GTA and Chums: A guide for our alien friends

So. GTA 4, then. You’ve heard of Grand Theft Auto, of course. You’re not old enough to be on the internet if you haven’t. If you’ve been playing games for long, you’ll likely be very familiar with the series, but I’m going to press on anyway, because GTA’s history is rather important.

A crash course in case you’re new to Earth: Starting out in 1997 as simple, even backwards-looking 2D driving/shooting game, Grand Theft Auto’s irreverent humour, lively city environments and freeform driving/shooting gameplay caught the gaming world’s imagination. As a lowly dogsbody for a variety of local criminals, the player was set loose in a city to carry out missions for them, or more often, simply cause as much havoc as you liked by stealing cars, starting fights, fleeing from the police, and generally being a bastard. The city, crucially, went about its business without you either way.

After a London-based spin-off and much improved sequel, GTA 2, it reinvented itself in 3D in 2001 with GTA 3, an ambitious, hard-to-classify action game that popularised sandbox gameplay and essentially confirmed its style of gameplay as a whole genre.

From then on, GTA was no longer a slightly niche novelty title, but instead one of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your outlook) and influential game series of the last decade. Every new release in the series is hotly anticipated, and just about everyone has tried to emulate its success in one way or another. Indeed, the “game” neighbourhoods of the internet went a bit mad when GTA 5 was announced last week, just as I was putting the finishing touches on the mod setup for this. Hmph.

The series continued strongly in 2004/5 with GTA San Andreas, which had a rather “kitchen sink” design, with loads of new features apparently thrown into a monstrously huge and varied game world. Its plot also took a somewhat more character-centric and dramatic turn, as opposed to the lightweight, naked parody the series had stuck with so far.

GTA 4 was released in early 2008 on the funsquare, to much acclaim. Personally, I found it rather boring and repetitive, although a staggering technical achievement, and it painted an impressively detailed and complex world. The story had definitely taken centre stage, and many of San Andreas’ details had been dropped in favour of a more ‘real’ and complex setting. It was well-written and acted, with a high standard of voice acting and impressive production values, but its cut scenes of drama and moral pontificating over immigration, American life, and reluctant murder didn’t really sit well with gameplay that encouraged you to freely murder hundreds of innocent people in between cut scenes just for a laugh. Oh, and you had to spend half the bloody game answering phone calls from sulky friends demanding you drop everything and take them bowling, the bastards. There’s such a thing as too much realism, right?

Its protagonist, Niko Bellic, was original and well-drawn, and will quite rightly remain one of the most famous game characters for years to come, but… well. I’d played Saints Row the year before, and that’s a series that remembers why everyone fell for GTA in the first place: It was stupid, senseless fun. It’s rather telling that the most fun I had with GTA 4 was watching the in-game tv channels, and later, repeatedly nudging a fat man until he fell over.

I know how it looks, but I assure you it thoroughly sends up its own ‘gangsta’ theme. Saints Row: The Third is due out later this year. This is a trailer for it (photosensitive epilepsy warning: It’s a bit like they’re trying to kill you). Saints Row is not a series that asks “why?”.

But back to GTA 4. The PC release came later, and was… turbulent. Plagued with bugs and other technical issues, it caused rather a fuss among the PC crowd. It didn’t help that it required a fairly monstrous machine to run respectably. Indeed, even today, three years on, it’s not going to give every PC’s hardware an easy time. Fortunately, I happen to have a pretty decent PC, and as a tip-off from Rock, Paper, Shotgun about a recent fireside sale of the entire GTA series happened to coincide with my pondering a new feature, I was able to put together a cunning plan.

I wasn’t overly fond of GTA 4, but I scratched the surface of its background world and was impressed. For all my complaints, I never really gave it a fair hearing. I criticised the game for what it wasn’t, rather than what it was, something I’ve since learned is seldom reasonable or fair. But I’ve since acquired a machine that can hack it, and discovered a variety of mods that have helped tailor it to suit my plans.

What are my plans, you ask? Well. I will learn to appreciate the time and massive amounts of effort Rockstar put into this world. I will do this by living in it, only this time, not as an ultra-rich, demi-mortal mass murdering crime lord, but instead, as just another poor migrant trying to get by in a strange and foreign city.

I’m going to play GTA without breaking the law.

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Filed under About Lady Liberty, GTA 4

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