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After the runaway success of the first Grand Theft Auto in 1997, DMA Design—now known as Rockstar North—had to keep the momentum going with a sequel. Grand Theft Auto 2 was released in 1999 and refined the freeform structure that made the original such a hit, but with a wildly different visual style and a new respect system. Reviews were mixed and sales were lower than expected, but it was an important step towards the series’ influential leap to three dimensions with Grand Theft Auto 3 in 2001.
While the first game features contemporary caricatures of New York, San Francisco, and Miami, Grand Theft Auto 2 takes place in the entirely fictional Anywhere City, a retro-futuristic metropolis with a bleak, dystopian atmosphere. Promo material for the game describes it as “a fully dysfunctional urban hell” and explains that the artists modelled the city on apocalyptic visions of the future from the ’70s and ’80s movies This is an early example of cult cinema, particularly from America, influencing Rockstar’s games.
The vehicles are especially stylish, taking vintage ’50s designs—all curves, chrome, and giant grills—and giving them a futuristic twist. “As if Havana got transported to the 21st Century,” says the game’s charmingly retro Flash-based website, which is still available online, almost 20 years later. It’s the most heavily stylised and visually imaginative game in the series, representing a curious digression before the studio eventually settled on Grand Theft Auto being a satirical parody of the worst of modern pop culture.
But there are traces of the wry satire that would come to define the series, mostly on the tongue-in-cheek radio stations that play when you enter a vehicle. There are 11 in total, some of which can only be heard in certain parts of the city, playing a variety of music recorded especially for the game. And between the songs there are puerile commercials advertising fictional products, which would eventually become a series staple, including ‘Orgasmo’ chocolate bars (“Cold, hard, and surge after surge of creamy caramel”) and ‘Lad Rover’ SUVs (“A fanny magnet women just can’t avoid”).
Not exactly Rockstar’s sharpest satire, but it’s interesting to see (well, hear) an important part of the series slowly taking shape. In fact, the whole game almost feels like a prototype for the series’ transition to 3D. It expands on the wanted system, bringing in SWAT teams, roadblocks, and the military when you cause enough mayhem. The AI is smarter, which means fights can break out between the police and gangs, and sometimes you’ll even be pulled out of a car you’ve attempted to steal by its furious owner. We take this stuff granted in GTA today, but in 1999 it was all brand new. You can see the first seeds being planted for the anarchic, emergent AI interactions that would make Los Santos feel so vibrant and alive in GTA 5.
There are six wanted levels, represented by the floating heads of police officers at the top of the screen. A minor crime (at least in GTA terms), such as murdering a few pedestrians, gets you one star and a police chase. Keep killing folk and you’ll escalate to two, then three, which sends more cops after you and more aggressively. But it’s when you hit four heads that things get dicey. SWAT vans carrying four heavily armoured officers will come at you. At five heads ‘special agents’ (the FBI, basically) with silenced machine guns are sent in. Then, finally, at six heads the national guard will be mobilised, throwing tanks and armoured cars at you. By this point it’s a miracle if you survive for more than a few minutes, but there’s a thrill in seeing how long you can last when the city is throwing everything it has at you. And, of course, you can drive a tank yourself and unleash your very own symphony of explosions.
Even two years after the first game was released, being able to freely roam the map and tackle missions in almost any order you wanted was still a novelty. As was the addition of bonus missions and optional objectives, like the infamous Kill Frenzies (later ‘rebranded’ as Rampages) that challenge you to kill X amount of people in X amount of time with X weapon. The map was also littered with spinning tokens, a precursor to the hidden packages, pigeons, and radioactive waste in later sequels. Yes, even at this early stage open world games were filling their maps with arbitrary collectibles.
Reading reviews from the time, every single one of them (including our own) criticises the visuals. The real-time lighting effects and sharper sprites are an improvement on the original, but it’s still fairly ugly, even by 1999 standards. Something the developer actually addresses on the game’s website. “We spend time on gameplay rather than throwing millions of polygons around,” it says, predicting the critics. “We’ve got complex, interactive AI and fun, elaborate missions.” It adds that while a “typical game these days” will use 70% of its processor time on visuals, GTA 2 has an “emphasis on content, with 50% used for game code”. A rare time when Rockstar wasn’t at the forefront of technology.
But of all the systems GTA 2 experiments with, the respect meter is the most interesting and ambitious. Seven colourful gangs rule the city and its various districts, and your standing with them constantly changes as you play the game.
