I can see why the designers wanted to keep this franchise going for so long.
I had a much better time than I expected with the original Grand Theft Auto title. I’m not gonna bee-ess you and say it’s a perfect game by any stretch, or even that it’s on par with its later brethren, but I would say it’s still enjoyable to play through, and again, it helps to remember this WAS two decades ago and if anything, it’s a case of the concept outpacing the technology by a good bit. A lot of ingredients to the GTA formula are still very much present, though, and I do think it’s worth a playthrough, if for no other reason than to see how far the series has come, and it’s still a very important piece of gaming history in and of itself. The fact it’s a pretty competent crime thriller doesn’t hurt either; it’s certainly a better game than I feel it gets remembered for, and that’s half the battle right there.
Checks a lot of the GTA boxes right out of the gate, tons of freedom, three locales to roam around, lots of different cars to joyride in, with a nice sprinkling of dark humor.
The top-down camera and tank controls aren’t always fun to wrestle with, and the armed combat is both extremely difficult and unforgiving.