A History of Grand Theft Auto

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The game was originally called Race-N-Chase. Sounds innocuous enough, no? Yet it would eventually become Grand Theft Auto, the infamous driving game whose over-the-top violence and sardonic wit would make it one of the most loved (and reviled) videogame series of all time. Having celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, the franchise has just released its biggest GTA yet, Grand Theft Auto IV. XLR8R takes a look at the long, bullet-riddled ride the series took to get here.

Grand Theft Auto (1997; PC, PlayStation)
Devised by DMA Designs, the same guys that created cutesy hits like Lemmings and Uniracers, the first Grand Theft Auto was a 2D, bird’s-eye-view title that, aesthetics aside, set the template for every game in the series after it. As a low-level thug, you claw your way to the top of a criminal empire in a non-linear, open-city environment that allows for all manner of mayhem, most notably the ability to take control of almost every vehicle in the game at will. The radio-station element that would become a popular staple of the series was present here but on a much smaller scale. There were no “known” artists, and on the PlayStation version you only got one station per car. Despite middling reviews and the industry’s obsession with 3D games at the time, GTA’s freedom and mature themes made it a hit, setting the stage for things to come.

Music Notes: Music producer Craig Conner recorded the main theme, “Gangster Friday,” under the moniker Slumpussy.

Grand Theft Auto: London 1969 (1999; PC, PlayStation)
An expansion to the original, and the first GTA offering from the newly formed Rockstar Games, 1969 took players back to London (the only real-world setting in the series) in the swingin’ ’60s, with lots of Cockney talk and period vehicles. An expansion to the expansion, London 1961, was released as a free PC-only download a few months later.

Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999; PC, PlayStation)
Similar to the first game in almost every way, with a few notable changes: a different time of day, gang affiliations, and most importantly, some semblance of a story.

Grand Theft Auto III (2001; PlayStation 2)
Grand Theft Auto III took the series into a full-fledged 3D world, giving players carte blanche to do almost anything. It’s widely credited not only with launching an entire genre of mature, sandbox-style games but also propelling sales of the PlayStation 2, with Sony signing a two-year exclusivity deal with Rockstar. Everything from weather effects to celebrities were added to lend even more gravitas to the gameplay and narrative. With the exception of perhaps Super Mario 64, no game since has had such an impact on the entire industry in terms of design, production values, or controversy–due to the virtual bloodshed and implied sex. While the violence of the 2D GTA games had been addressed previously, the much more realistic tone of GTA3 sent the morally upright into a downright tizzy, ensuring it would sell millions for years to come.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002; PlayStation 2)
Modeled after Scarface and Miami Vice, Vice City took players to a highly stylized, Miami-esque world set in the coke-crazy ’80s, with even more celebrity voice talent and vehicles to jack. Though the radio-station feature was heavily expanded in III, Vice City was the first to really push the music angle further, with major ’80s artists such as Blondie, Kate Bush, Judas Priest, and Michael Jackson contributing to the soundtrack.

Music Notes: As a nod to Miami Vice, Jan Hammer’s “Crockett’s Theme” appears on the Emotion 98.3 radio station.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004; PlayStation 2)
Grander in scale than III and Vice City, San Andreas follows the 1994 adventures of gangsta Carl Johnson as he traverses three cities resembling San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. While structured similarly to previous titles, San Andreas improved on its predecessors in every single way, and has become the most successful videogame ever. It also has the dubious distinction of being recalled for a sex scene (from the mini-game Hot Coffee, where CJ bangs his multiple girlfriends) that was never meant to be seen but was discovered by hackers.
Music Notes: Driving through the Hollywood Hills at dusk as Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” kicked in gave us a particularly tingly boner.

Grand Theft Auto IV (2008; Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
This month’s GTAIV represents the true follow-up to GTAIII as well as the first game in the series to hit the Xbox 360 and PS3. It follows the adventures of an Eastern European thug who comes to America in an attempt to make good but who falls into the Liberty City (read: NYC) underworld. Naturally. GTAIV takes full advantage of the new consoles’ power, filling every virtual square inch of space with stunning visuals and lifelike characters. After years of fans begging for its, online multiplayer finally finds its way to a GTA game, here with 15 different modes. The Xbox 360 version will even see exclusive downloadable content available before year’s end.Does this portend a GTA MMO in the future? While the logistics of regulating a bunch of yahoos running around shooting each other online is mind-boggling, Rockstar President Sam Houser called the proposition “very compelling.”

Music Notes: In addition to Iggy Pop and Green Lantern appearing as DJs, NYC house legend François K. gets his very own station.