The Zaibatsu Corporation and the Loonies, for example, are arch rivals, which means completing jobs for one will offend the other and alter your respect. And some gangs won’t even offer you any work until you’ve spilled the blood of a competitor. A meter at the top-left of the screen lets you keep tabs on what each group thinks of you, and some of the most lucrative missions are only available if you have maximum respect.
Anywhere City is split into three districts: Commercial, Industrial, and Residential. There’s a relatively safe neutral zone in each district, but most of the city has been carved up between the gangs. So if you’re currently an enemy of the Yakuza because you’ve been helping out the Zaibatsu Corporation, straying into their territory will cause them to attack you. And if they really hate you, they’ll be packing more powerful weapons. This can make traversing the city a chore, but it does at least give the respect system some weight. Your allegiances affect the game in a direct, meaningful way.
Further evidence of Rockstar’s love of cinema is the fact that GTA 2 opens with an actual film. Well, excerpts from one at least. The live-action intro sequence is in fact made up of clips from a short movie Rockstar produced to promote the game. It was directed by Alex De Rakoff, a music video director with a few feature films under his belt, and shot on the streets of New York City. It follows silly-named criminal Claude Speed (played by Scott Maslen, who UK soap opera fans may recognise as EastEnders’ Jack Branning) as he engages in various illicit activities, and it’s actually pretty entertaining, with a great soundtrack by influential drum-and-bass label Moving Shadow.
As well as being a fast-moving collection of GTA moments, like our hero popping into the pay-and-spray to throw off the cops, it’s also an example of how the respect system works. We see Speed working for various gangs, playing them against each other, culminating in a bloody shootout as he strolls away unscathed. But then a assassin catches up with him and puts a bullet in his head. He can always respawn.
Today, Rockstar games has such a clear, confident vision. Everything is pitch perfect, from the art to the music. But GTA 2 is a tangled mess of themes and visual ideas, and by far the weirdest, most offbeat game in the entire Grand Theft Auto series. But that’s what makes it so interesting to return to. And it’s incredible that, just two years later, Rockstar made the transition to 3D and released the hugely influential Grand Theft Auto 3. They feel like they were made ten years apart, never mind two. GTA 2 is also tame by today’s standards, and it seems unbelievable that so many tabloid newspapers thought it was corrupting the minds of children back in 1999. The violence is totally absurd and cartoonish.
As much as I admire GTA 2 as a historical artifact, and a fascinating snapshot of Rockstar at a particular period of its existence, it isn’t much fun to play. It runs fine on modern PCs thanks to a tweaked version it released for free a few years ago, although it doesn’t play well with high resolutions unless you use a mod. But when you’ve tasted the delights of GTA 5, it’s hard to go back to the top-down era. The driving is annoyingly twitchy, the camera can barely keep up with you, and the missions are far too punishing. Back then there was nothing else quite like it, but now I can enjoy being a criminal in a free-roaming city in 3D with mission checkpoints, 4K graphics, and funnier jokes.
The modding project creating a tool to import Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV into GTA V has, sadly, shut down. It was the work of the team behind unofficial modding tool OpenIV [official site] but, after the fuss which saw the owners of GTA briefly shut down OpenIV with legal threats before making peace, they now say they can’t make it. Such a tool would be against the new Rockstar modding policy, see. But hey, at least OpenIV is back and its development will continue. … [visit site to read more]
Take-Two’s lawyers have allegedly shut down OpenIV, one of the main tools for modding Grand Theft Auto IV and V. The OpenIV team say they’ve received a ‘cease and desist’ letter from The Suits saying that OpenIV lets people bypass security features and modify the game, which violates Take-Two’s rights and must be stopped. And so, the team have announced they’ll stop distributing the tool. I’m sure it’ll still float around the Internet unofficially, but this is a terrible loss. … [visit site to read more]
Nintendo’s new console, the Swapsie, isn’t even out but word has already leaked of a PC port for flagship game Super Mario Odyssey. A new cut of Odyssey’s trailer shows the PC version, which naturally boasts higher-fidelity graphics and — goodness me! — Nintendo have embraced the ‘mature’ nature of PC gaming. When toonman Mario ventures into the real world on PC, he sparks fisticuffs with pedestrians, gets chased by armed police, visits strip clubs, and suffers terrible accidents. Oh, Mario! Sadly, the PC version also renames New Donk City (the best place name in any video game) to Liberty City. Here, wrap your peepers around this trailer: … [visit site to read more]
Decoding is a regular column about the games we love, and the tricks and traditions that make them tick.>
Oh shit, I pressed the wrong button and killed that guy.
It happens to the best of us. You could play Watch Dogs 2 [official site] for days without firing a gun, or causing a fatal traffic accident, or beating someone to death with a billiard ball. Lead character Marcus Holloway doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’d leave bodies in his wake, and the ease with which he can become a killer is jarring. Like so many of our protagonists, he walks through life with the safety off and his finger on the trigger.
