From small time crook to kingpin, the Grand Theft Auto series has come a long way.
It is fitting that Grand Theft Auto, released on PlayStation in 1997, should begin in Liberty City - a name synonymous with freedom - as the opportunity to explore the city and undertake missions how and when the player chose was a truly liberating experience. The loose plot progressed at whichever pace the player decided, and could be disregarded in favour of discovering the game's many secrets or simply hopping into a car and causing trouble.
And trouble was easy to find, as the local police force looked to clamp down on the vehicle theft and murder required to complete missions, ensuring the game was only available to adults. Police chases were by no means new to gaming, but the feeling that the player had initiated them through their own choice of action, and then had to make another set of choices in order to escape, added to the overwhelming sense of freedom. This idea of each action bringing about realistic consequences has become one of the strongest running threads in the GTA series.
In 1999 the sequel arrived, albeit after an expansion pack to the original set in 60s London. And while it looked a lot like its predecessor, Grand Theft Auto 2 contained a host of enhancements that gave the city - this time an unspecified location in the near future - an even more diverse population than before. SWAT and army troops were called in to bring an abrupt end to crime sprees and rival gangs controlled areas of the map and could be turned against each other.
The first two games featured relatively simple 2D graphics and many thought that a move to 3D was too ambitious for a game so dependent on freedom of movement and non-linear mission progression. When Grand Theft Auto III arrived on PlayStation 2 in 2001, the naysayers were roundly hushed.
An added dimension
The move to 3D resulted in a more realistic game in terms of visuals, one that retained not only the dark humour and satire of previous titles, but crucially, the sense of freedom and the feeling that Liberty City was constantly evolving around the player's actions.
A year later, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was released to universal acclaim. Using the same game engine as GTA III, it captured the sights and sounds of Miami in 1986 and featured a much larger playing area than its predecessor. In a move that typifies both the series and the decade that taste forgot, everything about Vice City was bigger and bolder; new weapons and vehicles were added and the storyline twisted like a Hollywood blockbuster.
Rockstar Games' reputation for slick presentation and some of the best satirical humour since The Simpsons grew with each game - by this stage Grand Theft Auto titles contained pastiches of everything from The Godfather, to Quadrophenia, to Miami Vice. However, its third release on PlayStation 2 redefined what was possible in the sandbox genre that it had practically invented.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas more than topped Vice City by taking place in an entire state as opposed to a single city. Its enormous map contained the cities Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas - Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas respectively - as well as the countryside, desert and mountain ranges in-between.
Set in the early nineties and loosely inspired by films such as Boyz n the Hood, it was a gritty departure from the purple velvet and disco lights of Vice City, which had been noted for its resemblance to the film Scarface.
A return to Liberty City
While Vice City and San Andreas are both too impressive in their own right to be considered expansion packs, Rockstar refused to regard them as full sequels to GTA III; the public would have to wait until 2008 to see what Grand Theft Auto IV - the first in the series on PlayStation 3 - could do to live up to its own rapidly accelerating hype.
In the meantime, Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories appeared on PSP, both featuring brand new stories and missions based around the settings and characters of GTA III and Vice City respectively. Critics hailed the titles for fully realising the Grand Theft Auto experience on PSP and they were so popular that they were also released on PlayStation 2.
Then in April 2008, following months of speculation and excitement, GTA IV launched to an unprecedented level of commercial success and critical hyperbole.
The epic tale of Niko Bellic's life in Liberty City improved on almost every aspect of its predecessors and featured incredibly detailed High Definition graphics, thanks to the power of PlayStation 3, and wonderful creative flourishes such as the incorporation of mobile phones, television channels and a fictional Internet.
A decade later
In the 11 years between the original Grand Theft Auto and its third sequel (or eighth, depending on how you look at it), a lot has changed in Liberty City. Increasingly powerful hardware, larger storage devices and increasing production budgets have all contributed towards better looking games with cutting-edge character animation and Artificial Intelligence.
However, revisit the original and you'll see how many crucial elements have been there from the start. Dark, satirical humour littered both spoken and radio dialogue; missions were inventive and varied, often parodying popular films; and most importantly, the player constantly felt that their character was only as important as the evolving world around them.
Rockstar's latest is a stunning achievement both technically and creatively, setting a new gaming benchmark in terms of visual detail, freedom of action and storytelling flair. And in two of these aspects, it resembles the original Grand Theft Auto more than many people realise. At the core of both games is the idea that in a chaotic world, the player's actions still bring about logical consequences.
GTA IV is the perfect tribute to its oldest ancestor; to a brilliantly realised concept that, more than a decade later, still captures the imaginations of gamers.
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