Duel Shock: Grand Theft Auto

Redartifice: Welcome back to Duel Shock, the regular Potaku feature where we take an in-depth look at a part of gaming and ask the tough questions, like: Is CJ a busta? This edition, Shane W Smith is joining me to have a look at the Grand Theft Auto series, one of the most critically acclaimed series of the last fifteen or so years.

My first game in the series was Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which was one of the first Playstation 2 games I owned. I got it for Christmas in 2002, and my Dad to this day still thinks I conned him into getting it for me- he says if he’d know it was so violent he wouldn’t have bought it for my fifteen year old self. I still remember vividly the first time I jumped int a car in the game, and the radio blasted “Billie Jean,” which established the 80s setting perfectly. How did you start with the GTA series?

The Neon Soaked 80s setting of GTA Vice City was thematically perfect

Shane:The very first GTA was the first one I played. Not much of an overarching story, just mayhem and carnage. Points for running over clusters of jogging pedestrians, missions where you send a bus full of hostages to a hot dog factory to be made into soylent green. All the patented Rockstar violence and lunacy, but none of the heart. Certainly the genesis of the series’ poor reputation among non-gamers… and probably a deserved one.

It actually took me a very long time to adjust to the over-shoulder 3rd person of GTAIII. It was such a huge dynamic shift, and I’d sunk so many hundreds of hours into the first two (top-down) games. Have played most of the series’ major releases since then, and have learned to appreciate (most of) the changes they make with each new iteration.

Redartifice: I actually think that’s one of the reasons it’s remained so popular and such a critical darling- at any point Rockstar could have rested on their laurels and just put up a new city, but they’ve continued to iterate with new and refined mechanics. Vice City could have just been GTA III with neon, but they added a bunch of stuff that makes it better.

Jumping around a bit to something that I know is a bit more recent for you: As someone who played a lot of the old 2D games, how does Chinatown Wars stack up? I played it on PSP, but it didn’t grab me the same way the previous PSP title (Vice City Stories) did. I did like some of the mini games and the general action, it just didn’t grab me.

GTA: Chinatown Wars returned to the top-down gameplay of the first few games

Shane: I really liked Chinatown Wars. It did a lot of things right, building upon the mechanics of GTA IV and the nostalgia of the series’ roots to put together something that felt like a real evolution of both. The story was patently silly, though, and did nothing for me, and gun combat was a little inconsistent. The driving mechanics were amazing, though, and the drug dealing bits and cop chases were both brilliantly conceived. I loved the economics of the game – that missions paid next to nothing, and that you pretty much had no choice but to deal drugs/complete side missions just to progress. Use of the touch screen was hit and miss, but always served as a reminder that this wasn’t a primitive game just because it borrowed the top-down perspective of GTA 1 and 2. The resurrection of Mayhem side missions was a real blast from the past.

And it also showed that Rockstar knew the mistakes it made with GTA IV. That they went a little too serious with the story, themes, and setting. This one almost backlashed a little too far the other way, but after GTA IV and Red Dead, it’s good to see that they’re still happy to bring the comedy when they need to.

All in all, I put about 15 hours into it, which is enough for the core story and a few hours of extra stuff. In that sense, it doesn’t really compare to the console GTAs, which need to hold your attention through as much as 30 hours of core gameplay, plus misc mayhem. But for a handheld title, I felt it was a very strong game – a little overrated in critical reviews, but a very strong game nonetheless.

Redartifice: That drug dealing side-game really surprised me when I played Chinatown Wars- I was amazed that the game made it through classification with it intact, given the Australian Classification Board’s antsiness around drug matters.

That brings me to something else I wanted to talk about: the controversies. Since pretty much day dot, the GTA series has really been a bit of a media punching bag (though I don’t think anyone could argue it impacted sales). From prostitutes you could kill post-custom, the drug-filled violence to the infamous “Hot Coffee” scenario, the GTA series has always contained some fairly contentious elements. Outside of the games, Rockstar has also worn criticism for their work practices (the “wives of Rockstar“) and high profile spats with infamous legal troll Jack Thompson. Do you think Rockstar has courted controversy, or are they in some ways a victim of their success?

Shane: I don’t know a lot about this, but I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be both. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that controversy has gained them more sales than it has lost them. Certainly, their commercial and critical success is almost unparalleled in AAA gaming, and the level of negative media attention is probably higher than any other developer… so, at least in terms of game content, it might be a case of ‘any publicity is good publicity’. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that they overtly court this kind of attention. Regarding their business practices, from what I’ve seen, they’re being called out for practices that seem pretty standard for the industry these days. Closing studios suddenly, extended crunch periods… I think it’s just the nature of the beast these days, but Rockstar got pinged for it.

Redartifice: You’re probably right- there have been similar complaints about working practices at other AAA developers like EA and Activision in the past.

We mentioned GTA IV before, and I wanted to pick your brain a little bit about that one. I recently jumped back into it to play the two Episodes from Liberty City, but I had a little trouble jumping back in. I remember Liberty City being pretty mind-blowing the first time around but I don’t think it’s aged quite as well- understandable for a game that came out fairly early in the generation. I found the shooting fairly clunky, and the driving a bit fiddly, and Liberty City I never really found as fun to traverse as San Andreas or Vice City. Moreover, having played Saints Row the Third recently I found that there didn’t seem to be as much to do- I didn’t enjoy just driving around and exploring like I did in Steelport or Las Venturas. What do you think? am I being picky or over critical, or was GTA IV not as fun as its predecessors?

Grand Theft Auto IV took the series in a more serious direction

Shane: Ever since Vice City blew the number of collectables and side missions out to epic proportions, I’ve tended to play these games more for the story than anything else. (I realise this puts me in a bit of a minority, but I don’t actually play these games to indulge in senseless random violence).

