Last Updated on August 15, 2023
If there is one game that has been closely tied to the success of game consoles, it is the Grand Theft Auto series.
I recently wrote a retrospective about Namco at the dawn of the PlayStation 2. I think I was fair. Where had Namco gone I wondered, and further, where was the other good software to replace them? They were agrarian days early on. However I do not want to cast a poor impression of a machine that really needs no defence. We all had at least one and they all gathered dust and detritus along the slats.
PlayStation 2, and by some large measure all of its software, was ubiquitous. It was like a VHS or Compact Disc player… they were in every house and had a fairly regular library of titles to shove in them. Props to Sony for achieving that. They earned their big boy pants. They killed Sega. Really went ahead and did it. Sega hadn’t even managed that themselves, and they’d made a few attempts at it. Still, let’s try not to settle on that piece of the past, and what that would mean in the long term. It is done now and modern gaming is terminally dull as a result, so it’s no good wishing any different.
You should have bought a Dreamcast, they were great.
But one mustn’t dwell, most especially as this is a celebration of that most ubiquitous of PlayStation 2, Grand Theft Auto 3 through to San Andreas. The games that rightfully defined the machine.
We all played them a lot, more than any other series in my case, and almost always in that case, with my brother. We ripped those games each a new one. The PlayStation 2 was a Grand Theft Auto player and we shared machines over the years playing them. The King of Shotgun Gaming, a testament to the ever-developing power of the machine, and precursor to a gaming landscape of open-world misery. But let’s not bring it down again, let’s jump behind the wheel of a Schafer, go for a burn and enjoy that sweet physics engine.
Or perhaps first we ought to do a little history?
Grand Theft Auto through time
Grand Theft Auto (the first) seemed to land in an immediately popular niche of its own, on both PC and PlayStation in 1997 and grew steadily from there. I played it on both, mostly for the micro machines style handling of the cars and your ability to change the radio station. Both of these things came to the sequel in 1999, but the tone had shifted.
A more formally dark affair this time out, and a less joyous as a result, you sensed that this might be the last we would see of Grand Theft Auto short of some massive overhaul that took into account the public’s loving long-time for polygons.
The rest is history, as I still feel it today; third-person action, first brotherly principles. The only rule between us, be entertaining to watch.
Carnage on the dual carriageway
Grand Theft Auto, especially once it migrated to 3-D, proved to be a better playground for cars than either Top Gear or your local private runway and a stolen Nova GTE; simply help yourself to some wheels and go sandbox. Being behind the wheel was always, and remains, the high-fidelity way to move around in GTA. Once you were out of a vehicle and running away from the cops it all began to feel like a Daddy Long Legs simulator, all crashing about and panicking.
My brother and I tended to just blow ourselves up with a rocket launcher if our car got wrecked and we got caught.
Then pass the controller over and see which hospital they were going to wake up in. Inner city of Los Santos? Then finding a fresh car shouldn’t be a problem, as long as someone doesn’t start getting picky about vehicles. Neither of us would go for robbing a taxi, but taking the first passing sports car or better was just good etiquette.
And by the time Rockstar North was making the third mainline entry, San Andreas, there were a lot of options to ride along in, from tractors and dirt bikes out in the wilds to Testarossa knock-offs downtown.
Once we’d purloined, it was customary to set the radio stations, and we set that to whichever was the jazz-funk station of the time. It wasn’t Fusion FM. I think that was GTA VI, but it was either switch to funk FM or else turn that radio the funk-off. GTA San Andreas was huge to explore and we liked to settle in and air the rules of our next endeavour.
Perhaps climb a gantry and fire off sniper rounds to the value of three stars worth of police against you? Maybe park up by the highway into Vegas Town and get happy with the grenades and oncoming traffic, to the value of three stars. Basically anything to get attention before attempting to lose it, if you can. This single pursuit has been the most practised piece of games media that I have been involved in for the 26 years and counting of the series.
But back to it; 3 stars, maybe four or five if either of us had been particularly indiscriminate, then it’s time by any measure to make a break for Mount Chilliad.
Mountains out of Mole Hills
Mount Chilliad and the surrounding mass of polygonal countryside was the big advantage of this entry over the earlier ones, for me and my brother anyway. We lived and worked in the countryside, and now in the evenings we could shoot, loot and route our way around the winding expanses of San Andreas’ green lanes and rocky outcrops. It even had a desert.
This was a vast game, but it came with compromises. The draw distance now looked like it was being drawn before your eyes in Crayola and there was a loucheness to the control, almost behind-the-beat in your timing.
But let’s get back to it. Mount Chiliad and the great escape, once again. either my brother or me could have watched the other go for this a thousand times already and then again. Not so much driving, once the chase was on, as tweaking at the controls, blue lights screeching behind, the whole gang chasing off-piste and over enclaves to the full extent of a getaway. Would either of us even make it to Chiliad?
It didn’t matter because so long as you were driving and not daddy long legging around; the moment-to-moment understanding from Rockstar of what a player wants to experience was so distilled in these games, and each round of carnage so unique, that all other game developers could do was complain about its deficiencies and try to catch up. Like the police on the chase.
But you couldn’t catch Grand Theft Auto on PlayStaion 2. Heck, I haven’t even caught up with getting to the purpose of writing this article. But that is Grand Theft Auto; a terrible distraction and the only piece of repeat-visit family media rival to Alan Partridge. Far too large in development scope and personal history to conquer in one go. It is like staring at a mountain for the first time and wondering, can I get a Lowrider up there? Probably, but it might take a few runs.
Grand Theft Auto will return in… I wonder if I can…?
John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90’s Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.