Clearly, GTA is the best game series of all time, forget FIFA, forget COD. Basically, just fuggedabout anything that's not set around Liberty City, San Andreas or Vice City. Although the games were successful in their 2D, pre GTA 3 format, it was only really with the third title that the series came into its own. Since then we've had jetpacks, Phil Collins and secret sex mini games. Every new GTA stirs up a frantic storm of fanboy excitment, and rightly so. Now, on the verge, the very cusp of GTA V release, we asked our top writers and Reuben Lewis what they thought was the best of the series.
Grand Theft Auto III
I remember the very first time I played Grand Theft Auto III like it was yesterday. I was ten, sitting on my mate Tyler's bed after school watching him load in a game I hadn't even heard of. What the hell was this? I wanted to play Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 but he was adamant. This was bullshit. I didn't skip swimming lessons just so I could sit here and watch him play some one-player shooting game.
My attitude soon changed as soon as I saw some bloke with no name with a battered leather jacket and a fucking shotgun standing in an alley outside a garage. The colours were grimy, the way the character moved was more lifelike than I'd ever seen. I remember thinking that Driver - a game with a similar premise released in 1999 - would be the pinnacle of video games. Grand Theft Auto 3 came just over two years after that but it felt like a completely different world.
This wasn't a video game. This was a movie that we were controlling. The dialogue was sharp, the music was fantastic (driving past St. Mark's Bistro in a blacked out Sentinel listening to Double Clef FM will be something I never forget) and the violence was like nothing I'd seen before. It wasn't just that you could straight up murder someone - I'd played Medal Of Honour. The violence wasn't THAT gory - I'd played Resident Evil. The difference with GTA3 was that the violence felt real. The echoes from the gunshots, the police sirens, the screams of the quickly departing crowd. Everything felt loaded with consequence and got to the stage where you were actually a bit scared of killing someone because you knew the repercussions.
If that sounds weird it's because it almost certainly is. Very weird. We all know that the idea of the Grand Theft Auto series is to cause as much havoc and mayhem as pixelated-humanly possible but back then, sitting in the dark in my mate's bedroom terrified as Tyler unloaded into oncoming police, I'd experienced nothing like it. Haven't ever since, either.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
I once got in trouble from my neighbours for shouting ‘cunt,cunt, CUNT!’ at my computer screen while trying to recruit a getaway driver for the big bank job on GTA Vice City. Any game that can infuriate you this much is a good game, but Vice City wasn’t all frantic violence, oh no no no. I also enjoyed flying around in my helicopter, or driving along the shore, taking in the lush pixelated sunsets or neon-lit nights.
In addition to the hidden packages and 80s pastel palette, I also loved the way Vice City paid homage to the gangster movies that had inspired it. The mansion and ending are straight out of Scarface, as is the hidden bathroom with a chainsaw in it, while Goodfella’s alumini Ray Liotta stepped in to voice anti-hero Tommy Vercetti. Don't even get me started on Carlito Brigsante's club.
The ability to own said club was groundbreaking, but for me, the best property you could own was the car garage, tucked away in Little Havana. Many a police chase ended with me burning rubber to the showroom, then shooting down helicopters from the safety of my garage.
The cars were ace, the rollerblading bikini girls were great, the drug cover-up ice cream van was a stroke of genius and the massive golf course was amazing. A game so good it spawned the Vice City Stories spin-off. And it had Slade on the radio.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
As the highest selling game on the highest selling console of all time, there’s no hiding from the fact that San Andreas is a big game. It’s not just the sales either, with 3 cities instead of one, and literally thousands of things to do, Rockstar’s ambition with San Andreas was breathtaking, and that they pulled it off within the limits of the technology of the time is even more impressive. GTA III may have been more groundbreaking, and Vice City more stylised, but San Andreas was the series’ zenith to date, a game literally everyone owns.
While the GTA series is generally credited with bringing the ‘living breathing world’ to the video game, it also wasn’t until San Andreas that Rockstar conceived of a main character who really inhabited that world. In Carl Johnson, players had an avatar who wasn’t just a medium through which you caused chaos, but a reflection of the way you played the game. Every player’s CJ was different; among my friends, I saw him turned into a fat cowboy with a shotgun, a muscular psychopath with a giant dildo, and an afro-and-shades touting San Fran hipster.
San Andreas was also the high point of GTA as a social satire. Not only were the characters the usual ridiculous pulp fiction caricatures, but the missions, radio stations, bonus weapons and even the shop names (Pro Laps anyone?) were at times utterly hilarious. The whole thing was kind of surreal as well, with several blink-and-you'll-miss it moments of utter weirdness, from the bondage scene with Catalina to the mission in which you're inexplicably ask to go murder an entire military base and steal a jetpack. In short, things were never boring.
What really makes San Andreas the best though, is the sheer scale of it. I’ve tried to highlight the things that impressed me, but to be honest it’s impossible to even mention all the good things about San Andreas in a few hundred words; it’s that good a game.
Grand Theft Auto IV
Grand Theft Auto IV gets a lot of shtick. I've heard people call it 'lifeless', 'cold' and - worst - 'boring'. How the fuck could a game like that be boring?
I remember when I sat down to open the game, the first to be released on the Playstation 3. Ripping open the cellophane, I begged my Dad not to make me go to football training so I could have some quality time with a game I'd pre-ordered some eighteen months previous. He relented (plus I lied and said my ankle was very injured) and I got to stay at home and bomb around Liberty City for hours in peace. Well, relative peace.
Straight away the game felt heavy. The cars were different, the buttons were different, the way the character - a badass from a non-specific Eastern-European country with a Balkan skinhead and a grubby trackie jacket - moved was different to anything I'd played in these games before.
The city itself felt amazing. It wasn't much smaller than San Andreas but it felt so much more full of life than that game did. San Andreas had so much empty space whereas there felt like nowhere in Liberty City that you could go without feeling claustrophobic. It felt like New York. It felt like a big city. Buildings loomed overhead, highlighted by brilliant sunlight and punctuated by pitch black alleyways. It was fucking terrifying.
I remember when I got my first gun. It really felt like something. I didn't fire a gun until about two hours into the game because I was just exploring Liberty City in the shiniest imitation Hummer H2 that you've ever seen and when I first picked up that handgun, I unloaded a whole clip into a police car at random. The noise felt deafening. I don't know if it was because I had the volume way up or because I was sitting about fifteen inches from the massive screen I managed to blag off my parents for Christmas.
The missions felt adult. It didn't feel like a cartoon any more. Not since GTA3 had missions felt so cinematic. Vice City might have gone hard with the classic movie homages and San Andreas might have gone full mental with jet-packs and green goo but IV went the whole way with making them feel real.
The final mission was emotional. That's a weird thing to say about a video game, granted. I'm not insane but racing around a computerised island and knowing that a choice you're gonna make about which fictional pixelised person you're gonna kill made me choke up a bit. Can't really say that any other game I've played made me that upset.
Well, maybe FIFA.