GTA IV took a few steps towards ‘realism’ in its presentation. The movements, graphics, physics… all took a step back from the cartoony ragdoll exaggerations that were omnipresent in Vice City and San Andreas. I didn’t mind this direction, personally, because it was a early-to-midstage pioneer for third-person action games in the current gen, but the gameplay itself wasn’t as immediately fun as San Andreas. They were going for something other than fun. They were going for immersion. Whether that worked or not is really up to the gamer – I’m still kind of on the fence about it.

I didn’t mind the story of GTA IV – it explored some interesting ideas, and was relatively strong thematically (notwithstanding the normal level of disconnect between gameplay and story). Niko was a pretty strong protagonist with an interesting story arc that contained some amazing moments… though to my mind, CJ had a much stronger overall tale. I found the game to be quite fun at the time, but once I finished the story, I didn’t really have any motivation to return to the city to complete the assassinations, or collect the cars, or shoot pigeons. Then the DLC came out, and I picked that up as soon as it was available on disc. I really loved The Lost and Damned for what it was – another serious tale, but much more focused than the sprawling GTA IV main story. The Ballad of Gay Tony brought in a little of the lunacy that many folks thought was missing from GTA IV, but for me it was the weakest entry of the three.

That said, the game hasn’t aged brilliantly, and I probably won’t play it again any time soon, because – as you said – it’s pretty much been superseded by the Saints Row series in terms of gameplay. I didn’t love GTA IV in the same way that I loved previous entries in the series, but I did still enjoy it, and I appreciate it for its experimentation and formula shakeups, and I think it’s pretty unfairly disrespected these days.

That said, the implementation of the mobile phone was a complete abomination!

Redartifice: Yeah, the phone was fairly painful. From the looks of it, they’ve fixed it in GTA V, which is good.

I think the story of GTA IV really was a bit of a contrast from GTA: San Andreas- you went from a game with jetpacks and jump jets to gritty, damaged Eastern European types. The story went from a grand scale (All city riots! Massive Casino heists!) to a smaller, more character focused piece. I will be interested to see how GTA handles in an era where there are even more competitors, including the Saints Row series along with other open world city games like Sleeping Dogs.

That said, I welcome the return to San Andreas. One of the things I always loved about GTA: San Andreas is that it’s a gigantic playground with so much structured and unstructured content, some of it hidden. Things like the Triathlons, or the hidden dirtbike tracks, the ghost towns, and the sheer number of little easter eggs made San Andreas a fantastic wilderness to get lost in, and I loved the rural parts of the game just as much if not more than the city parts. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the game handles a take on modern California, removed from the lens of history that San Andreas was steeped in.

What about you? What are you looking forward to seeing upon your return to San Andreas?

Shane: Honestly, I don’t know. The trailers for GTA V have shown a huge amount of extra curricular stuff you can do, and with such a huge map, there’s bound to be a staggering amount of hidden optional open-world content to explore and enjoy.

I guess what I’m looking forward to doesn’t really have a lot to do with San Andreas specifically, but I am really keen to see where Rockstar decide to position themselves with this entry in the series, in terms of tone. Despite some great lines of dialogue, the trailers haven’t really shown enough to get a feel for that. GTA:SA was brilliant because it was so over-the-top, but honestly, Saints Row have taken that niche and built upon it so heavily, that they’ve pretty much made it theirs. With all the open-world competition that’s come up since GTA IV, including (just to name a few) titles like The Saboteur, Sleeping Dogs, Saints Row, it’ll be interesting to see whether GTA will be reactive, strategically positioned in its own niche, or whether it’ll come out with a swagger and a bluster, and say “Fuck you all. We’re still the king, no matter what you compare us with.”

All that said, the very first thing I’m gonna do as soon as GTA V stops holding my hand is find Grove Street.

A return to Grove Street certainly looks like it’s on the cards!

Redartifice: Grove Street 4 Lyfe! I’m really looking forward to exploring the city, as I think this alternate LA will really have space to breathe this time- I felt last time that Los Santos was the least interesting of the 3 cities. While I don’t think GTA V will try to out-wacky Saints Row (as not many things can) I do want to see the story be a bit lighter in tone, which I think Trevor at least will take care of. It sounds like a little thing, too, but I’m really looking forward to exploring the ocean floor- the fact that it’s all explorable is really cool.There was just one other GTA thing I wanted to ask you about: The Music! Everyone who plays GTA has their favourite station, what’s yours? I loved K-DST in San Andreas.

Shane: K-DST was great for missions in SA… and just great in general. That whole game had an incredible soundtrack all around, and actually getting Axl Rose to front as the DJ for the station was a great touch, especially when he rags on the DJ for the rival station that plays Welcome to the Jungle. There’s a stupid amount of thought and planning that went into that, and most people would probably never even notice it.
But for random mucking around or long driving, I could never go past the talkback station. Lazlow’s career through the series is great, and I’ll always remember his encounter with Fernando in GTA III. It probably wouldn’t strike as quite so funny now as it did to my fifteen year old sensibilities, but I have all the fond nostalgia for the talkback stations in GTA games, and they’ll always be the first ones I listen to.

Lazlow’s GTA Radio Career extends all the way back to GTA III

Redartifice: and long may Lazlow reign!

With GTA V coming out this week, Rockstar has the perfect way to provide a send-off to this console generation, while still showing why they are considered one of the great game studios. I can’t wait to explore the new Los Santos.

What are your favourite and least favourite parts of the GTA series? What are you looking forward to in GTA V?

I’m forever looking for new partners to step into the Duel Shock ring! Got a burning topic? Just want to muse on your favourite game genre? Hit me up on twitter @redartifice

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