As Grand Theft Auto 5 is released, Ed Smith looks back at five series defining moments.
Grand Theft Auto is an unstoppable force. Though I could sit and work out how much profit it's made or rhapsodise about how it's changed the way critics look at videogames, it would be impossible for me to sum up, in one article, its total cultural impact. Go type the letter "g" into YouTube's search bar. That might give you some idea.
Now, on the cusp of Grand Theft Auto V, I want to look back on five moments that, for me at least, surmise the best of GTA. Some of these are personal anecdotes. Others you may have experienced yourself. Either way, they tell us one thing: Grand Theft Auto is a remarkable series of videogames.
1: Grand Theft Auto 1 - GOURANGA!
Before I got Grand Theft Auto, my only PS1 games were Rayman, Destruction Derby 2 and some obscure beat-em-up thing called Killing Zone. And although I loved them to bits (well, maybe not Killing Zone) you couldn't really do much with them. They were linear, straightforward games that didn't encourage - or warrant - exploration. GTA was different. From the word go, Rockstar, then called DMA Design, wanted to make that abundantly clear.
So one of the first things you could do was steal a car and run over Hare Krishnas. And I don't mean just two or three - I'm talking a whole procession. If you splattered all of them in one clean drift, an achievement message of sorts flashed on the screen, the word "GOURANGA!" in big, yellow letters. Puerile stuff which, understandably, drew a lot of attention at the time from the knee-jerk press, but this was Rockstar's way of selling their game. This hilarious, bloody - but optional explosion - of violence right at the start of GTA set the tone for years to come.
Compared to Rayman, GTA was something completely different. Even nowadays, it remains unique.
2: Grand Theft Auto III - The Dodo
Grand Theft Auto III opened the series up like never before. Where it was previously defined by pixelated pedestrians and impenetrable buildings, now Liberty City comprised dynamic weather, a diverse population and several interiors. It looks primitive now, but at the time, Grand Theft Auto III's city felt like a living breathing place. Nothing emphasised that more than the Dodo, a small, clipped-wing bi-plane that you could steal from the airport.
You'd need the low gravity cheat (right, R2, circle, R1, L2, down, L1, R1) to really use the thing, since trying to fly without it barely got you airtime of more than 10 seconds. But once you were airborne, the expanse of Rockstar's city was brought home. You felt free to explore. Cruising across Liberty in a plane exemplified the breadth and depth that the PlayStation 2, and GTA III, now allowed.
3: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City - Ocean Drive
Not a moment as such, more of a location. I guess this is a personal one.
A mish-mash of cities like Portland, Detroit and New York, Liberty City was an industrial kind of town. Vice City on the other hand had swagger. It was a cool place.
And Ocean Drive was Vice City's hottest spot. Modelled after the real Ocean Drive in Miami's South Beach, this sea-facing row of bar and hotels looked incredible at night. I remember the first time I drove down it, hair blowing in the wind, silk shirt unbuttoned, Michael Jackson's "Beat It" on the radio. It was an amazing experience. Even today, when I re-play Vice City, I always give myself five minutes to enjoy Ocean Drive. It's a case of stealing the right car - an open-top Stinger - getting into my best suit and waiting for just the right track to play on the radio. "Cars" by Gary Numan and Kim Wilde's "Kids in America" both work well.
GTA III was the framework, but Vice City, with its neon-lit throughways, brought the style. This is what Grand Theft Auto is really about.
4: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - The Los Santos Riots
As I've written before, I don't approve of Rockstar's attempts at satire. The studio tends to skim over issues. The Grand Theft Auto games present a veneer of social commentary that usually hides just more willy jokes and double entendres. I'm not keen.
But I think the balance was right in San Andreas. Set in early-nineties West Coast gangland, the game climaxes with a thinly-veiled re-imagining of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. These "Los Santos riots" last several in-game days and only end when Officer Tenpenny, a Rampart cop whose acquittal of corruption charges sparks the civil disobedience in the first place, is killed in the final mission.
And you know what? The riots are fun. They're a laugh. The normally docile pedestrians are out on the street nicking TVs and everything is on fire.
And what I like is how Rockstar didn't go all straight-faced. Instead of trying to forge political commentary on the real L.A., they created a fun re-appropriation. The GTA games are about committing crimes and getting away with them. It only feels right that GTA players should view the riots through a looter's eyes; as an opportunity to have fun rather than something to wring their hands over. San Andreas nailed that. The riot section was the best and most anarchic of the whole game.
5: Grand Theft Auto IV - Niko Bellic
Niko Bellic is one of the best videogame characters to date. Before Joel from The Last of Us, Walker from Spec Ops and Red Dead Redemption's John Marston, Bellic was gaming's complex man, a troubled criminal who you pitied and reviled in equal measure.
Where previous GTA heroes had been empty vessels - stock characters that were easy to admire - Niko was tragic and alone. He was hard to like. An aggressive man with a lot of anger and no scruples about violence, Niko was the lynchpin holding together Rockstar's cynical view of America. He was bitter. He resented the excess of Western living.
And so, for once, Grand Theft Auto's heightened satire, all scheming politicians and evil corporations, felt right.
Niko really worked. His embittered personality was allowed to bleed into every aspect of GTA IV's world, from the fat, breathless policeman, to the radio adverts for "America's Next Top Hooker." He turned Grand Theft Auto IV into a real character piece. Here's hoping GTA V, with its stellar looking cast of villains, can do something similar.