Grand Theft Auto – A look back at a classic

If one game was to stand-out from my teenage years it would be Grand Theft Auto. I’ve always claimed that it is not only the best game from the GTA series, but possibly the best game of all time.

In October I took part in a 24 hour gaming marathon and in the build up much of my hype was about completing GTA. However I failed quite miserably and before completing the second San Andreas campaign I’d had enough of the game. So is GTA not that great after all?

The first impression of games is always the graphics. Whether you like it or not, before you have chance to really explore the gameplay you are exposed to a certain level of quality. If they are stunning then there’s a sense of optimism and if they are dire then it doesn’t set great expectations for the game. Of course weak graphics aren’t a blocker, but they matter.

GTA obviously has dated graphics. Even when the game was released over a decade ago they were behind the times but that never fazed me then and to be honest, it still doesn’t. Okay at times things are a little too primitive and pixellated but everything is still pretty clear and there’s a lively and fairly cartoony feel to the presentation. The most direct comparison within the GTA series is Chinatown Wars and to be honest, I slightly prefer GTA. The quality may not compare to what is a rather lush environment, it is more colourful and vibrant. What’s more, the basic 2D sprites of the fast cars look a lot cooler than the models in Chinatown Wars.

On the subject of cars, driving in the original Grand Theft Auto is insane. The cars accelerate very quickly and have very high top speeds, which coupled with twitchy controls make driving rather haphazard but also amazing fun. At times you are going so fast that even if you could control your vehicle, your unlikely to react quickly enough. In Chinatown this is toned down somewhat meaning that vehicles are quite easy and intuitive to control. Initially this makes it a much more enjoyable experience but I feel some of the insanity of what made the original such a cherished title is lost. I must admit, I’m a bit of a speed junkie when it comes to driving and prefer an untameable demon of a car to something smooth and practical. For this reason, GTA yet again comes out on top.

Even comparing it to the main 3D versions of the game, I still prefer it. Some parts of GTA4 allowed for high speed driving but it was much more punishing, which was a bit of a spoil sport when all you wanna do is race around at 140 miles an hour. The awkward camera in GTA 4 doesn’t help. San Andreas was much better for driving and some of the big highways allowed for some good high speed driving. I certainly don’t think that the magic of driving in GTA is lost, but the move to more realistic cities and road layouts along with falling through windscreens has taken away from the “hold on for dear life” fun from the original. The bouncy physics is a nice compensation though! Well most of the time anyway.

The missions themselves were very simple when you break them down, just picking up a car and driving it from A-B (then usually back), following someone or shooting people. Whilst perhaps not as fun as the open world, they are still (mainly) enjoyably and provide a sense of objective to help prevent boredom. In truth, there isn’t any real difference compared to modern titles, however they are wrapped in a deep story and layered with cut scenes to hide the fact that you’re doing pretty basic things over and over. Whilst I feel that it works well in most action titles, it felt a little disjointed in Chinatown Wars, breaking away to the stills with text. In all honesty though, there’s only a limited amount of context that I require. If the location, objectives and other various mission elements are well designed, I’ll enjoy it. To be honest not having cut scenes, in other words idle time when the game risks losing my interest, worked quite well. I’ve never really got anywhere with Chinatown Wars as the loading times and wait for cut scenes bored me. Perhaps that is due to the fact that I’m using a PSP, a handheld, something for keeping me amused on the go.

Whilst most missions were fun and worked well, there was a lack of clarity. The mission text is brief and wordy so as a result, I rarely read it. This meant that on a few occasions I shot someone instead of following them. Normally this isn’t a big deal, you restart and pay attention, but in GTA it isn’t possible to repeat missions. This is where things start falling apart. I’ll get onto the lack of save systems in a minute, but the issues with unclear objectives could have been solved using text along side the markers such as “KILL”, “FOLLOW” or “COLLECT”.

The navigation system did cause me a bit of grief at times. Many people are going to bemoan the absence of a map, mini-map and GPS with the player following one arrow that can lead to dead ends and massive diversions. I grew to like having to learn my way around and found it to be enjoyable trying to remember where the nearest paint shop was. Increasingly with the GTA series I’ve not bothered learning the layout of the cities or various shortcuts. It is a lot more enjoyable to learn where to go and you feel a greater sense of attachment to the city when you’re able to go “Ah, I know where North Guernsay is!” than just going where you’re told. The taxi system in modern GTAs seems like an admission that people won’t learn the city!

However there were too many times when I became completely lost with the police on my tail. When a game is as punishing as GTA with limited lives and no saves or repeating missions, you can’t afford to be driving around in circles looking for somewhere to spray your car. I think an in game full map that paused the game would be the ideal solution. It gives you a way to get your bearings whilst not providing all the answers.

I did quite like the way missions could be picked up freely and you weren’t nagged into doing something that you didn’t want to do. The game was very much “at your own pace”. In particular the absence of friends or girlfriends phoning you up to go out was very welcomed. Words cannot describe how annoyed I got with that! Roman from GTAIV make Mr Clippy from MS Office seem like the sorta chap that you’d invite down the pub.

One thing I really enjoyed that I’ve missed in recent GTA titles is the Kill Frenzies. I’m not sure whether they were removed because they don’t fit the more story centric approach of the games or they weren’t deemed popular enough but they provide a wonderful little break from things. I do however wish that you knew what was in crates before collecting them. Thinking you’ve spotted a weapon in a timed mission only to get a Kill Frenzy is a mixed bag of emotions as its great to find them but curse the timing!

The same applies to all pickups to be honest. In a hunt for a weapon before beginning a mission I managed to collect Police Bribes to lose my wanted level of 0, or using a full crate to top up one bullet for my machine gun, leaving me stick in the future. That said, I did like having weapons scatter about and exploring to find them. Ammunation does provide a handy go-to place in recent titles but I like the exploration aspect of crates. Perhaps a combination of the two would work wonders?

So its all been pretty positive so far. This doesn’t really explain why I failed to complete the game and became rather frustrated. The answer to this lies in the progression system for GTA, or more to the point the lack of one! There’s no save points so in order to achieve the points required it needs to be in one full sitting, which can take hours. Not being able to repeat missions means that having a bad half hour will not only be unproductive in terms of points earned but it also makes it even harder to reach the final target. To make matters worse, you have a limited amount of lives so if you screw everything up, its not like you can go nuts and try to cause as much havoc as possible because you risk losing whatever lives are left after failing missions. I don’t understand the benefit of lives to be honest. If its just a case of causing as much chaos as possible with limited lives, sure, but the combination of lives, open world and missions just doesn’t work.

This is why I never completed the game and became frustrated. Trying to complete missions knowing that dying screws yourself over twice takes some of the fun out, especially when you’ve put over an hour into the current campaign and don’t want to start over again!

GTA really needed save points. Without them, it will always be a game that I’ll have to use cheat codes to access the later levels although that said… the same is bloody good fun charging around with cheats enabled and unlimited rockets!

To be frank, the game is just sheer great fun. Just don’t try completing it, especially within a set period of time.

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