When people think of GTA nowadays, they think of the absolutely phenomenal Grand Theft Auto V. The game is considered a masterpiece by many. With a world that feels so alive, enjoyable characters, and fantastic gunplay, it’s no wonder that game in particular is such a phenomenon. However, not many people realise the humble beginnings the series had. Before it was sucking our wallets dry with Shark Cards and even before the controversial Hot Coffee mod, there was a small studio called DMA Design, working on a little project called Race N Chase.
The Greatest Glitch in Videogame History:
Fresh off of the success of games such as Lemmings, DMA Design began work on a game known as Race N Chase. The game was to be a top down driving game, where you would play as either a criminal robbing banks, or the police attempting to stop them. The game would take place in 3 real world cities such as Los Angeles and Miami, and while it featured no on foot missions, players could leave their car to swap for another one. The game was shaping up nicely, until one glitch would completely change the face of the videogame industry. In game, the police were supposed to use actual police tactics in order to subdue the criminals. However, during playtesting, a glitch caused the police AI to instead become incredibly aggressive, and attempt to ram players off the road. The glitch was so popular with playtesters, that DMA Design went back to the drawing board with the glitch in mind.
This is a mock up of Race N Chase, the game that would eventually become Grand Theft Auto
From Racing N Chasing to Absolute Carnage
A few years later, in October of 1997, Grand Theft Auto was released in Europe for PC and PlayStation. The game, while receiving mixed-to-positive reviews critically, was a commercial success, smashing 1 million sales, and with good reason. The game was unique for its time, and in some cases was even unique compared to games in the series that followed. The game let you run rampant in 1 of 3 cities that will be well known to fans of the series; Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas. Liberty and Vice City were inspired by Los Angeles and Miami respectively, both of which being possible locations for Race N Chase. Even later GTA games are confined to 1 city or state. The game also had multiple protagonists (eat your heart out GTA V), although unlike that game, the multiple protagonists here are nothing special, being nothing more than a different portrait and clothing colour.
Big Boy Bubba here is one of the 8 characters the player can choose in GTA 1. Despite being unique to the series until the most recent entry, all it changes is the colour of the character’s clothing.
Like every GTA game, the main draw is its freedom. Players are free to terrorise the 3 cities as they see fit. It’s even encouraged in this game, as everything destructive earns you points. You need said points to progress to the next stage. Yes, another unique concept in the 2D era is that the games are split up into levels, instead of one long string of missions like in later titles. The game also introduced players to the absolute wackiness of the GTA series, with outlandish weapons like flamethrowers and RPGs, as well as other quirks like the infamous ‘GOURANGA’ bonus for running over a group of Hare Krishna monks with a car. The first Grand Theft Auto may look a far cry away from what the series is now, but you can’t deny the building blocks were there for something great.
God Save Our Queen
When anything is a success, it is often capitalised on with sequels and spin-offs. Given that this was the late 90s, before the horrors of DLC, Grand Theft Auto would gain an expansion pack known as Grand Theft Auto London 1969 (Very funny guys) in 1999. The game is exactly the same as the original game on a technical level, meaning it inherits all of its flaws. Yet it is still high on my list of favourites in the series for one thing alone: the atmosphere. The game is unique in the fact that it is the only Grand Theft Auto game to be set outside of the United States, and it makes brilliant use of that concept. The London atmosphere is captured perfectly, everyone uses exaggerated cockney slang, red buses and phone boxes are all over, and even Austin Powers’ famous Shaguar is a drivable vehicle. The expansion pack didn’t meet the success of the base game, it was successful by expansion pack standards, and was well known as one of the few PS1 expansion discs.
The Grand Theft Auto rabbit hole goes even deeper, as a few months later, Grand Theft Auto London 1961 was released as a PC exclusive expansion pack to an expansion pack, that’s some inception stuff right there. London 61 is one of 2 GTA games that has been largely forgotten, and it’s easy to see why. While the game has the same great atmosphere of London 69, it didn’t much from the original London, adding new missions and vehicles. Not only that, but the game was released a free PC download only, as opposed to the physical release on both PC and PlayStation that its more popular predecessor had. An interesting thing this game has going for it is that it added a new deathmatch map set in Manchester, making it the second real-world city playable in the series.
And Remember, Respect is Everything
After the success of Grand Theft Auto, DMA Design went to work on a sequel concurrently with the London expansions. This sequel was set to be bigger and better than the original, and it succeeded in many ways. GTA2 (that’s not a typo, that’s actually how it’s stylised) was released in late 1999 for the PC, PlayStation and Dreamcast. The game had the same top-down perspective and level-based gameplay of the original, but also innovated the series in various ways. One of those things was the ability to change the time of day, which vastly changed the lighting and atmosphere in-game, and was a very nice touch. (Sadly, this was exclusive to the PC version, as the console versions are locked to 1 time of day).
The main innovation in this game however, came in the form of a respect system. In each of the 3 districts, there were 3 gangs. Claude (the player character) starts at neutral respect for each of them, and is able to access their easiest, and less paying, missions. Usually, their missions will be against one of the 2 other gangs, meaning rep for one gang will go up, while it will go down for another. It was an interesting mechanic for its time, as you had to balance respect across the gangs, or focus on one gang to unlock their incredibly difficult but well-paying missions. However, it would slow the game to a crawl on the occasion, as you would be just short of the respect for the next set of missions, forcing you to track down the gang that is enemies with the gang you want to level up and slaughter them. Killing gang members increases rep far slower than doing missions, so I often found myself spending a lot of time simply grinding for rep. It was often far easier to keep neutral respect between all of the gangs and do their low paying missions first, then doing a few harder missions. This would usually give more than enough money to progress through the stage. This didn’t detract from the overall experience however, as the game was still an absolute blast to play, with all of the outlandish weapons from the original returning on top of new ones like the tesla cannon. I killed a lot of time by turning on cheats and just going on a rampage throughout the city, which is how a lot of people play GTA even today. GTA2 received better reviews than its predecessor, but was criticised somewhat for being too familiar to the first game and its expansions.
Respect was an interesting and innovative addition to GTA2, although it would bog the game down when trying to access each of the gang’s higher paying missions.
GTA2 was a commercial success regardless, causing publisher Rockstar Games to take on DMA Design as a first party developer, being rebranded as Rockstar North. Rockstar North knew that they had a gem on their hands, but needed to innovate massively in order to stray away from the criticisms of familiarity that GTA2 suffered from, and as history would tell us, they succeeded massively. In the next part of this retro-spective, we’ll see how they did exactly that, as we delve into the 3D Universe of the GTA series.