Open world games, particularly those of the urban variety, have a violence problem, and it’s mechanical rather than philosophical.
A new Grand Theft Auto 5 [official site] mod will add the whole flipping city from GTA 4, the developers of GTA modding tool OpenIV have announced. Liberty City will be added to GTA 5’s world, rather than replacing it, appearing just across the sea. Crumbs! Given Rockstar are seemingly more interested in expanding 5’s multiplayer than its singleplayer, it’ll certainly be nice to have a huge new world to play in with GTA V’s toys. … [visit site to read more]
My introduction to the Ultima series was a late one. Having missed numbers one through eight for a number of reasons (namely age, and the fact my dad had a bizarre and exclusive penchant for pinball games a genre which in turn commandeered our games library throughout my childhood), I decided to pick up the Ultima Collection in 1998 at the behest of some series worshipping mates. This would get me up to speed, I thought, and would also grant me a sneak peak at the then upcoming Ultima 9. With ten games to play with, this was sure to swallow my free time, but what I hadn't bargained for was how hard I'd fall for the Collection's seemingly novelty cloth maps.
They were beautiful and I became obsessed. I'd spend hours poring over each game's respective blueprint before every session, and then push myself to reach the far-flung corners of their digital incarnations. I'd invent imaginary treasure hunts and would spend entire evenings recreating my own crude interpretations of the game's vibrant, colourful cartography with crayons and felt pens and coloured pencils. I was an adventurer, an explorer, a keyboard trailblazer and there was as much fun, if not more, to be had with a physical map than the actual games themselves.
Later that same year, my friend lent me his big brother's copy of Grand Theft Auto and I discovered a whole new world of detail. The Manhattan-like homogenous grids of Liberty City, Vice, and San Andreas were masterful, and I'd delight in rallying between the Pay 'n' Spray in Brocklin, the bomb shop in North Hackenslash, the hospital in Eaglewood. The original GTA's 'open world' was ahead of its time, but its concrete playground felt far bigger as I traced each journey with my finger before and after each playthrough. The connection I made between what I had on paper and what I could see onscreen lent this boorishly visualised cityscape an extra layer of credibility.
And then of course every game needed a physical map even the ones that didn't have one. I made bird's eye view reconstructions of my Theme Parks, Theme Hospitals and SimCity 2000's which, given their topdown/isometric perspectives wasn't all too difficult to achieve. Crafting the likes of Tomb Raider's Atlantis, on the other hand, and thinking my use of protractors and steel rules and speed squares made one jot of difference towards their legibility, was a different story/mess entirely.
As games became more sophisticated, in-game maps gradually begun to emulate my hand-crafted creations. Silent Hill 2's map is one which stands to mind. As fumbling protagonist James Sunderland makes his way around the titular otherworldly town, road blocks appear from nowhere, interminable holes form as if by magic, and busted locks so many busted locks prevent him from accessing certain areas.
When James first happens upon maps for each zone in turn he starts with a clean slate, but as he discovers said insurmountable obstacles, he draws the obstructions on himself much similar to how I penned my masterpieces in my formative years. Towards the end of Silent Hill 3, without spoiling its plot, one area's in-game map mirrors that of a child's crayon drawing. It's a real flash of charm in an otherwise horrendous setting.
Like instruction manuals, physical maps are few and far between in today's games. I'm part of the problem I rarely buy physical games anymore. But if I ever catch wind that one is bundled with a real life, hold-in-yer-hand map, then I'll almost certainly be first in line to buy it. I might even stop for crayons, pencils and steel rules on the way home.
It may be two Grand Theft Auto generations and 11 years old, but GTA: San Andreas is still very much alive. Its two most popular online multiplayer mods currently have a million or more active players between them one, Multi Theft Auto, had 616,000 players in July (up from just 33k in February 2010), while the other, SA-MP, oscillates between about 15,000 and 50,000 concurrent players. I went to talk to members of both mod communities to find out what keeps them playing.
Even as I begin the long process of writing about all of the games I saw and the people I spoke to at GDC, I’ve found a new distraction. The San Andreas Streaming Deer Cam is a live feed of a modded GTA V [official site] that “creates and follows a deer wandering through the fictional state of San Andreas”. The deer “is autonomous and will wander and respond to it’s surroundings, interacting with the existing GTA V artifical intelligence”. Over the weekend, the deer wandered through a gunfight between two gangs, caused a traffic jam during rush hour and evaded the police. This is the best version of GTA V.